Turkey Brining Basics
There is a lot of advice about what you need for a juicy, tender, perfectly seasoned turkey, but it comes down to two simple essentials: salt and time.
Meet brining. Brining refers to infusing a protein (like turkey) with salt prior to cooking it. No matter which brining technique you use—wet or dry—it will always include both salt and time. The brining process seasons the turkey and helps it retain more moisture during cooking. The result? A super juicy and flavorful turkey.
Wet brining a turkey includes submerging the raw bird in a saltwater solution for many hours before roasting. The basic ratio for wet brine is 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water.
Choose your own adventure by riffing on this basic wet brine ratio. You can add aromatics like granulated sugar or brown sugar, smashed garlic cloves, rosemary sprigs, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, whole peppercorns or allspice, and strips of citrus zest such as orange or lemon. Alternatively, use smoked coarse sea salt in place of the kosher salt. Or swap in apple cider or lager beer for the water. (Time-saving tip: Look for a premade brine kit or packet at your local Raley’s.)
Here is an example of a wet brine for a 12-pound turkey:
1 gallon of water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar or brown sugar (optional)
Small handful of aromatics (optional)
Combine the water, salt, sugar and aromatics (if using) in a large stock pot. Bring the water to a boil, lower heat and simmer for at least 5 minutes, stirring to fully dissolve salt (and sugar, if using). Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Place the turkey into a container large enough to hold the turkey and brine, then pour in enough cooled brine to fully cover the bird. Refrigerate. A general rule is to leave the meat in the brine for roughly 1 hour per pound. So, for a 12-pound turkey, an overnight brine in the refrigerator will suffice.
After soaking the turkey, drain and discard the solution. Rinse the turkey, then pat it dry. If you have time, leave the bird uncovered in the fridge a few hours before cooking. Drying it out further will help you achieve beautiful golden-brown crispy skin.
The general dry brining technique calls for ½ teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, plus whatever dried herbs and spices you want to add. Use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to blend the salt, herbs and spices until crushed but not turned into a fine powder.
Place the turkey on either a cooling rack set on top of a rimmed baking sheet or directly in the roasting pan that you plan to cook the bird in. Thoroughly pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Loosen the skin of the breast and legs. Then rub the brine mixture inside and outside of the turkey’s cavity including under the skin.
Refrigerate uncovered for at least 24 hours (at least 1 hour per pound) and up to three days. Do not rinse the dry brine mixture off the turkey before cooking.
Wet or Dry Brining: Which Technique Is Best for You?
You win either way because both techniques increase the turkey’s juiciness and improve flavor but read on to explore which is best for your space and schedule.
- You need a large enough container to keep the turkey submerged in the brine and a large enough space in your fridge for that container.
- Since the bird can simply sit uncovered on a sheet pan and does not require liquid, you need less space in your fridge and it is not as messy as a wet brine.
- It takes longer to dry brine (up to three days) than wet brine, so you can brine a couple days ahead and free up your schedule for other tasks later.
- Plan ahead. Not only does the brining process take several hours (or days), but if you are using a wet brine, making the saltwater solution and letting it cool also takes time.
- Don’t brine a kosher bird—it has already been brined.
- Never pour a hot wet brine over a raw turkey. Cool the brine solution completely first to avoid potential bacteria growth.
- There’s no need to salt a brined bird before putting it in the oven because it’s already seasoned.
- The pan drippings from a brined turkey will be salty, so use it cautiously in gravy recipes.
- Remember to take advantage of our free knife sharpening service at our Meat Department.