How to Brine a Turkey

Leah Maroney
  • 01 of 08

    Starting with the Water

    Large tupperware with brine
    Leah Maroney

    Brining a turkey is the first step to a juicy, tender bird that'll truly stand out at Thanksgiving. It's also incredibly simple if you follow the steps below.

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

    To brine a turkey, you will first need a large, nonreactive container. This could be plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other metal containers will react with the brine solution and give the turkey a metallic flavor. One great 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. This keeps everything together and makes clean-up easier.

    Next, is knowing how much water you are going to need. To find this out, place the turkey, while still in its packaging, in the container and fill the container with water. Since the turkey is basically hollow, you'll add a few extra cups of water later when you do the math. You'll then be able to figure out how much salt and sugar to add to the brine.

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  • 02 of 08

    Measuring the Water

    Raw turkey in brine
    Leah Maroney

    Once the container is filled, take out the turkey and start measuring the water. As mentioned before, the cavity of the turkey is hollow and will need to be filled as well. For a turkey under 16 pounds add two cups of water to your measurement. For a turkey over 16 pounds add three cups. This should be enough. 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.

    Once you have measured how much water you need, write it down for future reference.

    Now it is time to do the math. You need 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water to get a proper brine. This works out to 1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water (16 cups in a gallon, 16 tablespoons in a cup). Make sure you are not using salt with iodine. Iodine will spoil the flavor.

    Not all salt is created equally (read more on salt). If you are using kosher salt, you need to add twice as much salt 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 one cup of sugar per gallon.

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  • 03 of 08

    Turkey Brine Ingredients

    Turkey brine ingredients
    Leah Maroney

    With all the important ingredients together now, you can add whatever flavor you prefer (beyond the water, salt, and sugar). Check out these turkey brine recipes, or you can create your own.

    Try using fresh sage and oregano with black peppercorns and coriander seeds, as an example of extra seasoning.

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  • 04 of 08

    Dissolving Salt

    Dissolving salt
    Leah Maroney

    While it is very important to keep the turkey cold, bring the water to a near boil. Add about one cup to the sugar, which dissolves 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.

    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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  • 05 of 08

    Combining 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. Keeping the salt mixture moving, pour it into the container or bag and immediately start adding water. This process will dissolve the salt completely. Once all the water is added, introduce the sugar/water mixture and additional flavorings of your choice.

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

    One 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 settle.

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  • 06 of 08

    Adding 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 a few times to mix all the brine ingredients around the bird.

    Turkeys have a tendency to float so push it down into the brine to make sure the brine completely covers the bird. If it doesn't, mix together additional brine by adding one tablespoon of table salt (two tablespoons kosher salt) with one 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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  • 07 of 08

    Ice Pack for Your Turkey

    Ice pack for a turkey
    Leah Maroney

    Whether or not you are using a bag to hold the turkey and brine, 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.

    Now it is time to get your container packed 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.

    And remember the most important step is the last one, so don't skip out yet.

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  • 08 of 08


    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 pulled the turkey out of the brine and put it in the smoker or fryer or on the grill, the flavor 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 thoroughly, 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 it as normal. One word of caution: While the turkey will not taste salty if rinsed properly, you do not need to add 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 be stuffing the bird, use a stuffing that doesn't have any salt.

    Brining is a great first step in enjoying a delicious turkey no matter if you smoke, grill, fry, or even roast it.