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A great Turkey Brine Recipe is the difference between a good Thanksgiving turkey and a great one that people will be talking about for years to come. Knowing how to brine a turkey will make a huge difference in your bird whether you plan to roast it, smoke it, or deep-fry it! This quick and easy technique will ensure a deliciously juicy, moist turkey every time!
Whether you are planning a big holiday meal or just serving a special Sunday supper, we've got you covered with all the sides you love with a classic turkey dinner, including my favorite turkey gravy. Be sure to check out our collection of the Best Thanksgiving Recipes to see them all!
We have been brining our Thanksgiving turkeys for YEARS now and have learned the it is the key to turkey that is tender and juicy. It doesn't matter how you plan to cook your turkey (and we've tried it every possible way from roasting to deep-frying to smoking a turkey), a good soak in a turkey brine makes your bird better every time.
We're talking eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head type good. More succulent, tender bites of meat whether you prefer light or dark meat. And of course crispier skin with better flavoring. This brine works like a charm and we absolutely swear by it when it comes to making the best turkey ever!
Best of all, it takes just minutes to prepare the brine! Then your turkey sits in its briny bath for 12-24 hours until you are ready to pull it out and cook it. In the meantime, you can work on other make-ahead items on your Thanksgiving menu so there is less to do on the big day!
What is brining and why is it important?
Brining involves submerging a larger piece of meat in a water and salt solution. You can do a brine with just the water and salt, but we like to add extra flavor with fresh herbs, brown sugar, some spices, and citrus peel.
There is plenty of debate about how much of a difference this makes and you can get sucked down the rabbit hole of reading about brining techniques for hours, but I can say from much testing and experimenting that it's well worth the minimal effort to brine your turkey.
One caution: Do NOT brine a turkey labeled as kosher. A kosher turkey already has a higher salt content and has essentially already undergone a process similar to brining. So if you brine a kosher turkey, it's going to end up being way too salty.
A side benefit of brining a turkey is that is solves the age-old dilemma that is every home cook's Thanksgiving nightmare of whether the turkey will be completely thawed in time! Even if your turkey isn't quite as thawed as you were intending when you go to brine it, it will be fully thawed after a day in a cold, briny bath!
Equipment and Ingredients Needed
- A large non-corrosive pot, bucket, cooler, or other container: If you have a small to medium-size turkey like the 12-pounder we used in these photos, you can usually just use a really large pot, which is my preferred approach because of the easy cleanup and it almost always fits easily in my fridge. If your turkey is larger, you may want to consider a large plastic cooler or even a clean plastic bucket from a hardware store so that you have room for a bag of ice to sit on top to keep the turkey cold overnight while it is brining.
- Coarse Kosher salt: This turkey brine recipe is pretty much foolproof except you have to make sure you are using the correct type of salt. I have written the recipe using coarse kosher salt, which is what we always use. It's affordable, easily accessible, and gives great flavor without making the meat too salty.
- Water: Some brining recipes call for apple juice but after experimenting, I've decided that we get better results with just plain water for the liquid part of this brine recipe.
- Brown sugar: I love adding a little sweetness to the brine.
- Peppercorns: Don't substitute with ground pepper. You want whole peppercorns (any variety will work) for a brine.
- Garlic: No need to spend time mincing garlic cloves for this brine recipe. Just smash them flat with the back of a knife and throw them in.
- Fresh herbs: A couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme help infuse the brine with classic holiday flavors.
- Orange peel: I have found that a little citrus is the key to a really flavorful turkey brine recipe! Just use a vegetable peeler or shape knife to peel off the outer skin of the orange. Lemon peel would work well too, if you don't have oranges on hand.
- Bay leaves: I always have some dried bay leaves in the cupboard so I throw them in. Honestly, I'm not 100% sure these make a difference, but I always include them anyway figuring it certainly won't hurt!
How to brine a turkey
- Mix the water, salt, and sugar together until the salt and sugar dissolves. I recommend heating 4 cups of water on the stove with the salt and sugar for 10 minutes or so since that helps them dissolve more easily, but I have also done it where you just stir them into the cold water and they will eventually dissolve without heat as well. Add all of the remaining brine ingredients (including the remaining cold water or enough ice to cool the brine if you chose to heat it to dissolve the salt and sugar), then stir.
