Smoked Turkey Brine

With a soak in this earthy and citrusy brine, your smoked turkey will have the edge it needs to champion the dinner table.

Brined whole turkey in a bucket with brining liquid.
Mike Lang

Roasting a turkey can be an intimating and daunting affair. Putting the turkey on the grill or smoker can elevate the anxiety even more. It’s a lot of meat to feed a lot of people, and it is something we don’t want to mess up.

Thankfully, we have science and salt to help us avoid the dreadful dry turkey. While cooking to the proper final temperature of 165º F can help avoid a turkey disaster, think of brining the turkey is an extra flavor-infused safety net. Even though the brine’s mission is moisture, with the help of friends, it can also impart some flavor.

Give your turkey a good soak in this brine recipe of Italian parsley, crushed black peppercorns, garlic, and oranges before you smoke it for a citrusy, juicy turkey every time.

What is Turkey Brine?

Not just turkey brine, but any brine, is a saltwater solution consisting of 1 cup of salt per 1 gallon of water. If you need to scale the amount, it’s 1 part salt to 20 parts water.

I use Morton Kosher Salt, which has large crystals. Table salt requires a smaller measurement. Plus, not all kosher salt is the same size. To ensure accuracy weigh your salt. 1 cup kosher salt weighs 225 grams.

Brined whole turkey in a bucket with brining liquid.
Mike Lang

How Does Brining Work?

As the turkey soaks, the salt works its way into the turkey’s protein cells. While salt pulls moisture out of the meat, it simultaneously increases the size of the turkey’s protein molecules allowing it to hold more liquid, resulting in a plumper turkey. 

The increased capacity for moisture not only helps the lean turkey breast stay moist during cooking, but it can also infuse flavor into the bird. There is so much winning here I can’t control myself!

Is Sugar Needed in the Brine?

Whether your turkey is roasted, deep fried, or smoked, this brine will deliver plump moist meat.

However, since this is for a smoked turkey, I’ve left out the sugar, which is often added to brines to help with the browning of skin. Here, the process of smoking naturally paints a turkey’s skin a beautiful deep mahogany.

If you are considering this brine for a more familiar cooking method, consider adding 1/2 cup of sugar to aid in the browning process. The only thing better than succulent turkey meat is dark crispy skin, which is why I love wafting smoke in the backyard at Thanksgiving.

A large stockpot with brining liquid for whole turkey.
Mike Lang

The Best Turkey for Brining

When selecting a turkey, avoid labels indicating it has already been injected with a brine. If you brine these, they will become too salty. You can simply smoke those as is.

Brining turkey takes time and effort. If you can try to find a natural and fresh free-range turkey that has not already been brined for the best result.

If using a frozen turkey, it does not need to be completely thawed before brining. If the turkey is partially thawed, it can go straight in the brine. If the turkey is mostly frozen, give the turkey another day in the brine to ensure the meat has fully thawed to take on the brine solution.

The Turkey is In Charge

The size of the turkey dictates everything: the amount of brining liquid, the size of the brining container, and the location to chill the turkey as it brines.

  • The right-sized turkey: I tend to smoke turkeys that are 12 to 18 pounds and I use a 4 1/2 gallon covered plastic container to brine it. Any container will work, just as long as it can hold the turkey fully submerged in the brine. Use a plate or bowl to keep the bird wedged underwater if it floats up.
  • The amount of brining liquid: To figure out the amount of brine needed, place the turkey in your chosen container and fill it with water until fully submerged. Then, remove the turkey and measure the remaining water.
  • Where to chill the turkey: I have refrigerator space to hold my turkey. However, if you plan on smoking the largest turkey on the block, first, congratulations, and second, consider using an insulated cooler. Use sealed bags of ice to keep the turkey cold and then store the cooler in a cool part of your home checking the ice once a day. If you live in colder climate, consider placing the cooler in nature’s freezer, your backyard.
Ingredients on a cutting board to make the brining liquid for whole turkey.
Mike Lang

Air Dry Brined Turkey for Crispy Skin

Once the turkey is done brining, remove it from the brine and rest it uncovered on a wire rack set over a baking sheet in the refrigerator. This helps the salt absorbed by the turkey to disperse evenly throughout the meat and helps dry the skin to later crisp in the smoker.

