Welcome to Day 1 of Well Plated Turkey Week. Each day, I’ll be sharing a key part of how to roast the BEST Thanksgiving turkey of your life. Sign up here and I’ll send you my FREE Thanksgiving Survival Guide, complete with a menu and turkey-day countdown!
Turkey Brine is where the juiciest, most moist turkey of your life begins. This post covers how to wet brine a turkey and includes my favorite easy turkey brine recipe.
What is Brining?
Brining is THE most important step to cooking a moist roast turkey (other than not overcooking the meat).
Brining is the process of allowing meat to rest in a salt solution for about 24 hours prior to roasting.
- Brining works through osmosis. It tenderizes the meat and the meat absorbs the brine’s flavor, so the turkey tastes seasoned throughout, not just on the outside. (You can read more about brining science here).
- A brined turkey can better retain moisture. More moisture = juicier turkey.
- Brining gives you the opportunity to flavor the turkey with herbs and spices; it particularly seasons the skin.
There are two types of turkey brines.
- Wet Brine: the turkey is submerged in a flavorful saltwater solution for 12 to 24 hours (what this post covers).
- Dry Brine: the turkey is salted on the outside with a combination of kosher salt, herbs, and seasonings of choice for 24 to 36 hours (dry brine recipe here).
Each type of brine has its pros and cons; I tried both for my Thanksgiving turkey over the years.
The two reasons to choose a wet brine vs. a dry brine are:
- A wet brine works more quickly than a dry brine. A dry brine needs at least 24 hours to work its magic; a wet brine is effective in 12 hours.
- A wet brine produces a (slightly) plumper, juicier turkey. Most purists who want to roast a competition-level turkey choose a wet brine.
Any brining (wet or dry) is better than no brining.
Most years, I do a dry brine, because it’s less messy and the results are still stellar.
For those who want to roast the most traditional turkey possible, prefer a wet brine, or just want to try something new, this post has everything you need to know to make a wet turkey brine that will have your guests swooning (and won’t drive you crazy in the process!).
The Best Turkey Brine, EVER
This wet brine recipe is based on the most moist turkey I’ve ever eaten: my stepdad Larry’s, with subtle influences from the Pioneer Woman, Martha Stewart, and Alton Brown.
Whether you are roasting your first turkey or your fiftieth, this easy turkey brine produces fabulous, flavorful, JUICY results that will have everyone fighting over the leftovers!
You’ll need a few key pieces of equipment to brine a turkey.
- A Big Bucket. You need something large enough to hold the bird completely submerged in water, plus extra space at the top to weigh down the turkey if needed. A 5-gallon bucket like this works well.
- A Great Big Stockpot. 12 quarts or larger will hold all of the brine, but if you only have an 8-quart stock pot, which is more standard in most pot-and-pan sets, you can wait to add any water doesn’t fit in the pot until the brine is in the bucket.
- A Brining Bag. For less-mess. You’ll place the turkey in the bag, then pour the wet brine on top. Note: if you are using a brining-specific bucket, you do not need a brining bag. The butcher will often give you one of these for free, or you can find one online. We usually do a double layer.
- Ice. Add ice to the brine to help the brine cool more quickly and keep the turkey at a safe temperature.
- Something to Weigh Down the Turkey. Turkey floats in wet brine, so you’ll want to stack something heavy on top of the turkey in the bucket to keep it submerged. I use a stack of several heavy plates. If you have a brining bucket, it comes with a lid to weigh it down.
- Lots of Paper Towels. Once you rinse off the brine, you’ll want to pat the bird very dry so the skin can get crispy.
- A Friend to Help. Turkeys are heavy and wet brine can get messy. If you have a friend to help you hold open the brining bag, pour the brine, lift the turkey, etc., it is much easier.
Wet Turkey Brine Ingredients
The only two 100% necessary ingredients in a wet turkey brine are water and salt, but if that’s all you use, you miss an opportunity to add extra flavor to the turkey.
