Talking Turkey: The Truth About Brining Turkey

Photo via Flickr member Quintanamedia

To many, perfectly cooking a whole turkey remains a fairy-tale dream. In real life, the results are often less perfect, with the turkey cooked so long that it becomes dry and unpalatable. Or on the flip side, perhaps the turkey looks perfectly cooked from the outside, but once cut into, a raw, pink interior is revealed.

But how do you avoid these pitfalls and get it just right? For some, brining is a gateway step into cooking the perfect turkey.

What does it mean to brine a turkey?

Brining turkey is a process of adding moisture and flavor to the meat by submerging it in a saltwater mixture. The mixture imparts moisture, which can give you a little more wiggle room and protection from over-cooking.

Why does brining always come up around Thanksgiving?

Brining often comes up around Thanksgiving. Not only is it the biggest turkey-eating holiday of the year, but it’s an occasion on which people frequently cook an entire large turkey, versus smaller portions of the bird. Cooking an entire turkey is an art: it’s tough to cook it through without drying out the turkey. Adding extra moisture via a brine can help even out the cooking process, keeping the exterior portions of the bird moist while allowing the inside to cook completely. You can brine a turkey before just about any cooking method, from roasting to frying to grilling, so it’s versatile.

Is brining right for you? 

Brining isn’t something you do idly; it requires significant time and space. Before you decide to brine, there are some things you will need to strongly consider.


Photo via Flickr member termie

You’ll need a rather large vessel in which you can completely submerge the turkey in liquid.

You’ll also need to make plenty of space in your refrigerator. The brining liquid does not preserve the meat, so you’ll need to keep it cool: below 40 degrees F at all times. Do check that your container will fit in the refrigerator before putting your bird in a brining solution.

If you don’t have enough space in your refrigerator, it doesn’t mean that brining is out of the question. You can place the meat and brine in a cooler and place ice, freezer bags full of ice, or reusable ice packs in the solution. Keep an eye on the temperature to ensure it remains under 40 degrees F.

Photo via Flickr member andrewmalone


Brining also requires a significant time investment. Brining can take up to 24 hours, so it’s not something you can really decide to do on the fly.


Here’s a biggie: brining doesn’t necessarily impart a whole lot of flavor. The brine may keep your turkey from over-drying, but that added juiciness doesn’t necessarily equate to more flavor on the interior of the bird. Still, a slightly diluted flavor for an ideal texture can be an empowering way to begin to master cooking a turkey.

A brining alternative

If brining seems like a huge hassle, you could take another tactic of adding moisture without brining by salting the meat. You do this by literally covering it with salt, and covering it in the fridge overnight or for several hours. Rinse, pat dry, and roast. It won’t do the same as brining, but it will give you a little added moisture which can help keep your turkey from drying out.

Basics: Before you brine

Photo via Flickr member pheezy

Make sure it’s not pre-brined

Before brining your turkey, check to make sure that it hasn’t already been brined. It’s not unheard-of for store bought turkeys to be injected with brine to impart moisture. If you see a label that has ingredients other than turkey, your bird may be pre-brined. If you brine a pre-brined turkey, you will end up with a very salty Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Timing is everything

Be sure to give yourself ample time to brine and cook the turkey before it’s time to eat. Reverse the clock starting at the time you’d like to serve dinner. Subtract the cooking time, 20 minutes for the turkey to sit before carving, and between 6 and 24 hours to brine (this time is up to you). This means if Thanksgiving is on Thursday, you’re going to have to start working on the turkey on Wednesday.

Ingredients: Flavoring brine

In its most basic form, brine will include salt and water. From there, you can make it more complex, adding brown sugar, spices, herbs, or flavorings of your choice. Don’t use a mixture that is too highly acidic, though: acidic ingredients can actually prematurely start the cooking process by denaturing the meat (basically, this means that the acids break down the proteins) and ultimately dry out the meat rather than add moisture.

Size and type of turkey

Brining can be done for any size and type of turkey; once again, though, you’ll have to consider the vessel. Can you fit a container that big in your fridge, or do you have a cooler big enough for your bird?

Examples of brining success

These are some stunning examples of turkeys which have been brined before cooking.

Apple brined smoked turkey

Photo via Flickr member austinmatherne

After brining in an apple mixture, this turkey was smoked, yielding a crispy and colorful exterior.

Pecan wood smoked brined turkey

Photo via Flickr member eekim

Sugar in the brine is what gives this turkey its deep nut-brown hue. Slow cooked in a pecan wood grill, this turkey looks delicious.

Photo via Flickr member dongkwan

12 hours of brining helped keep this turkey, which was roasted for 2 ½ hours, nice and moist.

How to brine (a simple recipe)

  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 gallons water
  • Optional: 1 cup brown sugar, spices, aromatics, or fruits and vegetables of your choosing

Note: if this amount of liquid is not sufficient for your turkey, you can add more using this ratio: ½ cup salt per gallon of water.

To make the brining solution, dissolve the salt in 2 gallons of cold water in a container large enough to hold the turkey and liquid. A large bucket, stockpot, or even a heavy duty plastic bag can work (such as a clean bucket or large stockpot, or a clean, heavy-duty, plastic garbage bag). Add in any flavorings you’d like.

Let the turkey sit completely submerged in the mixture for 6 to 24 hours. Monitor the temperature every so often to make sure it remains under 40 degrees F.

You can rinse the turkey after the brining, or not. It’s suggested for brining solutions containing sugar, as the sugar can caramelize and brown prematurely on the turkey.

Pat the turkey dry, and cook however you’d like.

Storing brined turkey

Once the turkey has brined, it should be washed and roasted or cooked right away.

Leftover turkey should be carved from the bone, separated from any stuffing, and stored in a container in the refrigerator for up to three days, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Don’t throw away the bones! Save the carcass, as you can make an amazing turkey soup flavored with these leftover bits.

Which do you prefer: dark or white meat?

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