I started brining my Thanksgiving turkey a few years ago and haven't looked back. It's my Thanksgiving insurance policy: If I get distracted as I'm making dinner and the turkey overcooks, I know I can still count on the turkey turning out moist and flavorful.
What is Brining?
Brining means making a salt water solution and submerging the turkey for about 24 hours before roasting. This spa treatment helps the turkey retain more moisture during roasting and prevents it from drying out.
A brine also gives me a chance to season the turkey with herbs and spices, especially the skin! Sage and citrus is one of my favorite combinations. It's so festive and makes the house smell amazing.
This technique is called wet brining. But you can also dry-brine your turkey. For this method, instead of submerging your turkey in a brine solution, you basically rub the outside with salt and let it sit for a day or so. If you're interested in that technique check out this post!
Tips for Brining a Turkey
Brining a turkey is a pretty straightforward process, but there are a few key things to keep in mind.
- First of all, make sure your turkey hasn't already been brined or injected with a saline solution (water is ok). If it has, it should say so right on the packaging. Organic turkeys are usually a safe bet; turkeys labeled "kosher," "enhanced," or "self-basting," are usually already brined.
- It's fine if your turkey is still partially frozen when it goes into the brine. It will continue to thaw in the brine solution in the fridge.
- Also, make sure to clear some fridge space and find a big enough container to hold your turkey. You might need to rearrange some fridge shelves to make space. Disposable brining bags are also very handy; I've had friends who use brining bags and then store their turkeys in a crisper drawer to save space!
The Basic Brining Ratio
The basic brine is a mixture of 4 quarts of water and 1 cup of kosher salt. To this, you can add any herbs, spices, or other seasonings that you like.
Ways to Season Your Brine
I love the combination of sage and citrus in this brine, though you could swap in any aromatic herbs or spices you like. The flavor they give the meat is fairly subtle, but I feel like the real impact is in the skin. A good, well-seasoned brine gives you some of the best turkey skin you've ever had.
How to Make the Turkey Brine
Make your brine by bringing 1 quart of water to a boil, dissolving the salt and then adding in the sage, citrus, and other seasonings.
Let this cool slightly, then stir in the rest of the water to bring the brine down to room temperature. Lukewarm is also fine. You just don't want the brine to be piping hot when you pour it over the turkey.
If you don't have quite enough brine solution to cover your turkey, just make more at a ratio of 1 quart water to 1/4 cup kosher salt. Let it cool before pouring it over the turkey.
How Long to Brine Turkey?
Brine your turkey for 12 to 24 hours. The longer the better, but honestly, even a quick brine does wonders for the turkey. If you only have a few hours before it needs to go in the oven, then it's still worth doing.
Be sure to keep your turkey covered and refrigerated while brining.
How to Cook a Brined Turkey
Once brined, cook the turkey as usual— just pat it dry and carry on with your recipe! Two notes:
- Brined Turkeys Cook Quicker: I find that brined turkeys tend to cook a little more quickly than regular turkeys, so start checking the temperature of the breast and thigh meat halfway through your estimated cooking time.
- Stuffing a Brined Turkey: Yes, you can stuff a brined turkey if you so desire! This will increase the overall cooking time. Be sure to check that the internal temperature of the stuffing is at 165°F before removing the turkey from the oven.
Use this brine for these recipes!
While this recipe is intended for a whole turkey, you can also use it to brine turkey breasts, turkey legs, or even whole chicken. You only need enough brine to cover the meat. Stick to the basic ratio of 4 quarts of water and 1 cup of kosher salt and scale it up or down as needed.
- Mom's Roast Turkey
- Chard and Prosciutto Stuffed Turkey Breast—brine the turkey breast before stuffing
- Turkey Breast with Roasted Garlic Gravy
- Turkey Breast Stuffed with Bacon, Cranberry, and Breadcrumb Stuffing—brine the turkey breast before stuffing
- Roast Chicken with Carrots
Easiest Turkey Brine
- 1 (12- to 20-pound) turkey, not kosher, saline-injected, or otherwise pre-salted
- 3 oranges
- 3 lemons
- 1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
- 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 4 quarts water
- 250g kosher salt (1 cup Morton, or 1 3/4 cup Diamond Crystal, or 3/4 cup table salt), plus more if needed
Prepare the turkey for brining:
Remove the turkey from its package and pat dry. Remove the giblets and save for making gravy. Place the turkey in a large pot, brining bag, or other container large enough to keep the turkey submerged.
Prepare the brine ingredients:
Strip the peels from the oranges and lemons using a vegetable peeler. Try to remove just the peel, leaving behind as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Roughly chop the sage leaves. Make sure the bay leaves, peppercorns, and garlic cloves are measured out and ready to go. (Save the leftover oranges and lemons for stuffing the turkey during roasting!)
Prepare the brine concentrate:
Bring 1 quart (4 cups) of the water to a boil in a large saucepan or stock pot on the stovetop. Once boiling, add the salt and stir until dissolved. Add the orange and lemon peels, chopped sage, bay leaves, peppercorns, and garlic. Let the water return to a boil, then remove from heat.
Cool and then dilute the concentrate to make the turkey brine:
Let the brine concentrate and flavoring ingredients cool until no longer steaming, then stir in the remaining 3 quarts of water. (If your pan is too small, you can do this in a pitcher or other large container.) Check the temperature of the brine; it should be room temperature or lukewarm.
Pour the brine over the turkey:
Make sure the turkey is submerged, though it's ok if the boney tips of the legs stick out the top. If needed for larger turkeys, prepare additional brine solution (1/4 cup of salt dissolved in 4 cups of warm water) in order to cover the turkey. If the turkey is floating, weight it down with a plate or other heavy object.
Brine for 12 to 24 hours:
Cover the turkey and keep refrigerated during brining.
Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse:
When you're ready to begin roasting your turkey, remove it from the brine and rinse it with cool water. It's ok if the water is tinged pink. Pat dry.
Roast the turkey as usual:
There's no need to salt the turkey before roasting, but otherwise, roast the turkey as usual following your favorite recipe. If desired, stuff the cavity of the turkey with leftover sage and the peeled lemons and oranges from preparing the brine. Roasting time may be shortened; begin checking the temperature of the turkey halfway through roasting.