How to Brine a Turkey for a Succulent Thanksgiving Bird
Nothing says Thanksgiving like a juicy, tender turkey. Unfortunately, roasting a perfect turkey can be a tough task that might just leave you with a dry, tasteless bird.
So, how do you avoid making a leathery turkey? Brining.
To wet brine a turkey, you soak it in a salted water solution for up to a day, then roast. The result is a moist turkey with deeply ingrained flavor. Your brine can pack a flavorful punch because you’re infusing the entire turkey, not just seasoning the surface.
How Do You Brine a Turkey?
There are countless flavor options for brining, but the basic brining formula is simple: 1 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of sweetener (such as pure maple syrup or raw honey) in a gallon of water. Including a sweetener is optional, but it will help create a more balanced taste.
Generally, that formula will make enough brine for a smaller turkey in the 10 to 15 pound range; for a bird that’s 15 to 20 pounds or above, you can double the numbers. Use as much water as needed to ensure the turkey is mostly submerged.
On the stove, bring the water, salt, sweetener (optional) and any ingredients you want to flavor the brine with to a boil, then let it cool to room temperature. Make sure the brine is completely cooled to prevent bacteria growth during the brining process.
Put a brining bag in a pot that’s big enough to hold the turkey, then place the brine and the turkey in the bag, seal, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. You can find brining bags — basically gigantic Ziploc bags — at your grocery store.
Pro tip: Brining is for naked birds only! Don’t brine a kosher turkey — it’s already been salted. Check the label on your turkey and make sure it doesn’t list additional water and sodium in the ingredients.
How to Choose the Right Type of Brine
Choosing the right brine is just as important as the brining itself. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect from different types of brine and how to pick the best one for your flavor preferences.
If you prefer a juicy turkey without additional flavors, the basic brine is best. Once you’ve brined it for up to 24 hours, rinse, pat it dry, and refrigerate until you’re ready to roast. Air-drying it in the fridge will help you get a nice crispy skin. When it’s time to cook, let the turkey sit out for about 30 minutes before putting it in a preheated oven.
For a little more flavor, pickling spice is an easy option. You can get pickling spice at your local grocery store: It’s typically a mix of mustard seeds, bay leaves, allspice, and red pepper. Use several tablespoons of pickling spice per gallon of water.
For a herbaceous turkey, add a combination of fresh and dried herbs in your brine. Dried herbs will offer a deep flavor, and the fresh herbs will give the turkey more aromatic and delicate herbal tones. Mix and match your favorite herbs, such as the following:
- Fresh sage with dried oregano
- Fresh rosemary with dried thyme
- Fresh savory with dried parsley
- Fresh marjoram with dried bay leaves.
Add lemons, limes, oranges, or tangerines to your brining solution for a bright and light hint of tartness. If using the juice of sharp-tasting citrus like lemons or limes, brine for less time (around 8 to 12 hours), since the acid in them can begin to “cook” the turkey.
Kitchen Sink brine
The sheer size of a turkey makes it hard to overwhelm, so don’t be afraid to go big: Toss in entire garlic cloves, whole star anise or cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, juniper berries, and quartered onions. Any flavors you want to infuse into your bird is fair game.
With just a little effort in advance, you’ll be roasting up a succulent turkey. You can switch up the ingredients each time without having to worry about brining basics, since those remain the same. May your holidays be merry and your turkeys be tender!