Instead of only water, I make my turkey brine with apple cider or apple juice, then add whole spices, citrus, herbs, and brown sugar.
- Kosher Salt. You MUST use kosher salt, which is coarser than table salt. Table salt is iodized to keep it free flowing and will give a metallic taste to your turkey.
- Water. You’ll need about a gallon, plus additional for covering the turkey.
- Apple Juice or Apple Cider. Works in conjunction with the water to create a more flavorful turkey brine (you can use more water, plus a few tablespoons of brown sugar instead if you prefer).
- Whole Spices. Black peppercorns along with allspice berries or cloves plus a cinnamon stick give the brine warmth.
- Herbs. Bay leaf and rosemary are wonderful herbs with turkey (you can use dried here; save the fresh herbs for roasting).
- Citrus Peels. Orange is beautiful in harmony with the apple cider and spices.
- Brown Sugar. To offset the salt. I use a lesser amount since the apple juice already provides some sweetness.
How to Wet Brine a Turkey
Here is an overview of each brining step. For the full recipe breakdown, see the recipe card below.
Thaw the Turkey
- Plan on about 24 hours of thawing time per 5 pounds of turkey. See How Long to Cook a Turkey for more.
- Whenever possible, I try to purchase a fresh turkey. It tastes better AND I don’t have to mess with thawing.
Make the Brining Solution
- In a very large stockpot, combine all of the wet brine ingredients and bring them to a boil. Stir to dissolve the salt.
Let the Brine Cool COMPLETELY
- If you add the turkey to a hot brine, it can cause harmful bacteria.
- Cooling can take well over an hour, so plan accordingly.
Place the Turkey in the Brining Bucket
- For easy cleanup, line the bucket with a brining bag first.
- Note that if you are using a special brining bucket, you will not need a bag.
- Don’t forget to check to make sure your bucket will fit in your refrigerator.
Transfer the Brine into the Bucket
- To help catch splatters, place your brining bucket in the sink.
- If your stockpot is too heavy to lift, use a ladle to transfer the brine.
Brine the Turkey for 12 to 24 hours
- Position the turkey in the brine, breast-side down.
- If the turkey isn’t completely submerged in wet brine, add more water so it is covered.
- Tightly close the brining bag (I twist the top of the bag then use a rubber band to secure it), or secure the brining bucket lid.
- If the turkey is floating, use a stack of heavy plates (or a single plate with cans stacked on top) or cast-iron skillet to weigh it down.
- Brine the turkey in the refrigerator (or in a cooler or in your garage if it’s cold) for at least 12 and up to 24 hours. Any less and you won’t get the juicy results; longer and the turkey will start to break down and be too salty.
- The turkey should be kept below 40 degrees F and above 32 degrees F.
Remove the Turkey from the Brine and Rinse
- Wet brine MUST be rinsed off of your turkey, or it will be too salty.
- Discard the brining solution once you are finished with it.
Dry the Turkey Skin
- Dry skin = crispy turkey!
- Once the brine is rinsed off, pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
- Refrigerate the turkey uncovered for several hours or up to 1 day to allow the skin to dry further.
Cook the Turkey
- Let the turkey come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to cooking.
- Use this brine for any of your favorite turkey recipes!
- How to Cook a Turkey covers my favorite EVER roast Thanksgiving turkey.
- For the fastest cooking and maximum surface area for crispy skin, make Spatchcock Turkey.
- In addition to oven roasted turkey, this is the best turkey brine recipe for smoked turkey, grilled turkey, and fried turkey too!
Using Leftover Turkey Brine
While you can’t reuse any turkey brine mixture that has come in contact with the turkey itself, you can save extra liquid from the stockpot. Use the brine for more turkey (try it with turkey breast) or another meat (like those listed above), or freeze it for later.
This is the year of the juiciest turkey EVER.
It’s so scrumptious, once Thanksgiving is over, you’ll want to make a Christmas turkey brine too!
