To brine or not to brine … that is the question! Well, at least it’s the question our food editors have been getting the most (from our hairdressers, random strangers) as Thanksgiving approaches. If you have the time to do it, learning how to brine turkey is the easiest way to ensure that you have a moist, flavorful bird to go with your Thanksgiving desserts, Thanksgiving appetizers and more. But first, let’s start with the basics.
Should you brine your turkey?
Brining is the process of soaking a food, often meat or vegetables, in a highly seasoned salt solution, called a brine.
Brining meat is a simple technique that makes a world of difference in terms of texture and flavor, especially when it comes to the drier tendencies of turkey. First, it seasons the meat throughout in a way that just sprinkling salt in the cavity of the turkey never could. Secondly, it keeps the turkey incredibly moist, which ultimately helps you cook the bird evenly and avoid a breast that is perfectly done, but thighs that are still disconcertingly translucent (or the thighs and drumsticks are done, but the breast has become cottony).
Through osmosis, the flavorful brine is absorbed into the meat, thereby seasoning it through and through. The salt in the solution also changes the protein molecules in the meat so they can’t form tight clumps, thus making the meat more tender.
Which is better: Dry brining or wet brining?
It’s important to note that there are two ways to brine turkey. The first is the traditional way, using a salt-water solution. This is called a wet brine, and takes at least 8 hours.
The other method, a dry brine, is a bit easier to pull off though the process takes longer — up to three days. Also known as pre-salting, this method uses a bit less salt and no liquid at all. It’s our preferred method of brining, since you don’t have to worry about finding space in your fridge to hold a turkey and a sloshing bag of liquid that might leak.
FYI: If you don’t have room in your fridge for a large turkey and still want the results of brining, buy a kosher turkey. It’s already been brined for you (that’s part of the koshering process) so it will be juicy, flavorful, and delicious with no muss or fuss on your part. They do cost a little more and might require you to special order it from the butcher in advance, but it’s the easiest, simplest way to guarantee a juicy bird come this Thanksgiving if you don’t have time for the brining process. On that same note, if you are brining your turkey you’ll want to avoid using a kosher or pre-seasoned turkey.
How to wet brine your turkey
For wet brining, you’ll want to use a ratio of ½ cup of kosher salt to ¼ cup of sugar to 2 quarts of cold water. You’ll need enough water to completely cover the turkey (or turkey breast) in a large pot.
- 1 whole turkey
- 4 quarts cold water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup kosher salt
- Flavorings, like parsley stems, thyme stems, rosemary stems, black peppercorns, ginger, bay leaves
- Combine all of the ingredients (except for the turkey) in your pot. If you’d like, include flavorings, such as handfuls of parsley stems, thyme stems, rosemary stems, a palmful of black peppercorns, slices of ginger, or a few bay leaves.
- Heat this mixture on medium, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from the heat and add 4 cups of ice to cool the brine completely.
- At this point you can either place the turkey in the pot with the brine or transfer the brine to a large brining bag (or a 2-gallon resealable bag if you’re making just a turkey breast). If using a pot, weigh the turkey down to keep it submerged. If putting the turkey in a bag, place it in a shallow dish or pan in case it leaks.
- Wondering how long you should brine your turkey? Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 16 hours for a bird larger than 14 lbs. For a smaller bird or turkey breast, brine no longer than 12 hours. Give it a flip about halfway through.
- For wet-brined birds, when you’re ready to cook the turkey, rinse it with cold water and pat it dry with paper towels.
How to dry brine your turkey
Dry brining involves rubbing a mix of salt and seasonings directly onto the turkey’s skin. You’ll need to let your dry-brined turkey sit in the fridge for up to three days, but since you can do it ahead of time, it’s a great way to check something off your list before the craziness of Turkey Day begins. For a 12- to 14-pound turkey, use 2 Tbsp of kosher salt mixed with the seasonings of your choice.
- 1 whole turkey
- 2 Tbsp kosher salt
- Seasonings, like chopped herbs
- Remove turkey from the plastic and pat the turkey very dry. No need to rinse it.
- Mix together the salt and your chosen seasonings. Place the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet, then rub the salt mixture all over. Place the turkey and baking sheet together in a plastic bag (use two if necessary) and refrigerate.
- Let the brine sit on the bird at least overnight or up to 2 days for a medium bird (12 to 14 pounds) and up to 3 days for a large turkey, before cooking.
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