The juiciest turkey is made with a basic salt water solution called a wet brine. Brining a turkey with salt in water plumps it up, flavors the meat, and keeps it naturally moist in its juices during roasting while an unbrined turkey actually loses the juices while cooking resulting in dry meat. Brined turkey skin naturally gets crispy and it won’t need basting.
Hosting Thanksgiving can quickly become overwhelming if you’re not used to hosting the holiday party or are running short on time. Of course, you can skip the brine all together and opt to make a dry rub using poultry seasoning, salt, and soft butter and then immediately roast the bird but you’re missing out on the best turkey of your life.
If you have the extra time and are looking to impress dinner guests or are trying to find a brine recipe like grandma’s or mom’s, use this wet brine recipe and guide. In time, brining allows the turkey to absorb extra liquid and salt, resulting in a juicier, more tender and flavorful meat that retains natural turkey juices throughout cooking. New to brining or looking to try a new recipe, you’ll find this “how to brine a turkey” guide is complete with a variety of brine solution ratios to fit individual needs and common scenarios.
Salting and Wet Brining
What is a wet brine? Wet brining refers to a basic high concentration of salt and water solution. This process allows the salt to penetrate and tenderize the poultry resulting in tender, juicy meat that’s seasoned well. Because lean meat dries out easily a salt brine works by locking in moisture and makes the turkey taste juicier.
Short Brine Vs Overnight Brine
Equally important to salt to water ratio is the length of brining. Longer brines result in more juicy meat and any brining length is better than none at all. A short brine time will work but it’s not as good as a longer brine such as overnight. However, brining a turkey too long can result in over salty meat. Stick to the salt to water ratio and adjust the time accordingly. Additionally, if you’re brining a turkey overnight you’ll need to adjust the salt to water ratio. If you’re not ready to cook the bird right after brining, it should be removed from the solution then covered and placed in the refrigerator up to 24 hours. This is perfectly safe and some chefs swear by it. More on brine ratios and time at the end of the post.
Basic Salt and Water Brine Ratios
The key to creating the perfect Thanksgiving turkey is to use the correct salt to water ratio and chilling time.
TABLE SALT: For a quick turkey brine using table salt, use the ratio of 1 cup salt per gallon of water. For an overnight brine, use the ratio of 1/2 cups salt per gallon of water. Note that the longer the brine, the less salt it needs.
KOSHER SALT: Substitute 1.5 to 2 cups kosher salt for 1 cup of table salt. For a quick 4 hour brine using kosher salt, use the ratio of 1.5 – 2 cups salt per gallon of water.
How to Brine a Turkey in a Wet Brine
Brining is a simple cooking technique that enhances the flavor, increases moisture and changes the texture of meat. If you’re wondering if it’s worth all effort, I say give it a try especially if you’re new to preparing a turkey this way. It’s a pretty common secret to making the most delicious and moist turkey around town. In addition to eating a deliciously succulent mouthwatering roast this Thanksgiving, you’ll also save yourself time by not having to baste it throughout the roasting process.
- Dissolve salt in water using heat.
- Allow to cool. Add it to the remaining water.
- Place turkey in a food-safe turkey liner bag or a very large food-safe container.
- Pour the brine over the bird and add any optional additional flavorings.
- Cover the top with a lid, foil, or tie it.
- Chill turkey in brine solution.
- Drain and discard the brine.
- Pat turkey dry with paper towels.
Kosher Salt VS. Table Salt
A variety of salts can be useful for cooking. When it comes to cooking, there is a big debate about using kosher salt or table salt in a fresh water wet brine. What kind of salt to use in a brine recipe? Either will work, however, the salt quantity MUST be adjusted. Table salt is much finer than kosher salt which has larger flakes. Since the salt dissolves in the water, there is not much of a difference between the two mineral salts and either one works perfectly. As a general rule, you’ll need to substitute 2 cups of kosher salt for 1 cup table salt (not the water) in this recipe due to the larger flake structure.
FLAVORING THE BRINE IS OPTIONAL
Ultimately, a brine doesn’t need any flavor enhancers to work. However, adding classic Thanksgiving seasoning results in more flavor. For a citrus brine, add oranges, lemons, grapefruits, or limes. Adding fresh or dried herbs like basil, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, tarragon leaves, and peppercorns or replacing 1/2 the water with apple juice adds to the flavor even more.
Defrosting a Frozen Turkey
How should I defrost a frozen turkey? First, never cook a frozen turkey. It results in texture changes and uneven cooking where you’ll run the risk of getting sick. Defrosting turkey before cooking saves on time plus you’ll be able to remove the plastic bags inside the cavities. I like to buy my frozen turkey 4-6 days in advance and allow it to defrost in the fridge partially before using an overnight brine method.
Can I brine a partially frozen or frozen turkey? Yes. Since the bird is pretty frozen, you won’t be able to reach into the turkey cavities to remove any bags of gravy or turkey giblets. Short on defrosting time, place it into the water solution. Just be sure that the turkey is not frozen when roasting it and remember to remove any plastic bags in the cavities.
