How to Brine a Whole Turkey

Learn how to made you juiciest bird ever with this simple method that can be used with any roast turkey recipe.

Brining your bird makes for more flavorful, juicy meat. But just what does the process entail, and how do you choose between a wet or dry brine? Betty has answers to all your brining dilemmas in this helpful how-to that walks you through both wet and dry brining with easy, step-by-step instructions. 

What is brining?
Brining is a process of marinating lean meat in a salt mixture. Sometimes, other ingredients, such as herbs or spices, can be added to the mixture to produce different flavors. In this way, brining is very similar to making a marinade—you’re combining different seasonings and letting the meat absorb them to produce a more flavorful final product.  

Before refrigeration was invented, people used to brine meats like ham or pastrami in order to preserve them, but now we use brining as a moisture and flavor adding technique to make our turkeys juicy and delicious.

How does brining work?

There are wet and dry brines, but both techniques work by letting a salt mixture absorb into the turkey. It gets deep into the meat so every bite has a nice, flavorful taste. The salt starts to seal in moisture by being absorbed into the juices of the turkey and essentially breaks down the tough muscle proteins, which results in more tender, succulent meat.

For wet brines, your turkey is soaked in a nice salt bath—a mixture of salt, water, and any other herbs or spices the recipe calls for before cooking. It soaks anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. The longer you leave it to soak, the more flavorful it generally becomes, however leaving turkey in a wet brine for more than a day is typically not recommended.

A dry brine doesn’t involve water, just a similar salt mixture that’s rubbed onto the body of the turkey and let to sit covered in the refrigerator for around 12 to 24 hours. You can technically leave a turkey in a dry brine for up to 2 days if you have the time and really want extra flavor. 

What you’ll need:

For wet brines, you’ll need either a brining bag, bucket, or stainless steel stockpot to keep your turkey in while it’s in the refrigerator. You can find large brining bags at most cookware stores. Kosher salt is recommended instead of table salt as it’s coarser and easier to gauge the proper amount and distribute evenly across the turkey.  Also, because it’s a little thicker, 2 cups of kosher salt is not the same as 2 cups of table salt, so it’s best to follow the instructions in your recipe—if it calls for 2 cups of kosher salt, it’s best not to interchange it with table salt. 

Common additions for your brining mixture include garlic cloves, onion, rosemary, thyme, basil, bay leaves, ginger, peppercorns, cloves, or cinnamon. Sugar is also added to brines sometimes to provide a delicate sweetness that lends a bit of color to the turkey as it caramelizes. If you’re up for a mixture that includes some of these ingredients, try our Best Brined Turkey—made with cloves, bay leaves, salt and sugar.

How to Wet Brine a Turkey 
If planning to wet brine your turkey, you’ll need to do it at least 8 hours in advance and ensure you have enough room in your refrigerator for the turkey to sit in a large bucket, brining bag or stockpot. It’s very important that your turkey sit in the refrigerator the whole time it’s brining to ensure the meat is safe from bacteria.

What you’ll need:
  • Large clean bucket, brining bag or stainless steel stockpot
  • 2 gallons cold water
  • 2 cups kosher salt
  • Whole turkey, thawed
How to:

1.  In large clean bucket, brining bag or stainless steel stockpot, mix 2 gallons cold water and 2 cups kosher (coarse) salt until salt is dissolved.
2.  Add turkey. Brine should cover the bird. Cover; refrigerate 8 to 12 hours. how-to-brine-a-whole-turkey_02
3.  Remove turkey from brine; thoroughly rinse under cool water, gently rubbing inside and outside to release salt. how-to-brine-a-whole-turkey_03
4.  Pat dry inside and out with paper towels. how-to-brine-a-whole-turkey_04
How to Dry Brine a Turkey 
Dry-brining, also referred to as “pre-salting” works along the same lines as wet brining, but without water. A dry brine typically takes about twice as long as a wet brine.

What you’ll need:
  • Baking sheet
  • Plastic wrap
  • 2 cups kosher salt
  • Whole turkey, thawed
How to:

1.  Pat your turkey dry with paper towels to make sure there is no excess moisture.

2.  Rub 2 tablespoons of salt into the cavity of the turkey, then rub remainder on body of turkey.
3.  Transfer to baking sheet, loosely cover with tin foil, refrigerate for at 12 to 24 hours—the longer you brine, the more flavorful your meat will be. how-to-brine-a-turkey_06
4.  Remove tin foil for last 2 hours, but keep in fridge. how-to-brine-a-turkey_07
5.  Place in pre-heated oven and roast according your recipe’s directions. how-to-brine-a-turkey_08
Wet Brine vs. Dry Brine: Which is right for you?
Now that you’ve learned about both methods, how do you know which is best for you? 

Dry brining tends to take twice as long as wet brining, so if you’re short on time, this could be a con. However, a dry brine isn’t any more difficult—just more time consuming. Dry brining also produces a crispier skin and robust flavor, so if those are desirable to you, you may want to give it a try.

Wet brining takes about half as long as a dry brine. While it may not produce as crispy skin as dry brining, many people claim that wet brining produces a juicier bird that’s a bit more succulent. Like dry brining, wet brining isn’t all that difficult—it just requires some patience and extra fridge room.

Brining a Turkey FAQs
Here are our answers to some of your common, last-minute brining questions.
  • Should I brine a bird that’s pre-salted, kosher, or self-basting?
    Ideally, no. Brining any of these turkey varieties will result in an overly-salty bird.
  • Do I have to brine a whole bird?
    You can brine a whole bird or smaller pieces—the steps will be the same.
  • What cooking method is brining best for?
    We’ve found that when we want flavorful, succulent roast turkey, brining is the best way to bring much needed moisture to this cooking method.
  • Can I brine a turkey if I plan on cooking it in a roasting bag?
    Yes—brining and cooking in a bag will make your bird super moist and tender. Just remember to rinse off the salt and pat dry after brining.
  • Can I brine other meats?
    Yes! Be sure to read our Tips for Brining to learn more about brining chicken, pork, and shrimp.
Cooking your Turkey
After you’ve brined your bird, you may be wondering what to do next before cooking it. Don’t worry! You just need a few minutes of rinsing to ensure your turkey isn’t overly salty:
  • Remove turkey from brining bag, stockpot, or baking sheet.
  • Safely discard brine (if you used a wet brine).
  • Let turkey sit in a pot or sink of cold water for 10 minutes to remove excess salt.
  • Pat turkey dry with paper towels—cook according to your preferred cooking method. 
Rinsing and soaking your bird after brining will ensure that excess salt is removed and your bird maintains a balanced flavor. If you used a wet brine, it’s also imperative that you discard that brining liquid for food safety reasons.

When you’re ready to cook your perfectly-brined bird, be sure to learn How to Cook a Turkey so it’s a flavorful, crowd-pleasing success.

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