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How to Brine a Turkey (Plus Our Five Favorite Brine Recipes)

a turkey, prepared with brine and well roasted, resting on a table surrounded by food

Brining turkey locks in moisture, creating incredibly crispy skin and flavorful meat. Sure, you can buy a pre-brined bird, but where’s the fun in that? Make your own brine, and create a customized turkey you can take all the credit for!

How To Brine a Bird

A brine is basically a salt solution. It’s very simple to make and completely customizable. As a rule, use four tablespoons of kosher salt per 1 quart of water.

It must be kosher salt, not sea salt or another variety. Using a different type of salt will significantly affect the salinity of the solution. And that means it can dramatically affect the effectiveness of your brine.

For a 14-18 lb bird, you’ll need about a gallon or 4 quarts of water. That means you’ll need about 1 cup of salt. For a bird in the twenty and over pound category, you’ll need two gallons of water and two cups of salt.

You can add any other seasonings or sugars that you’d like to balance out the saltiness of the brine. We’ve included a few of our favorite brine recipes at the end of this article, but popular inclusions for brining a Thanksgiving turkey include candied ginger, lemon peel, and peppercorns.

The Ice-Chest Method for Wet Brines

wet brined turkey by Gaby Dalkin
Gaby Dalkin

At this point, you may be thinking about logistics. As in, where am I going to submerge a twenty-pound turkey in water? Unless you have a commercial fridge in your kitchen, this is a valid question when it comes to turkey brining. Between the green beans, the cranberries, and the pies, your fridge is already in high-demand this time of year.

So rather than waste valuable refrigerator space, try using an ice chest. If you don’t have a cooler large enough, a styrofoam disposable ice-chest will work. Really, any clean, and coverable, 5-lb bucket will do in a pinch.

The key to this method lies in an oven bag. By creating the brine in the oven bag and then sealing the turkey in the bag, you don’t have to worry about melting ice watering down your brine. Some recipes will call for making the brine in the ice chest. While that works, keep in mind that if you use more ice than the recipe creator did, your brine can turn out to be quite diluted.

It’s also important that the brine is cold when you add it to the turkey. Since you may have to heat the liquid to create the brine, it’s essential to factor in cool-down time. Warm brine and raw turkey is a good combination for food poisoning, a term you never want to hear tied to Thanksgiving.

Once you have the bag sealed with the turkey and it’s brine inside, place that in your cooler. Then, cover it with about fifteen pounds of ice. The ice should keep it safely cold for about twelve hours, but use a thermometer to keep track of the cooler’s temperature. If it rises above about 45 F, you need more ice.

Using a Dry Brine

In recent years, more chefs have been turning to the dry-brine approach. A dry-brine is simply a well-salted rub. The salt rubbed into the skin’s surface, pulls moisture out from the meat via osmosis over the first hour or so. Then, the rub dissolves into the extracted liquid.

As this happens, the extracted liquid is reabsorbed into the meat, salts, and small seasonings included in it. This allows your seasonings to work through the bird’s muscle fibers while leaving dry skin.

The dry skin leads to crispy results in the oven, and the salt leads to a well-seasoned bird throughout. The dry-rub also means you don’t have to worry about full turkey submersion. Dry brines are easily managed on a baking sheet in the fridge. Many people find this to be a huge advantage when it comes to turkey day.

Detractors say that a dry brine leaves most of the flavor on the outside, and doesn’t do as good of a job when it comes to penetrating the turkey meat. We say, try what works best for your space. If you have a garage, cold weather, and an ice chest at your disposal, try a wet brine. And, if not, maybe the dry brine is the better route.

Brine Recipes

dry brined turkey from bon apetit
Marcus Nilsson

Now that you know how to create a brine yourself check out our favorite turkey brining recipes! Be it wet or dry; none of these will leave you disappointed.

Wet Brines

Alton Brown’s Good Eats Roast Turkey: Alton is a master of food science, and his turkey brine is no exception. It’s listed as a “fan favorite” for a good reason; this recipe will not let you down.

Get the Recipe: Good Eats Roast Turkey

Apple Spice Turkey Brine: If your a fan of sweet and savory, this is a great option for brining. The recipe relies on apple juice in partial replacement of broth, giving a touch of sweetness to the final dish.

Get the Recipe: Hey Grill Hey’s Apple Spice Turkey

The Easiest Turkey Brine: Here’s one using ingredients you probably have in your pantry already. No candied ginger, or unique seasonings here, just a straightforward turkey brine.

Get the Recipe: What Gaby’s Cooking Easy Turkey Brine

Dry Brines

Fennel Chile and Maple Dry Brine: For the more adventurous, this dry brine recipe is sure to satisfy. The unique combination of fennel with chilies is out of this world, and we love the touch of maple for sweetness.

Get the Recipe: Bon Appetit’s Fennel, Chile and Maple Dry Brine

Dry-Brined Herbed Turkey: If a wet brine isn’t going to work for you this year, a classic, herb-filled dry brine, like this one, is a great option.

Get the Recipe: Food Networks Dry Brined Turkey

A brined turkey is guaranteed to have more flavor and better moisture retention than it’s unbrined counterpart. And it’s not hard to do yourself. So grab your favorite herbs and spices, plus plenty of salt, and brine your own turkey this Thanksgiving! We think you’ll love the results!

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »
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