Turkey Brining Tips and Questions
Can I brine a turkey overnight? Yes, brining a turkey overnight works to gently penetrate it through and it’s my preferred method. As a result, it will require a little adjustment of the salt to water ratio due to longer brining time. To make this freshwater salt brine, replace the salt with 1/2 cup salt while maintaining the remaining other ingredients. Generally, an overnight brine is 8 hours give or take a little time. While it’s safe to brine a bird over 12 hours, you’ll need to reduce the salt to 1/4 cup and brine for a max of 18 hours.
Is it safe to salt brine a turkey outside or in the garage? Yes and no. Living in a cold climate has advantages. It’s important to note that the outside temperature must remain below 35 degrees F. Sometimes garages warm up during the day, so it’s better to place the salt water solution in a large cooler packed with ice when the refrigerator is too full to accommodate for it.
I don’t have a large enough pot to brine in. What else can I use? A large turkey bag liner. Find these next to the slow cooker bag liners in the same aisle as plastic wrap and freezer bags. Simply add the turkey to the bag and pour in the cooled liquid. Next, squeeze the air out and tie the top of the bag. Double bag it to be safe and place in the fridge; turning it over halfway through brining. Also, a large cooler or bin works great. First, clean it then pour the salty water solution into the cooler. Next, add the turkey and brine liquid and place ice over the top making sure to submerge under water.
Do I need to cook the turkey right after brining it? No, but you can. If not using right away, remove the turkey from the brine and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours. Then, pat it dry using several paper towels before cooking it.
- REFRIGERATOR THAW: Allow (4.8 hours) x (per pound). Thaw directions; Place frozen turkey in a garbage bag or container to catch any liquid seepage from the wrapped package.
- QUICK COLD WATER THAW: Allow (30 minutes) x (per pound) of turkey. Thaw directions; fill a large pot or clean sink with cold water and replace the water every 30 minutes.
Thanksgiving Recipes to Make in Advance
Don’t have time to brine a turkey? Try this Slow Cooker Herbed Turkey Breast recipe. Looking for more Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day menu recipes that can be made ahead of time like this Cornbread recipe? This Quick Creamed Corn can be made a day or two in advance. Cranberry Relish will last 3 three weeks in the refrigerator and well as from scratch Cranberry Sauce. My Instant Pot Mashed Potatoes is a quick and easy side dish that can be made ahead of Thanksgiving, too.
BRINE TIME AND SOLUTION RATIO
|4 HOURS||1 CUP TABLE SALT PER GALLON|
|8 HOURS||1/2 CUP TABLE SALT PER GALLON|
|18 HOURS||1/4 CUP TABLE SALT PER GALLON|
Easy Wet Brine Turkey Recipe
Basic Wet Brine for Turkey
- 1 cup table salt see notes for kosher salt ratio
- 1 gallon cold water (16 cups of cold water)
- 12-24 lb whole turkey
Optional Wet Brine Ingredients
- 3 navel oranges, sliced
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 1 tbsp poultry seasoning
- 3 bay leaves fresh or dried
- Defrost frozen turkey using a method below. If using a fresh turkey that's not frozen, skip this step.
- REFRIGERATOR THAW: Allow (4.8 hours) x (per pound). Thaw directions; Place frozen turkey in a garbage bag or container to catch any liquid seepage from the wrapped package.QUICK COLD WATER THAW: Allow (30 minutes) x (per pound) of turkey. Thaw directions; fill a large pot or clean sink with cold water and replace the water every 30 minutes.
- Choose a brining time based on needs. This brine uses table salt. For kosher salt ratios, see notes as they will differ.QUICK 4 HOUR BRINE RATIO: 1 cup table salt per gallon of cold waterOVERNIGHT BRINE RATIO (approx 8 hours): ½ cup table salt per gallon of cold water18 HOUR BRINE: 1/4 cup table salt per gallon of water. TIP: Great to do while thawing.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, dissolve salt in 1 cup of water; about 3 minutes. Allow to cool in fridge while preparing the turkey.
- Remove turkey from package. Reach into the center turkey cavity and the neck cavity and remove any plastic bags.
- Place turkey into a turkey liner bag or very large stockpot, bin, or clean cooler.
- Add any additional flavor ingredients, like dried poultry seasoning, fresh herbs, bay leaves, sliced oranges, and lemon, or peppercorns. NOTE: This is optional.
- Pour water and salt water mixture into the bag/pot. Remove any air from the bag and close or simply cover the container.QUICK NOTES: Salt to water ratio will not change no matter how big or small the turkey is. If more solution is needed to completely submerge the turkey underwater, use the solution ratio of ¼ cup table salt per quart (4 cups) of cold water. For a turkey that will only be partially submerged due to limited space, see notes for brine directions.
- Chill turkey in brine mixture in the refrigerator for 4 hours (or longer if using the overnight method with less salt).
- Remove the turkey from the salt brine and place it on a wire rack with a cookie sheet below. Pat turkey dry with several paper towels.
- Turkey can be roasted immediately OR covered and placed in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
- 4 HOUR BRINE: 2 CUPS KOSHER SALT PER GALLON OF COLD WATER.
- OVERNIGHT BRINE: 1 CUP KOSHER SALT PER GALLON OF COLD WATER.