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How to Brine a Whole Turkey

Updated November 11, 2019
Turkey being lowered into wet brine
If you’re dithering on whether you should brine, let us make a long story short: Brining your bird makes for more flavorful, juicy meat.
Turkey is a non-negotiable part of any Thanksgiving feast, but it also has a bit of a nerve-wracking reputation for ending up dry and flavorless. The best solution—or rather, solutions—we’ve found to prevent dull and dusty birds is to brine them. Brining techniques mostly takes time, and not a lot of fuss, and we think the results are well worth the little extra effort they entail. Learn more about the benefits of the two key brining methods—wet and dry—to determine which will be the right choice for you Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Your Brining Primer

If seeing is believing, we think you’ll be brining this year’s turkey after you preview the process in the video below.

What is Brining?

Brining is a process of marinating any lean meat—and in this case, turkey—in a salt mixture. The salt seals in the juices of the turkey and works to breaks down tough muscle proteins, resulting in more tender, succulent meat. Before the advent of refrigeration, brining was one method used to preserve meat. But the idea still works today, and it’s still one of the best ways to add moisture and flavor to meat. Whether the brine is wet or dry, both techniques work by slowly letting a salt mixture absorb into the turkey.

Step-by-step Instructions for Brining a Turkey

There are two ways to go about brining—wet or dry—but which you choose will depend on the results you’re looking for and the time you have to dedicate to it. We’ll walk you through the details of what each method means and what it does, and, of course, we’ll show you how to do it yourself with step-by-step instructions.

How to Wet Brine a Turkey

With a wet brine, your turkey soaks in a bath made of salt, water and the herbs or spices of your choice for 8 to 12 hours. The longer you leave your turkey to soak, the more flavorful it generally becomes. However, leaving your turkey in a wet brine for more than a day is typically not recommended.

If you’re planning to wet brine your turkey, make sure you have space in your refrigerator where the turkey can sit in a large stockpot, bucket or brining bag. It’s crucial that your turkey stays 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

Steps for Wet Brining

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.

Salt being added to water to make a brine for turkey

2.  Add turkey. Brine should cover the bird. Cover; refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.

Turkey immersed in brine

3.  Remove turkey from brine; thoroughly rinse under cool water, gently rubbing inside and outside to release salt.

Turkey being rinsed after brining

4.  Pat dry inside and out with paper towels.

Turkey being dried after rinsing

How to Dry Brine a Turkey

Dry brining, sometimes referred to as “pre-salting,” works along the same lines as wet brining, but—no surprise here—without water. A dry brine typically takes about twice as long as a wet brine, and advocates of the method tout its ability to produce a bird with crispier skin (along with the expected improvements that brining creates). As with wet brining, you can add spices and herbs to your liking in the brine mix.

What You’ll Need

  • Baking sheet
  • Aluminum foil
  • 2 cups kosher salt
  • Whole turkey, thawed

Steps for Dry Brining

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.

Turkey being salted for dry brine

3.  Transfer to baking sheet, loosely cover with aluminum foil, refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours—the longer you brine, the more flavorful your meat will be.

Turkey covered with aluminum foil and ready to dry brine

4.  Remove aluminum foil for last 2 hours but keep in fridge.

remove foil for last two hours of turkey’s dry brining

5.  Place in pre-heated oven and roast according your recipe’s directions.

Turkey in oven

What to Do After Brining the Turkey

There are a couple of key steps to take after wet brining, specifically. First, rinsing or soaking your bird after helps ensure that your turkey isn’t overly salty. Second, you need to carefully discard any brining liquid to keep your kitchen clean and cut the risk of cross-contamination. You can never be too careful when it comes to food safety!

After Wet Brining

  1. Remove turkey from brining bag, stockpot, or baking sheet.
  2. Safely discard brine.
  3. Either rinse your turkey under running water or let it sit in a pot or sink of cold water for 10 minutes to remove excess salt.
  4. After rinsing or soaking, thoroughly pat turkey dry with paper towels. Then, cook according to your preferred cooking method. (Don’t forget to sanitize sink and surrounding counter to avoid cross-contamination.)

Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine

Now that you know the steps in completing both methods, how do you decide which is best for you? There are few things to consider! Dry brining takes more time than wet brining, so you need to make sure you plan accordingly. Dry brining, because it pulls moisture out of the skin and gives the salt a longer time to soak in, can produce a crisper skin and more robust flavor. With wet brining, the skin on your bird won’t be as crispy, but the process will take a lot less time and some say it produces a more succulent bird, so consider the trade-offs.

Whether you wet brine or dry brine, there’s plenty of room to get creative with flavor profiles; adding herbs and seasonings brings some extra oomph to your brine and results in a bird with a more specific flavor. Garlic cloves, onion, rosemary, thyme, basil, bay leaves, ginger, peppercorns, cloves, or cinnamon are just some of the host of great options. You’ll notice that brine recipes sometimes call for sugar, which provides a delicate sweetness and lends a bit of color to the turkey as it caramelizes during roasting. If you're not sure where to start with your own mixture, but want to try a brine that blends some of those ingredients, start with our Best Brined Turkey!

The Best Brined Turkey

When you’re ready to cook your perfectly brined bird, be sure to learn How to Cook a Turkey so it’s no less than a flavorful, crowd-pleasing success!



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