Thanksgiving is almost here, and that means Americans will be donning their aprons, sharpening their knifes, and warming their ovens to roast the bird of all birds—The Turkey.
About 45 million turkeys are harvested each year, according to the National Turkey Federation, to supply our Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece. Turkey, however, is not the easiest protein we could roast for a holiday and has an unfortunate reputation for becoming dry in the oven.
When it comes to turkey, what you do before it sees the inside of an oven determines whether your guests request seconds. Follow this handy dandy guide to dry-brining your turkey in order to get the crispiest skin and the most succulent meat. Your guests will definitely request seconds!
Why (and How) Should You Brine Your Turkey?
Two of the most common ways to ensure a juicy bird are to prepare it with a dry brine or wet brine, the latter of which is often just referred to as brining.
- Dry brining, also known as salting, simply means rubbing the turkey down with salt, letting it rest in the refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours, and then roasting it. The salt changes the protein structure in the meat, causing it to release moisture. Then the bird reabsorbs its own salty liquid, resulting in juicy, tender, and flavorful meat.
- Wet brining means you heat a salt water solution on the stovetop, cool it, and then submerge the bird in the brine for 24 hours or more before roasting it in the oven. That’s a large container and a lot of water when you’re talking turkey! Rather than reabsorbing just its own liquid, it also takes on additional liquid from the saline solution.
Want to wet brine instead of dry brine? Check out this post: Easiest Turkey Brine.
Dry Brine for the Win
Both techniques prevent the meat from drying out, and either is a great choice, but I’m partial to dry brining a big bird for a few reasons:
- It requires less space in my fridge, and I don’t have to worry about water or turkey juices slopping around.
- I can let the turkey air dry uncovered in the refrigerator while it dry brines. This gives my bird that gorgeous, crispy golden skin. (I wrote all about that technique here.)
- Handling a wet turkey is not fun, it’s not easy, and I don’t want to do it.
How Much Salt Do You Use in a Dry Brine?
Some dry brining recipes call for salting the bird with 1 teaspoon of salt per pound, letting the turkey dry brine, then rinsing the salt off before roasting. I don’t do that, and here’s why.
Rinsing poultry can easily spread bacteria to other areas your busy holiday kitchen. Food poisoning is not what I want guests to remember from eating dinner at my place. Using less salt eliminates the need to rinse the bird, but still delivers a succulent bird.
I find that using 3 tablespoons of kosher salt for a 12 to 15 pound turkey is plenty enough to ensure juicy, well-seasoned meat.
What About the Salt?
- Always use Kosher salt—never table salt. Kosher salt’s granules are larger and easier to distribute, and table salt has a harsh aftertaste that could be picked up in this recipe.
- The size of salt granule varies by brand, which means the amount of salt per tablespoon will vary as well. I used Morton Kosher Salt. If you use Diamond Crystal Salt, you will need to add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt to this recipe.
Season and Salt in a Single Step
I blend the salt with herbs, a little lemon juice, and olive oil to create a paste. The lemon balances the salt, the herbs boost the flavor, and the olive oil helps crisp the skin and season the meat.
- Seasoning and salting the bird all at once saves me a step. I’m all about saving steps on Thanksgiving.
- The flavors from additional ingredients are mixed in with salty juices and reabsorbed into the meat while it hangs out in the fridge for a day or more.
- Just before I’m ready to roast the turkey, I stuff the cavity with a few fresh herbs, a quartered lemon or two, and an onion, truss it and pop in the oven. No rinsing required.
How Long to Dry Brine
I typically dry-brine for 48 hours for a luscious bird. You can, however, brine your turkey for up to 72 hours (and some of our testers actually preferred this!). The skin will look dry and desiccated after all that time in the fridge, but don’t worry, it will cook up beautifully.
Also, if you are short on time, because sometimes that’s just how holidays go, any little bit will help. Dry brining is worth the time, even if you only have half a day. Just make sure the bird isn’t frozen when you start out—otherwise it won’t absorb the flavors.
What Kind of Turkey Works Best for Dry Brining?
Dry brining works best on natural or air-chilled turkeys without a saline solution added.
Many mass-produced supermarket turkeys are injected with a saline solution and are best avoided if you are intending to dry-brine your turkey. You can usually find that information on the label. I’ve seen as low as 4 percent and as high as 8 percent solution, and dry-brining on top of this could make the bird overly salty.
That being said, if you’ve already purchased your turkey and see that it has been injected with saline, you can just reduce the salt in this recipe by half.
