How to Brine a Turkey
Take a lesson from the pros to ensure your turkey is always juicy, never dry: Brine it. Here's how to do it (and why it works). Trust us: Brining is worth the extra time and effort, and the salt does most of the work. You'll never fret over cooking the Thanksgiving turkey again.
Say farewell to dry, overcooked turkey and hello to incredibly juicy, tender turkey. Brining, an age-old technique once used to preserve meats before the age of refrigeration, has become a modern-day marvel. Professionals and home cooks alike tout how this simple method takes the guesswork out of cooking turkey. That's something to be thankful for, indeed.
Why it works
Everyone knows that salt enhances the flavor of food, but it also helps in tenderizing meat. Brining harnesses both of those qualities to imbue turkey with inimitable taste and texture. Remember the principle of osmosis from high school chemistry class? That's what's happening here: Since meat 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) denatures, or breaks down, proteins, turning them into liquid. There's proof that brining works, too. Meat loses an average of 30 percent of its weight during cooking, but research shows that after brining it loses only 15 percent. The result? It's much harder to overcook a brined bird than one that's not brined.
How it's done
There are two methods of brining: wet and dry. In both cases, salt plus time equals an even distribution of juices and flavor. 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. Up to a point, the longer you brine the turkey, the juicier it will be. To keep the turkey from being too salty, heed the general ratio of 1 cup kosher salt for each gallon of water; to balance the flavor, also add 1/2 cup sugar (granulated or brown) per gallon of water. The jury is out on whether the flavor of any other seasonings come through in the brining period; many experienced briners prefer to save those herbs and spices for the actual cooking.
(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 (see one example at thekitchn.com), 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, then over time that salty solution is drawn back into the turkey. The bonus is that you've created this dry surface that is primed for turning crispy and golden brown 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.
Now your plumped-up turkey is primed for roasting. When seasoning, go light on the salt (same goes for kosher turkeys).