How to Brine a Turkey
Steps to brine your most flavorful turkey yet.
Brining might sound like an unecessary step, but in reality it's imperative for a moist, delicious bird. Turkey is one of the leanest types of meat, and without additional fat or moisture, can dry up quickly in the oven. Brining works to yield a more flavorful meat. And it couldn't be easier to do. Simply soak your turkey in a salt and water mixture for 8-12 hours before you roast it. Believe us when we say, it will make all the difference.
Brining is an age-old technique that's been used to preserve meats since long before the era of refrigeration. It comprises soaking meats in a mixture of salt and water for a number of hours, which helps lock in moisture, yielding a more flavorful and moist meat once it's cooked. It's especiallly beneficial for turkey, which is notoriously hard to cook, as it dries up so quickly. A brine is a good way to take some of the guess work out of cooking a turkey.
How it Works
Everyone knows that salt enhances the flavor of food, but it also helps tenderize meat. Brining harnesses both of those qualities to imbue turkey with tons of flavor and moisture. Remember the principle of osmosis from high school chemistry class? That's what's happening here. Since turkey contains a small amount of salt water in its muscle tissue, when you submerge it in a solution with a higher concentration of salt, that solution flows into the meat. In addition, salt (like heat) breaks down proteins, turning them into liquid. And there's proof that brining works, too. Research shows that brined meat loses only 15% of its weight during cooking, whereas un-brined meat loses 30%.
There are two methods of brining: wet and dry. In both cases, salt plus time equals an even distribution of juices and flavor. Remember to always start with a fully thawed turkey, and remove the giblets and other parts from the cavity before brining.
In this method, you mix together a simple salt-water solution, then leave the turkey to soak up the liquid in the refrigerator for 8-18 hours. To keep the turkey from being too salty, follow the general ratio of 1 cup kosher salt for each gallon of water. If you like, you can balance the flavor by also adding 1/2 cup sugar (granulated or brown) per gallon of water. Whether or not you add additional seasonings here is up to you. Some people swear it adds additional flavor, while others think it's useless, so it's best to try it for yourself.
(Double the amounts of the brine for larger birds):
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar or brown sugar
- 2 gallons water
- 1 turkey (12 to 16 pounds)
- Mix together the salt, sugar and half the water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly before adding remaining water and letting cool completely.
- Pour brine into a container that's large enough to hold the turkey and the water with room to spare. You can buy disposable liners for containers or use resealable brining bags (helpful for larger birds). Add turkey, breast side down, to brine and then pour in more water if necessary to completely cover the bird. Weigh down with a heavy plate or pan to keep the turkey fully submerged.
- Refrigerate for at least 4 hours but preferably for 18 to 24 hours. The longer it brines, the juicier it will be.
- Remove turkey from brine and pat dry. Do not rinse.
It might seem counterintuitive, but dry brining also helps to infuse turkey with moisture. Some advocates claim that this method works even better than wet brining, and without all the hassle of a heavy cauldron of brine to contend with. It makes a certain sense: first, the salt draws out the moisture. Over time that salty solution is drawn back into the turkey. The bonus is that you've created a dry surface that is primed for turning crispy during cooking. There's no one way to do this, but most recipes typically call for 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
- 1 turkey (12 to 16 pounds)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)
- Pat turkey dry with paper towels. Loosen skin from bird as much as possible without tearing.
- Mix together salt and sugar, if using, and rub evenly inside cavity and all over outside of bird, spreading it under the skin when possible.
- Place turkey on a large rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan. (Some recipes call for putting it in a brining bag, but this is not necessary.)
- Refrigerate for at least 1 day but preferably for 2 to 3 days. The longer it brines, the juicier it will be.
- Pat turkey dry, but do not rinse.