- Prep the turkey by removing neck, gizzards, and any plastic packaging and sticking it in your brine container. I don't recommend rinsing the turkey before adding it to the brine. Place the turkey breast side down in your brining container. (I know the pictures in this post show the turkey breast up in the brine, but that was totally just a vanity move and I flipped it over before sticking it in the fridge.)
- Cover the turkey with the brine. Carefully pour the brine over the turkey, making sure the entire bird is completely submerged in the liquid. This brine recipe makes enough to easily cover a 12-pound turkey, but you might want to do 1 ½ times the recipe if using a larger bird. Cover the container and transfer to the fridge, if you have room. If not, you can use a bag of ice poured over the top of the turkey brine to keep it safe and cold overnight.
- Dry really well before cooking. After brining, remove the turkey to a large pan or baking sheet and pat the turkey completely dry, both inside and out with lots of paper towels. I do not rinse my turkey after removing it from the turkey brine and have never found it to be too salty. Let it air-dry uncovered in the fridge for a bit, if you have the time. This helps give you crispy skin when you roast the turkey. Even just 30 minutes helps, although if you plan far enough ahead, you could even let it air-dry in the fridge overnight and then cook the turkey the next day.
The size of your turkey will influence how long you will want to brine it. If your turkey is less than 15 pounds, I recommend brining for 12 to 24 hours. Larger turkeys can brine for up to 2 days.
We always use coarse kosher salt for brining, but table salt will work as well, though not in the same proportion. It's really important to note which type of salt you are going with because there are different measurements for each one.
- Table salt: Mix ½ cup of table salt for every 1 gallon of water.
- Coarse Kosher salt: Mix ¾ cup of coarse kosher salt for every 1 gallon of water.
Oh, and in case you are like me and wondering how many cups are in a gallon, it's 16 cups. So you will be measuring out 32 cups of water for this recipe that calls for 2 gallons.
Tips for brining a turkey
- Use the correct amount of the correct type of salt listed in this turkey brine recipe.
- Don't try brining a Kosher turkey. It already has higher salt content than normal.
- Be sure to completely cover the turkey with the brine solution. If it wants to float up to the top of your brining bucket, weigh it down with a bag of ice or a heavy plate with some cans set on top.
- Remember that there is no need to salt the turkey after brining it. It absorb a significant amount of salt from the brine solution, and any drippings for gravy will already have a good amount of salt to them, so you may not need any additional salt.
- Be sure to put the turkey into the brine solution with the breast side down for the best penetration. If your turkey brine doesn't quite cover your bird, then rotate it partway through brining for even coverage.
More Recipes for your Thanksgiving Table
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Turkey Brine Recipe
- 2 gallons cold water 8 quarts or 32 cups of water
- 1 ½ cups coarse Kosher salt or 1 cup table salt
- 1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons whole black peppercorns
- 2 Tablespoons allspice berries
- 3-5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 5 cloves garlic smashed
- 1-2 oranges rind peeled off in ribbons
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 bag ice
- 1 clean 5-gallon bucket pot, or other large container
- 1 12-15 pound turkey
- Combine 4 cups of the water with the salt and brown sugar in a large pot on the stove over medium-high heat. Cook for 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently, until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add remaining brine ingredients, including remaining cold water. Make sure the brine is completely cool before adding it to the turkey.
- Remove neck, giblets, and any plastic packaging from the turkey and place it in a very large non-corrosive pot, bucket, or even cooler with the breast side down. There is no need to rinse the turkey first.
- Pour the cooled brine over the turkey so the turkey is covered with the brine. If it's not completely covered, you can turn the turkey partway through the brining time so all sides get brined, or make another half batch of brine to add to the container. Cover and transfer to the fridge for 12 to 24 hours. If there isn't room in your fridge, you can place a bag of ice on top of the turkey in the brine and leave it on the counter or in the garage overnight.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and pat completely dry both inside and out using plenty of paper towels. Let the turkey air-dry for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight in the fridge, then cook the turkey using your preferred method.
- Table salt: 1 cup of salt to 2 gallons of water
- Coarse Kosher salt: 1 ½ cups salt to 2 gallons of water