There are lots of ways to cook your Thanksgiving turkey, from smoking to frying to spatchcocking. But a traditional roast turkey is probably the most common option — and perfectly delicious when done right. For the best Thanksgiving turkey, though, you gotta brine that bird before roasting.
Turkey brining 101: The quick steps
There are two types of brining that’ll keep your turkey tip-top, with moist flesh and crispy skin.
- Leave enough time to brine the bird as part of your cooking process. Also make sure you thaw your turkey and remove the giblets and neck.
- Make sure you get a container large enough to completely submerge your turkey.
- You can put the whole tray (brine included) in a large cooler or fridge drawer to soak. If you take the fridge-drawer approach, make sure you have a large zip-top plastic bag on hand.
- Use 1 cup salt per gallon of water in the brine. Using any more risks drying out your bird. You can use whichever herbs you like to flavor the turkey.
- Leave the turkey to soak for 8–16 hours.
- Once you’ve brined that bad boy, take the turkey out of the brine, pat it dry, and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour.
More of a rub than a brine, this is the easier of the two methods. Simply rub kosher salt and your choice of seasonings all over your turkey, and then let it sit in the refrigerator for 1–2 days.
Here’s how to brine turkey (and why you should), including both wet and dry brining techniques.
Brining means letting something soak in a salted solution (usually with sugar and other seasonings, though ingredients vary) for several hours. This allows the mixture to penetrate the meat.
You can apply this technique to foods like tofu and cheese (and of course, pickles are brined), but it most often plays a key role in prepping meat, from chicken to pork chops to turkey.
What’s the point of brining?
Brining flavors meat far more deeply than a mere surface sprinkling of salt and spices can. That’s because a lengthy soak in salt water helps the meat absorb more moisture. (Since turkey isn’t the juiciest of meats, it can use a little help in the moisture department.)
Even with the hours-long cooking time turkey usually requires, brining ensures a juicy, tender texture (as long as you don’t overcook the bird or leave the meat in the brine too long).
Meanwhile, the longer your bird marinates in the salt solution, the more flavor can seep into its nooks and crannies.
You can turn out a fine roast turkey without brining, as long as you season it well and baste it. (Draping it with butter-soaked cheesecloth — or, even better, bacon — for most of the cooking time can help.) But a brined turkey is widely considered a world-beater in terms of flavor and texture.
Brining turkey will benefit it even if you’re not roasting. This method also works for grilling, smoking, or frying. That is, if you brine your turkey correctly — not for too long, and not with too much salt.
You have two options: wet brine or dry brine. A wet brine is the classic method that requires a bit more work and enough space to store not only the bird but the gallons of liquid it’ll be chilling in.
Whichever method you choose, be sure to completely defrost the turkey first. Also, remove the giblets and neck from the thawed turkey. (Save the neck for gravy and the giblets for stuffing if you’re a fan. Or, if you’d rather pass, at least cook them up for your cat or doggo.)
Ready to give your turkey its salty bath? We got pointers on how to wet brine from chef, vintner, and TV host Michael Chiarello:
Wet brining basics
- Give yourself enough time for the entire brining process, including boiling and cooling the brine itself.
- Make sure your container is large enough to hold the bird completely immersed in the brine. You can use a large cooler or your fridge’s crisper drawer for this.
- If you use the drawer method, you’ll also want an extra-large zip-top plastic bag, a brine bag, or a double (maybe triple) layer of turkey oven bags that you tie off tightly. (Garbage bags may seem like a great idea, but they’re not recommended because they’re not made from food-grade plastic.)
- Don’t use too much salt in the brine. It’ll have the opposite effect you’re going for and make the turkey stringy and dry. One cup of salt per gallon of water is a good general rule.
- Don’t leave the turkey in the brine too long. We recommend anywhere between 8 and 16 hours (but the smaller the turkey, the less time it will need).
- Feel free to play around with the specific spices and herbs in your brine. For a basic Brined Turkey recipe, we like kosher salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and some apple cider vinegar in addition to water. But if you’re doing a more adventurous bird, switch it up as you see fit.
- When the turkey comes out of the brine, thoroughly pat it dry inside and out and let it sit at room temperature for a while (around an hour) before putting it in the oven. This ensures crispier skin.
Short on time and fridge space? Dry brining is by far the easier method, but you’ll need to do it a day ahead of time — and, if you wanna get technical, this would be better categorized as a rub than a brine (which, by definition, is a liquid).
Rather than submerge the turkey in a brine solution, simply rub a healthy dose of kosher salt (and other seasonings if you like) all over the bird, then let it sit in the fridge for a day or two.
The salt will work its magic and you’ll have a juicy, well-seasoned bird with crispy skin.
After patting your brined bird dry and allowing it to rest at room temperature for a little while (to guard against that dreadful flabby skin), you can cook it however you like.
Roasting, smoking, and frying are all fair game. Brining amps up the turkey’s flavor no matter which cooking method you choose.
A note on gravy
Despite its wondrous effects, there’s one potential drawback of brining a turkey: It might make pan drippings too salty to use in gravy.
If that’s the case, simply make a separate batch of gravy ahead of time. (We’d advocate for that anyway, because literally no one has ever complained that there wasn’t enough gravy on the table.)
Plus, you’ll need extra for those leftover sandwiches!
Serving up a crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside turkey isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
To infuse flavor, increase moisture, and spruce up your Thanksgiving bird overall, try a wet or dry brine. After all, who isn’t rejuvenated by a long bath (or a massage)?