Thawing Your Turkey
Thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, not on the countertop, and leave the turkey in its packaging. The general rule of thumb is that it will take 24 hours for every 4 pounds of bird.
If you need to quickly thaw your turkey, fill your sink with cold water and put the turkey in it, breast side down. Make sure the turkey is completely submerged in water in its original packaging, and change it every 30 minutes. Plan for about 30 to 40 minutes of defrosting time per pound of bird. Scrub your sink and all surrounding surfaces. (See previous paragraph about wet birds).
Essential Tips for Roasting a Dry Brined Turkey
- Set your oven rack in the bottom third of the oven.
- Start off at 425°F, put the turkey in breast side up, tent the breast with foil, and reduce the heat.
- Ovens often have cold spots. I like to rotate my bird halfway through and baste for even cooking and browning. Keep some turkey or chicken stock handy in case your bird doesn't produce enough juices from the get-go, and use that for basting if necessary.
- Remove the turkey from the oven when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh without touching bone registers 160°F. It will continue to cook once you remove it from the oven.
- Let it rest for 20 minutes before carving.
More Thanksgiving Turkey Links!
- How To Get Crispy, Golden Turkey Skin
- Easiest Turkey Brine
- Mom's Roast Turkey
- Pressure Cooker Turkey with Dijon Gravy
- Roast Turkey Breast with Roasted Garlic Gravy
How to Dry Brine and Roast a Turkey
This turkey is packed with all the flavors of the season (and a little help from Simon and Garfunkel): parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I used dried sage for ease in this recipe, but make sure you buy a high-quality brand that has large bits of sage in it; it might be labeled rubbed sage. You don’t want ground sage that looks like fine dust. If you can’t find a good dried variety, opt to use 1 tablespoon fresh, minced sage. Or use fresh sage from the get-go, if you prefer it.
For turkeys larger than 18 pounds, use 1 1/2 times the brining ingredients.
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary, the leaves from about one 9-inch sprig
- 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
- 3/4 tablespoon dried sage, or 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
- 1 1/4 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, ground
- 3 tablespoons Morton's kosher salt (add 1 1/2 teaspoons if using Diamond Crystal)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Zest from 2 lemons
- 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (the juice from 1 lemon)
- 3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 (12- to 18-pound) natural turkey, thawed (not kosher, saline-injected, or otherwise pre-salted)
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 2 to 3 cups of turkey or chicken stock, if needed
Combine the dry brine ingredients:
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the minced garlic, parsley, rosemary, thyme, sage, ground black peppercorns, salt, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and olive oil. Stir to combine. Quarter the remaining lemons, and save them for the cavity of the turkey.
Prepare the turkey for brining:
About 24 to 72 hours before you want to roast the bird, take the thawed turkey out of any packaging, and remove the pop-up thermometer, if it has one. Remove and reserve the giblets and neck for making gravy or stock.
Dry brine the turkey:
Place turkey on either a cooling rack set on top of a rimmed baking sheet or directly on the roasting rack in the roasting pan (mine didn't fit easily in the fridge that way!). Thoroughly pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Loosen the skin of the breast and legs.
Spread about half of the brine mixture under the skin, massaging it into the breasts and legs, 1/4 on the outside and the remaining 1/4 inside the cavity. Refrigerate uncovered for 24 to 72 hours.
Prepare for roasting:
When ready to roast the turkey, position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat the oven to 425°F.
If it's not there already, transfer the turkey to a roasting rack set in a roasting pan. Into the cavity of the turkey, put the quartered onion and lemon, and the rest of the fresh herbs you used for the dry brine.
To truss the bird, tuck the wings under the body as best as you can. Place butcher’s twine under the turkey, close to the wings. Cross the twine at the neck of the turkey, wrap each end of twine around the tip of the leg, and tie the legs together.
Begin roasting the turkey:
Roast the turkey at 425°F until the skin starts to brown in spots, about 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and roast for another 45 minutes.
Baste the turkey and finish roasting:
Rotate the roasting pan, baste the turkey with the pan juices, and tent the breast with foil to prevent it from overcooking. (If you find that your turkey hasn’t produced enough juices to use for basting, warm a cup or two of extra chicken broth on the stovetop or in the microwave and use that to baste the turkey.)
Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh without touching bone registers 160°F. This should take an additional 30 to 45 minutes; check the temperature and baste every 15 minutes until the bird is fully cooked.
Rest the turkey and serve:
Transfer the turkey to a clean cutting board and tent with foil. Let it rest 20 minutes before carving. Pat yourself on the back. Pour yourself one of these bad boys, and put someone else in charge of the dishes.