We’ve all probably experienced cooking and eating dry meat. It can happen with every protein, not just turkey. Hey, that’s why we have gravy. But there’s nothing better than a properly cooked, juicy bite, and I’m here to help you achieve that.
One way to prevent meat from drying out is to cook it to the proper temperature. But I get it. Life happens. Sometimes we get distracted and overshoot that goal temp. That’s where a brine will save the day.
Brining is the process of soaking your protein in a salt water solution before cooking it. The salt dissolves proteins to tenderize the meat and it helps retain moisture during cooking.
There are many recipes out there for turkey brine. I’m going to be honest. There is no need to get fancy with citrus and herbs or additions like star anise. Save your money.
Instead, you just need water, salt and sugar.
Looking through my cookbooks that are more than 100 years old, the ratio for a brine was 1 pound of salt per 1 gallon of water. That’s a lot of salt. But remember, that was 100 years ago. Today, meat is usually pre-treated before it even hits the grocery store, so we don’t need to be that heavy handed.
The salt you use is important.
With that old recipe, a pound of table salt would be about 2 cups; whereas a pound of kosher salt would equal about 4 cups.
My recipe below uses 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt (significantly less), but it’s really important that you use kosher salt. If you choose to use table salt, reduce the amount by half.
There are a couple types of kosher salt, too. Personally, I like Diamond Crystal salt. It’s flakier than Morton’s, so I like how it dissolves.
In addition to the kosher salt, the brine includes my turkey rub, which contains salt, as well.
The only other ingredient I add to my turkey brine is granulated white sugar. You can use brown sugar, but it costs twice as a much as white sugar, and I don’t really notice much difference.
Adding sugar to your brine helps brown the turkey, but it’s completely optional.
How much brine do I need
The amount of brine you need will vary, depending on how much your bird weighs and the container you’re going to brine it in. A narrow container, like a 5-gallon bucket will require less brine than a large cooler.
You need about 2 1/2 cups of brine for every pound of turkey you have. So a 12-pound turkey would need about 1 gallon of brine while a 20-pound turkey would need about 3 gallons. The recipe below makes 2 gallons or 32 cups, which is perfect for a 16-pound bird brined in a 5-gallon bucket. If you’re making a smaller or larger turkey, follow the chart above.
I always make extra, just in case. My Pops taught me: It’s better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.
Do I need to add other ingredients to my brine
The short answer is no. The purpose of the brine is not to flavor the bird, it’s to help ensure moistness of the meat.
But if you feel you can taste the difference, go for it. Toss in those fresh herbs and citrus slices. Personally, I get the essence of lemon and thyme by just mixing in some of my turkey rub.
For the brine to properly work, you need to dissolve the sugar and salt. That requires heating it on the stove. The problem is in order to keep your turkey in the safe zone, you need to cool the water to room temperature (68F degrees) before soaking the bird. I don’t like waiting for that.
So instead of boiling 2 gallons of water, I only boil one gallon to dissolve the salt and sugar. Then, I stir in 16 cups of ice, which will quickly melt and bring the entire pot down to about to a safe temperature. It’s okay if all of the ice doesn’t melt.
It’s also important to keep the turkey cold during the brining process, which means make room in your fridge or a large cooler that maintains a temp of 40F degrees or below. Plan this out in advance to make sure you can accommodate the bird.
How to place the turkey in the brine
It’s best to use a tall, narrow bucket or pot, so long as it will fit in your fridge. The closer in size the container is to your turkey, the less brine you will need.
If you have to use a horizontal container due to your fridge dimensions, place the turkey breast side down. That’s where the majority of the white meat is. White meat has less natural moisture than dark meat, so that’s predominately why we’re using a brine in the first place.
If you’re using a bucket, place the turkey in the brine with the legs up. That way, the breasts are fully submerged.
I recommend using a brining bag. Do not use a trash bag. They’re not food safe and often contain chemicals or scents that shouldn’t be exposed to food you plan to consume.
Place the brining bag in your container. Then, add the turkey, and then, pour in the brine.
Make sure the entire bird is submerged. To do this, you may want to add a bowl on top, or use a brining bucket with a hold down lid, just make sure whatever you use, it will fit in your fridge.
Can I brine in a cooler
If you don’t have enough room in your refrigerator for a 5-gallon bucket, you can use a cooler. I recommend still using the bucket and bag method though. Otherwise, you’ll need a ton of brine.
Follow the same steps. Place the bag in the bucket. Add the turkey and top with brine. Tie the bag at the top and place the bucket in the cooler. Surround the bucket with ice, and add ice on top, especially if you can’t close the lid.
Check the ice periodically to make sure that the brine temperature is staying below 40F degrees.
How Long Should I brine my turkey
If you brine your turkey for about 45 minutes per pound you’ll hit the sweet spot, and the meat will end up nice and juicy. I’ve created a handy chart above that includes the different times for different weights.
Rinse the Turkey
Because your turkey has been in a salt solution for several hours, you’ll want to rinse the bird to remove the excess salt. This is the only time I recommend rinsing poultry.
It’s very important when you’re done that you clean your sink and bucket and any other areas that may have been exposed to the raw turkey or brining liquid.
This recipe is for a 16-lb turkey. For a smaller or larger turkey, see the chart in the post above.
Make the Brine: Place the water, salt, sugar and rub in a stockpot large enough to hold 32 cups of water. Place on the stove over high heat. Cook until the salt and sugar dissolve, about 10 minutes. Remove from the stove and add the ice. Stir until the ice is melted.
Brine the Turkey: Place the thawed turkey (with giblets removed) in a container that will fit in your refrigerator or cooler with the breast side down. Add the brine. Cover and brine for 8-18 hours (see chart above)
Rinse the Turkey: Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse. Cook according to your favorite recipe. (Be sure to sanitize your sink after this step)
If you have a turkey larger or smaller than 16 pounds, follow the recipe above, using the measurements listed in the chart above. The nutrition information is for the 2 gallon batch of brine. However, because the brine will be discarded after the soak, your turkey will not take on all of these calories.