Frequently Asked Questions
A careful cleanup is critical after you wet brine your turkey. First, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently throughout the entire process. Next, you should scrub your sink with super hot water and lots of soap after you rinse the turkey. If your turkey dripped on your countertops at all, make sure you use a sanitizing cleaner to disinfect it as well. Your brining bucket will also require a deep cleaning with scalding hot water, lots of soap, and a scrubbing sponge.
While you need to rinse the wet brine off of a turkey AFTER it has brined, do not rinse your turkey prior to brining. Rinsing does not effectively remove bacteria; rather, it is more likely to spread it.
As long as your turkey will be fully thawed when it’s time for it to go in the oven, you can brine a frozen turkey. If you are unsure, thawed is best to be on the safe side.
A flavorful, brined turkey will certainly be the star of your Thanksgiving spread, but you still need to serve stellar sides. Check out my ultimate list of Thanksgiving Side Dishes for inspiration. You’ll find cranberries, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, and so much more!
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- 1 gallon water (16 cups; 128 ounces), plus additional as needed
- 8 cups apple juice (1/2 gallon; 64 ounces), or apple cider
- 1 1/4 cups kosher salt NOT table salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar light or dark
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
- 2 teaspoons allspice berries or 1 teaspoon whole cloves plus 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 peels of 2 large oranges
- 8 big, heaping cups of ice or 8 cups cold water
- 1 uncooked turkey up to 16 pounds – see notes if making a larger bird
In an 8-quart or larger stockpot (see note*), combine 1 gallon water, apple juice, salt, brown sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns, rosemary, allspice, and orange peels.
Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring until the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from the heat and let cool to near room temperature. (Budget time accordingly—after an hour, my liquid was still warm.)
To brine, remove the neck and giblets from the turkey (discard or save for gravy). Line a large bucket, tub, pot, cooler, or other similar vessel large enough to hold the turkey and brine snugly with a brining bag. Place your uncooked turkey in the bag.
Add the ice.
Pour the brining liquid on top (if it is still a little warm, the ice will melt and cool it down). If the turkey is not completely submerged when pressed to the bottom of the container, add cold water until it is just covered. If desired, tie the brining bag closed. If the turkey floats, weigh it down with a heavy pot, bag of ice, or similar (we top ours with a stack of dinner plates that is about the circumference of the bucket).
Let the turkey brine for 12 to 24 hours, ensuring that it stays below 40 degrees but above 32 degrees so that it does not freeze. You can place it in a refrigerator, in your garage or outside of it’s cold (just make sure it’s not below freezing), or place bags of ice or cooling bricks around the turkey. Check the ice periodically and refresh as needed.
When ready to cook, remove the turkey from the brine. Rinse it all over, inside and outside. Pat dry. Discard the brine and (if time allows), refrigerate the turkey uncovered for several hours (or up to 24 hours) to dry the skin. Cook as desired. See How to Cook a Turkey and Spatchcock Turkey for two of the best ways to cook turkey.
- *STOCKPOT SIZE: If your pot is only 8 quarts, it will be VERY full but is manageable. If you’d like a little more spare room for the liquid to boil, hold back on 4 cups of the water while boiling, then add it to the brining bag with the ice at the end.
- WHAT IF MY TURKEY IS LARGER THAN 18 POUNDS? For an 18- or 20-pound turkey, increase the water, salt, and sugar by about 1.25. For example: for a 20-pound turkey, you’d use 20 cups water, 1.5 cups salt, and 3/4 cup sugar.
- Nutrition information was calculated using a 14-pound turkey. Since the brine is rinsed off, it is not included in the calculation.
Serving: 1(of 10); 1 14-pound turkey with wet brineCalories: 636kcalProtein: 98gFat: 25gSaturated Fat: 7gPolyunsaturated Fat: 7gMonounsaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 0.3gCholesterol: 325mgPotassium: 1010mgSugar: 0.3gVitamin A: 252IUCalcium: 50mgIron: 4mg
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