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There are lots of ways to cook your Thanksgiving turkey: smoke it, fry it, spatchcock it. But a traditional roast turkey is probably the most common option—and perfectly delicious when you do it right. For the best Thanksgiving turkey, you should be brining your bird.
So here’s how to brine turkey (and why you should), including both wet brine and dry brine options.
Simply put, it’s letting something soak in a salted solution (usually with sugar and other seasonings, though specific ingredients vary) for at least several hours to allow the mixture to penetrate the meat. The technique can be applied to things like tofu—and, of course, pickles are brined—but most often it’s used for meat, from chicken to pork chops.
What’s the point of brining?
When it comes to meat, brining flavors it far more deeply than a mere surface sprinkling of salt and spices can, and also ensures a juicy, tender texture (as long as you don’t egregiously overcook the bird or other protein—or leave the meat in the brine too long).
Yes! You can turn out a fine roast turkey without brining (as long as you season it well and baste it or drape it with butter-soaked cheesecloth—or bacon—for most of the cook time), but a brined turkey is widely considered best, both in terms of flavor and texture.
Brining turkey will benefit it even if you’re not roasting but are grilling, smoking, or frying it instead. That is, if you brine it correctly—not too long, and not with too much salt. More on that below.
You have two options: wet brine or dry brine. A wet brine is the classic method, but it does require 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 you’ve completely defrosted 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; if you’d rather pass, at least cook them up for your cat or dog if you have one.)
How to Wet Brine a Turkey
We got pointers on this method from chef, vintner, and TV host Michael Chiarello:
- Give yourself enough time for the entire brining process, including the time it takes to boil and cool 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 to do this, or your fridge’s crisper drawer. If you use the drawer method, you’ll also want an extra large Ziploc bag, 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 are not recommended as they’re not made from food grade plastic.)
- Don’t use too much salt in the brine, as it will have the opposite effect you’re going for and make the turkey stringy and dry.
- Don’t leave the turkey in the brine too long, or it will not only dry out, but be inedibly salty. We recommend anywhere between eight and 16 hours, max (but the smaller the turkey, the less amount of time it will need).
- Feel free to play around with the specific spices and herbs in your brine. In our basic Brined Turkey recipe, we use kosher salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and some apple cider vinegar in addition to water, but if you’re doing a more adventurous turkey, you can switch it up as you see fit. For instance, use unseasoned rice wine vinegar and star anise, Sichuan pepper, ginger, garlic, and cardamom for an Asian-inspired bird (in addition to the salt and sugar called for in the original recipe); or add some oregano, cumin, and chili powder to our standard spice list to take the flavors in a Mexican direction.
- When the turkey comes out of the brine, be sure to 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.
Rather than boil up a brine solution and submerge the turkey, you simply rub a healthy dose of kosher salt (and other seasonings if you like) all over the bird, then let it sit for a day or two. The salt will work its magic and you’ll have a juicy, well seasoned bird with crisp skin. See our Dry Brined Turkey recipe for more details.
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 proceed to cook it however you like: roast it, smoke it, fry it. Brining benefits the turkey no matter which cooking method you choose (except, okay, maybe unnecessary if you sous vide it).
You may find your brined turkey pan drippings too salty for gravy. That’s easily solved by making a batch of gravy ahead of time, which we advocate for 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.