Tips for Turkey Brining Success

Consider this when brining your turkey:

  • Cleanliness is key. Turkeys are big, and gallons of turkey-soaked water can make a salmonella mess. To help the cleanup, I place the brine container with the turkey in the sink and then remove the turkey to a close-by sheet pan. Turkeys can’t fly and I’m not about to help one fly around my kitchen dripping brine water. When done, be sure to clean the containers and surfaces thoroughly before and after the brining process.
  • Be sure to completely chill the brine before adding the turkey. Bring the ingredients to boil in half the amount of water you’ll need for the brine. Then add the remaining water in the form of ice to cool the brine down quickly.
  • The size of your turkey and brining container dictates the amount of brine you’ll need. Carefully plan for and scale the recipe to make sure the turkey is completely submerged. For anything larger than 20 pounds, plan on doubling the brine, especially if your brine container is more wide than tall.
Brined whole turkey in a bucket with brining liquid.
Mike Lang

Smoked Turkey Brine Variations

Brines are open to a wide range of flavors. While I landed on parsley, don’t be afraid to mix up your own flavors. The salt and water are crucial to adding moisture; the flavor combination can expand with your imagination. Here are a few ideas:

  • Orange + fennel + thyme + sage
  • Lime + cilantro + chili peppers
  • Lemon + thyme + garlic

If you want to test out your flavor combinations before you commit to brining a whole turkey, do a test batch. Soak chicken breasts in the brine and grill them. For fun, grill an unbrined chicken breast along with it just to see the difference a brine makes.

How to Plan Ahead

Planning to cook a turkey is a process in and of itself. When adding a brine, it pushes the planning out even further.

  • For smaller turkeys (under 20 pounds), plan for a 24-hour brine.
  • For a larger turkey, plan for at least 24 hours, but even up to 48 hours.
  • For any-sized turkey, plan for an additional 24 hours to rest the turkey out of the brine uncovered in the refrigerator. This helps to crisp up the skin. You can read all about our tests on that in our article, "Crispy, Golden Turkey Skin: 4 Methods Put to the Test with One Winner!"
Overhead view of a pot filled with brining liquid for whole turkey
Mike Lang

Expand Your Brine Game with These Brining Recipes

Smoked Turkey Brine

Prep Time 2 hrs
Brine and Dry Time 48 hrs
Total Time 50 hrs
Serving 1 turkey brine batch

I use 1 cup of Morton Kosher Salt, but since salt granules vary in size from brand to brand, weigh the salt—you’ll need 225 grams of kosher salt for 1 gallon of water.

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon water, divided1 cup (225g) kosher salt
  • 1 bunch Italian parsley, approximately 15 stems
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 head of garlic, cut in half crosswise
  • 2 oranges, halved
  • 1/4 cup black peppercorns, crushed with heavy pan or pulsed in spice grinder
  • 1 (12- to 18-pound) whole turkey, neck, giblets, heart, and liver removed

Method

  1. Make the brine:

    In a large pot, combine 1/2 gallon (about 9 1/2 cups) of water, salt, parsley, onion, garlic, oranges, and peppercorns. Bring it up to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir until the salt has dissolved.

    Adding water to a pot to make a citrusy brine for whole turkey.
    Mike Lang
    Squeezing orange sections into a pot to make a citrusy brine for whole turkey.
    Mike Lang
    Overhead view of a pot filled with brining liquid for whole turkey
    Mike Lang
  2. Cool the brine:

    Add 1/2 gallon (9 1/2 cups) of cold water to the hot brine to help it cool down faster. You can also replace the water with ice to help it cool even faster.

    Cool the brine to room temperature. Then refrigerate it until chilled.

  3. Brine the turkey:

    In a 4 1/2-gallon container, add the turkey and cover it with the chilled brine.

    Refrigerate it for 24 hours.

    Brined whole turkey in a bucket with brining liquid.
    Mike Lang
  4. Prepare for drying:

    Set a wire rack over a baking sheet.

  5. Remove turkey from brine:

    Remove the turkey from the brine and place it on the prepared baking sheet. With a paper towel, remove any residual salt and brine ingredients from the turkey. Pat the turkey dry.

  6. Dry the turkey:

    Transfer it to the refrigerator, uncovered, and let it air dry for 24 hours. This will help crisp up the skin when you cook the turkey.

  7. Cook the turkey:

    Once a turkey has been brined and air dried you can follow whichever cooking method you prefer to either roast, smoke, or fry the turkey.