If you boldly volunteered to roast the Thanksgiving turkey this year and are starting to feel your first nervous twinges, I have three words of advice: Brine your bird. Brining is your ticket to a juicy, full-flavored turkey, even if you're not feeling totally confident about your roasting skills. Today, I'll explain why this works and show you exactly what you need to do.
How To Brine a Turkey: Watch the Video
Why Brine Your Turkey?
Turkey is a relatively lean bird, particularly the breast meat, meaning that it doesn't have a lot of fat to help keep the meat from becoming dry and tough. It needs some help if we want to avoid the kind of turkey situation that makes us sad and mopey on Thanksgiving.
This is where brining comes in. A brine is a very basic solution of water and salt, and by giving our turkey a long and luxurious dunk in this solution, we can actually coax a bit more moisture and flavor into our meal.
During brining, the turkey absorbs extra moisture, which in turn helps it stay more moist and juicy both during and after cooking. Since the turkey absorbs salt along with the water, it also gets nicely seasoned from the inside out. Even better, the salt breaks down some of the turkey's muscle proteins, which helps with the overall moisture absorption and also prevents the meat from toughing up quite so much during cooking.
If you're nervous about overcooking your turkey and winding up with a platter of dry turkey meat on your table, think of brining as your insurance. A brined bird will stay juicy and taste good even if you overshoot the cooking time a little, and that's one less thing you need to worry about during your holiday meal.
Clear Some Fridge Space
One downside to brining a turkey is that it takes up a good amount of fridge real-estate. First, find a pot or bucket big enough to comfortably hold the turkey and keep it fully submerged. Next, work your Tetris skills and rearrange the fridge to make enough space. If you're okay meeting these two conditions, then we're in business.
I don't recommend brining your turkey in a cooler since it's hard to be totally sure that the turkey says safely below 40°F the whole time. However, if you're short on fridge space, an empty refrigerator crisper drawer makes a surprisingly good brining container. You might also consider dry-brining your turkey, which requires less fridge space and also results in a juicy, well-seasoned turkey.
More Brining Options
The Best Turkey to Brine
Brine only turkeys that have not been pre-treated in any way, which should be clearly stated on the label. Do not use turkeys labeled as "kosher," "enhanced," or "self-basting" for brining. These turkeys have already been enhanced with salt in some way and brining would result in an over-salted turkey. If your label doesn't say any of these things or give any indication that it has been pre-treated, then it's safe to assume you're getting the turkey and nothing but the turkey, and you're clear to proceed with brining.
It's fine to brine a partially thawed turkey. The thawing process will continue while the turkey is in the brine.
Cooking a Brined Turkey
Cook a brined turkey just as you normally would. Once it's out of the brine, pat it dry and rub it with any spices you were planning to use (although you can skip the salt!). You can also baste the turkey with juices or brush it with butter as it roasts.
I've found that brined turkeys tend to cook a little more quickly than un-brined turkeys, so I recommend starting to check the internal temperature of your turkey about an hour before the predicted cooking time is over. Once your turkey registers above 165°F in the breast meat and thighs, then it's done.
How To Brine a Turkey
What You Need
4 quarts water
1 cup coarse kosher salt, or 3/4 cup table salt
Aromatics: bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves, juniper berries, allspice berries, orange peels, lemon peels, etc.
1 large pot or bucket with a lid
Measuring cups and spoons
- Find a pot and make fridge space: Find a pot or food-safe bucket large enough that you will be able to entirely submerge your turkey. Next, clear some fridge space and make sure your pot will fit.
- Place the turkey in the pot: Unwrap your turkey and remove the giblets, then transfer it to your pot. Add any aromatics you'd like to use.
- Mix the brine solution: Heat 1 quart of water in the microwave until warmed — it doesn't need to come to a boil, just be warm enough to dissolve the salt. Add the salt and stir until the salt has dissolved. Let the liquid cool slightly; it's fine if it's still a touch warm.
- Pour the brine solution over the turkey.
- Pour the remaining 3 quarts of water over the turkey: This dilutes the salt solution to the best ratio for brining and also helps further cool the solution.
- Make sure the turkey is completely submerged: If necessary, prepare additional brine solution at a ratio of 1/4 cup per quart of water to completely submerge the turkey.
- Cover and refrigerate: If the turkey floats, weigh it down with a dinner plate. Cover the pot and place it in the refrigerator.
- Brine for 12 to 24 hours.
- Rinse the turkey in cool water and pat dry. Clean your sink thoroughly after doing this step to avoid cross-contamination. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
- Dry for another 24 hours for crispier skin, optional: If you have time, let the turkey air-dry overnight in the fridge. Place it on a roasting rack set inside a roasting pan and cover loosely with plastic bags to avoid cross contamination. This drying step will give your turkey crispier skin.
- Roast as usual, but check your turkey early: You can roast the turkey either immediately after brining or after air-drying. I've found that brined turkeys tend to cook a bit more quickly, so cook as usual, but start checking the turkey's temperature an hour before the end of your estimated cooking time.