How To Brine A Turkey

With a little extra preparation, your Thanksgiving turkey will come out tender and flavorful.

Turkey often gets a bad rap for being dry and tasteless, but that is usually because it hasn't been cooked correctly. Since it is a relatively lean bird, turkey doesn't have a lot of fat to help keep the meat from becoming dry and tough, which is why your preparation method is so important.

Brine your turkey in a saltwater mixture (you can use a plain salt and sugar mixture or add aromatics), and you will coax flavor from and add moisture to a reluctant turkey.

What Should You Brine Your Turkey In?

Unless your turkey is small enough to fit in a stockpot or a large, food-grade plastic container and you can put it in the refrigerator, you will need to use a cooler. Keep in mind that the turkey will need to stay at or below 40°F during the brining process, so you might need to replenish the ice in the cooler from time to time.

How Long Should You Brine Turkey?

According to the USDA, it's safe to store and brine your turkey for up to two days; however, any time over that will result in a mushy bird as the brine continues to break down its muscle fibers.

Tip: A good rule of thumb is to brine the turkey for about an hour per pound, for a minimum of 8 hours.

What Is the Formula for Brine?

Generally, you want one cup of kosher salt and one cup of sugar per gallon of water. An 8- to 12-pound turkey will likely require two gallons of water to fully submerge the bird. Aromatics such as peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic, whole allspice, hearty herbs (rosemary and thyme are good options), and citrus zest are commonly used in wet brines, as well.

Should You Rest Your Turkey After Brining?

It's up to you and your specific situation on whether you decide to let the turkey rest post-brine. If you've had the turkey in brine for two full days, cook immediately to avoid spoilage. But if your turkey has been in brine for just a few hours or overnight, letting it dry for up to 8 hours uncovered in a clean dish in the refrigerator will help the skin crisp as it roasts.

If you don't have time to let the turkey dry, just pat it thoroughly with paper towels and be sure to clean all of your working surfaces to avoid cross-contamination.

How to Brine a Raw Turkey

Step 1. Make the brine

Using the ratio of one cup kosher salt to one cup sugar per gallon of water, combine all your brine ingredients in a large pot, and bring to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remember that you may add aromatics like peppercorns, bay leaves, or citrus for flavor in the brine. Allow the solution to cool completely.

turkey brine in pan

Rob Culpepper, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Assistant Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle

Step 2. Prepare and submerge the turkey

Unwrap your turkey, and remove the giblets. Do not wash the turkey; washing commonly leads to cross-contamination as the dirty washing water splashes against your sink.

Transfer the turkey, breast side down, to a clean cooler, stainless steel pot, or large food-grade plastic container. Pour the cooled brine mixture over the turkey, covering it completely.

turkey brine

Rob Culpepper, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Assistant Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle

Step 3. Keep the turkey cold

Your turkey needs to stay submerged below the brine mixture, whether it is in the fridge or in a cooler. Cover the bird with bags of ice to keep it cold and weighted down. Since you will be brining for several hours, you may need to add additional ice to your cooler from time to time to keep the the bird at a safe temperature.

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Step 4. Prepare to roast

Remove the turkey from the brine, and pat it dry with paper towels. Clean your sink thoroughly after doing this step to avoid cross-contamination.

If you want to let the turkey continue to rest and dry, and have room in your refrigerator to do so, place it uncovered in clean dish for up to 8 hours. If you have time, let it rest at room temperature for an hour prior to cooking. Roast as usual, and be sure and use a roasting pan deep enough to catch all the flavorful juices.

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