How To Brine a Turkey to Keep It Extra Tender
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Turkey is a relatively lean bird, particularly the breast meat, meaning that it doesn’t have a lot of fat to help keep the meat from becoming dry and tough. It needs some help if we want to avoid the kind of turkey situation that makes us sad and mopey on Thanksgiving.
This is where brining comes in. A brine is a basic solution of water and salt. By giving our turkey a luxurious dunk in this solution, we can actually coax a bit more moisture and flavor into our meal before it’s ready to roast.
During brining, the turkey absorbs extra moisture, which in turn helps it stay juicy. Since the turkey absorbs salt too, it also gets nicely seasoned. Even better, the salt breaks down some of the turkey’s proteins, making it more tender.
Think of brining as insurance. A bird that has been wet-brined for just 12 hours will stay juicy even if you overshoot the cooking time a little. It’s one less thing to worry about.
One downside to brining a turkey is that it takes up fridge space. If you can find a pot big enough to keep it fully submerged, and make enough space in the fridge, then we’re in business. One smart place to try, if it’s deep enough: Your fridge’s crisper drawer.
I don’t recommend brining your turkey in a cooler. It’s hard to be totally sure that the turkey stays safely out of the temperature danger zone. If you’re low on space, consider dry-brining your turkey, which also results in a juicy, well-seasoned turkey.
Only brine turkeys that have not been pre-salted, which should be clearly stated on the label. Do not use turkeys labeled “kosher,” “enhanced,” or “self-basting.” Brining these would result in an over-salted turkey. If your label doesn’t give any indication that it has been pre-treated, then it’s safe to assume you’re clear to proceed.
It’s fine to brine a partially thawed turkey. The thawing process will continue while the turkey is in the brine.
No time to brine? Try these recipes instead:
Once it’s out of the brine, pat it dry and rub it with any spices you were planning to use (although you can skip the salt!). You can also baste the turkey with juices or brush it with butter as it roasts.
I’ve found that brined turkeys tend to cook a little more quickly than un-brined turkeys, so I recommend starting to check the internal temperature of your turkey about an hour before the predicted cooking time is over. Once your turkey registers at least 165°F in the breast meat and thighs, then it’s done.
How To Brine a Turkey
- 1whole turkey
- Aromatic options: bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves, juniper berries, allspice berries, orange peels, lemon peels, etc.
- 4 quartscold water, divided
- 1 cupkosher salt, or 3/4 cup table salt
- Find a pot and make fridge space. Find a pot or food-safe bucket large enough that you will be able to entirely submerge the turkey. Next, clear some refrigerator space and make sure your pot will fit.
- Place the turkey in the pot. Unwrap your turkey and remove the giblets, then transfer it to the pot. Add any aromatics you’d like to use.
- Mix the brine solution. Heat 1 quart of water in the microwave until warmed — it doesn’t need to come to a boil, just be warm enough to dissolve the salt. Add the salt and stir until the salt is dissolved. Let the liquid cool slightly; it’s fine if it’s still a touch warm.
- Pour the brine solution over the turkey. Pour the salt water over the turkey.
- Pour the remaining 3 quarts of water over the turkey. Add the remaining 3 quarts cold water. This dilutes the salt solution to the best ratio for brining and also helps further cool the solution.
- Make sure the turkey is completely submerged. If needed, prepare more brine solution at a ratio of 1/4 cup salt per quart of water to completely submerge the turkey.
- Cover and refrigerate. If the turkey floats, weigh it down with a dinner plate. Cover and place it in the refrigerator.
- Brine for 12 to 24 hours. Brine the turkey in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
- Rinse the turkey in cool water and pat dry. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels. Clean your sink thoroughly after doing this step to avoid cross-contamination.
- Dry for another 24 hours for crispier skin (optional). If you have time, let the turkey air-dry overnight in the refrigerator. Place the turkey on a roasting rack set inside a roasting pan and cover loosely with plastic wrap to prevent cross contamination. This drying step will give your turkey crispier skin.
- Roast as usual, but check your turkey early. You can roast the turkey either immediately after brining or after air-drying. I’ve found that brined turkeys tend to cook a bit more quickly, so roast as usual, but start checking the turkey’s temperature an hour before the end of your estimated cooking time.