How to Brine a Turkey

Steps to a Achieve a Juicy, Tender Bird

Leah Maroney
  • 01 of 09

    Brining Means Juicy and Tender

    Brining is a method in which meat is placed in a mixture of water and salt (and sometimes other seasonings) for several hours before the protein is cooked. Turkey is an ideal candidate for brining since it is pretty lean and therefore doesn't have a lot of fat to keep the meat moist during cooking. Brining does a few things: The salt seasons the meat from the inside out; it also helps break down the muscle proteins which makes for a more tender bird as well as assisting in moisture absorption. And lastly, the water mixture helps keep the turkey moist while in the oven. 

    Before brining your turkey, however, you need to check to make sure that it hasn't already been brined. Many turkeys are injected with a brine solution to add moisture. This includes kosher turkeys as well. Look for a bird that is simply a turkey with no other ingredients; these are frequently labeled as "natural." If you try to brine a bird that already has injected solutions, are pre-brined, or packaged in a salty solution, you will end up with a turkey too salty to eat.

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  • 02 of 09

    What You Need

    Large tupperware with brine
    Leah Maroney

    To brine a turkey, you will first need a large, nonreactive container; this can be plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other metal containers will react with the brine solution and give the turkey a metallic flavor. One trick is to use a large, food-safe sealable bag. Both Reynolds (Oven Roasting Bag for Turkeys) and Ziploc (XL Storage Bag) make very large food-safe bags that are great for brining. Place one of these bags in a large stockpot, which keeps everything together and makes clean-up easier. Otherwise, you can use a large bin or bucket or even a cooler.

    Once you have your container, you will need plenty of water, salt, sugar, and any other spices you are using. Make sure you are not using salt with iodine as it will spoil the flavor.

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  • 03 of 09

    Measure the Water

    Raw turkey in brine
    Leah Maroney

    To determine how much water you are going to need, place the turkey, while still in its packaging, in the container and fill the container with water. Once the container is filled, remove the turkey and measure the water.

    Since the turkey is basically hollow, you'll need to add a few extra cups of water to compensate for later when it is out of its wrapping. For a turkey under 16 pounds, add 2 cups of water to your measurement. For a turkey over 16 pounds add 3 cups.

    Once you have measured how much water you need, write it down for future reference. Now you can figure out how much salt and sugar to add to the brine.

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  • 04 of 09

    Turkey Brine Ingredients

    Turkey brine ingredients
    Leah Maroney

    To create a proper brine, you need 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water; this works out to 1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water (16 cups in a gallon, 16 tablespoons in a cup). 

    Not all salt is created equally. If you are using kosher salt, you need to add twice as much since it is larger in crystal and lighter by volume. If you want accuracy, weigh the salt; you want 10 ounces of salt per gallon of water.

    While not necessary, it is a good idea to add something sweet to your brine. Sugar will offset the salt flavor and really adds something to the turkey. You do not have to be as accurate with the sugar as you are with the salt. Add 1 cup of sugar per gallon.

    With all the important ingredients together, you can then include whatever additional flavor(s) you prefer. There are many turkey brine recipes to choose from including citrus, apple spice, and Hawaiin-style or you can create your own. Fresh sage and oregano with black peppercorns and coriander seeds are a nice combination.

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  • 05 of 09

    Dissolve the Salt

    Dissolving salt
    Leah Maroney

    While it is very important to keep the turkey cold while in the brine, to make the brine you need to first bring the water to a near boil. Then add about 1 cup of the boiled water to the sugar, which will dissolve easily, and the rest of the hot water to the salt. It is vitally important to get the salt as completely dissolved into the water as possible. Any crystals left over are going to float to the bottom of the container and just sit there, not penetrating the turkey.

    Alternatively, you can combine all the ingredients for your brine in a large pot and bring the whole mixture to a near boil. However, you will need to cool the brine before placing the turkey in it. The brine needs to be cold—very cold—to prevent the turkey from spoiling in the brine.

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  • 06 of 09

    Combine the Brine

    Combining the brine
    Leah Maroney

    With the sugar dissolved and the salt almost dissolved, it is time to start putting together the brine. While keeping the salt mixture moving, pour it into the container or bag and immediately start adding the measured water. This process will dissolve the salt completely. Once all the measured water is added, introduce the sugar/water mixture and additional flavorings of your choice.

    Stir continuously, scraping along the bottom. If there is salt you should be able to feel it. Continue mixing until the salt crystals dissipate. Once this is complete and the brine is cool, you can add the turkey.

    Hint: If you make the brine in advance, any seasonings you add will have more time to blend. Give the mixture a good stir before the turkey goes in because the brine will have settled.

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  • 07 of 09

    Add the Turkey

    Turkey in brine
    Leah Maroney

    Lower your turkey slowly into the brine. Try putting the neck in first so that the brine can more easily flow into the body cavity; it is important that there are no trapped air bubbles in the bird. The brine should be in full contact with every inch of the bird—otherwise, ​you won't get the maximum effect. Once submerged, turn the turkey a few times to mix all the brine ingredients around the bird.

    It is important that the whole turkey is completely submerged in water, so make sure you have an inch or two at the top, above the bird. Turkeys have a tendency to float so push it down into the brine to make sure the brine covers the bird. If it doesn't, mix together additional brine by adding 1 tablespoon of table salt (2 tablespoons kosher salt) with 1 cup of water. Again, make sure that the salt is completely dissolved.

    If you are using a bag for your brining project, seal it, making sure to remove as much air as possible. This helps to keep the turkey completely immersed in the liquid.

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  • 08 of 09

    Add an Ice Pack for Your Turkey

    Ice pack for a turkey
    Leah Maroney

    Whether or not you are using a bag, it is a good idea to put something heavy on top of the turkey to hold it down in the brine. Try a bag full of ice; not only will this help keep the turkey in the brine, but it will help keep the brine solution cool. By putting the ice on the top, any heat rising in the container will be met with an icepack.

    Pack your container away; your best bet is to put the whole thing in the refrigerator. Of course, if cooking a turkey, you are probably cooking other things as well and refrigerator space may be hard to find. A cold cooler will work just fine. Remember to keep the brine cold, but don't let it freeze. If the outside temperature is low enough, you can just put the whole thing someplace safe outside until you are ready to cook your turkey.

    A turkey should brine for at least 1 hour per pound but no more than a total of 24 hours (for safety sake). If you are brining a 20-pound turkey, it should brine for at least 20 hours, so plan accordingly.

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  • 09 of 09

    Rinse the Bird

    Rinsing the turkey
    Leah Maroney

    By the time your turkey has finished brining, a fairly good amount of salt has settled on the skin. If you pull the turkey out of the brine and put it directly in the smoker, oven, fryer, or on the grill, the flavor of the meat would be very salty. This isn't from the salt in the meat, but from the salt on the meat. This is why you must rinse the turkey thoroughly before you do anything with it.

    Rinse the turkey well, then submerge it in cold water. And make sure that you rinse out the inside as well. Every surface needs to be rinsed well.

    Now you can prepare your turkey as normal. Brining is a great first step in enjoying a delicious turkey no matter if you smokegrillfry, or even roast it. A word of caution: While the turkey will not taste salty if rinsed properly, you do not need to add any salt to this turkey. If you are using a spice rub or seasoning on the turkey, do not use one with added salt. If you are going to stuff the bird, use a stuffing that doesn't have any salt.

    For a sweet turkey brine, try this Turkey Apple Brine recipe.