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How (and Why!) to Brine a Turkey

By Natalie Boike
Created December 8, 2016
Turkey in a brining bag
Yes, you can! And, more importantly yes, you should! Don’t go through the work of roasting a turkey only to have a dry, flavorless meal. Brining ensures a tender, flavorful main every time. MORE+ LESS-

For me, cooking a turkey is a once-a-year event. So when I do it, you’d better bet I’m doing it “right.” I’ve found the no-fail way to get a super-tender turkey packed full of flavor is actually in the prep. Bonus: It doesn’t add any work to the big turkey day itself!

What’s in a Brine?

As I mentioned, brining is the shortcut to flavor boosting your meat. You essentially soak your turkey in a salty, seasoned water mixture up to 24 hours before baking. Worried about too much salt? Don’t. The ratio of salt to meat is so low it would take a very long time to impact the final dish. If you’re concerned, you can always reduce or leave out the salt when you cook your turkey.

You can “dry-brine” your turkey too—that’s essentially pre-seasoning the turkey without the water element. Either way, it’s totally worth the low time investment for a big payoff! Consider it a kitchen secret weapon.

You can go crazy with herbs and other aromatics, but I’ve found simple really is best. You’ll need water, salt, a turkey (obvi) and something large enough to hold the turkey in the refrigerator.

Turkey, brining bag, salt, measuring cups, roasting pan

You can brine in any large container that is nonreactive, such as a plastic container, glass, crock or stainless-steel bowl. If you don’t have a big container, I’m fond of the sealable brining bags you can find in specialty food stores around Thanksgiving—or online all year round. Just be sure you have a base to hold the bag in place—like a rimmed baking sheet or even the roasting pan.

How To Brine

Mix 2 gallons of cold water and 1 cup plain table salt in your container until salt is dissolved. Add your fresh or defrosted turkey—making sure the turkey is fully covered. Use a heavy plate or dish to keep the meat submerged if necessary. (No frozen birds here: The brine won’t soak into the meat correctly and you’ll end up with a shredded-looking texture.) Cover up or seal your brining bag and refrigerate 8-12 hours. You can brine up to 24 hours, but after 36 hours the salt starts to break down the meat.

Turkey in a brining bag, in a roasting pan

You can brine just about anything—but large, lean cuts of meat are best: turkey (of course) chicken breast and pork loin. As a general rule, start with a minimum 1 hour per pound of food. Longer brine times will produce more intense flavors. Also, brines with a higher salt concentration will require shorter brining time.

When it comes to brining, what’s more important is the salt-to-water ratio, not necessarily the salt-to-turkey ratio. However, your bird does need to be covered with brine to fully benefit from the method. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to scale up your amount of water:

Turkey Size Water Table Salt
8 to 12 pounds 2 gallons 1 1/4 cups
13 to 17 pounds 2 1/2 gallons 1 3/4 cups
18 to 22 pounds 3 gallons 3 1/2 cups

After 24 hours, remove turkey from brine and dispose of the water. Pat the turkey dry. If you have time, you can return the turkey to the refrigerator for the skin to dry out a bit, for at least 2 hours, up to overnight. Or you can proceed directly to cooking. Brining is a great way to add flavor no matter which method of cooking you prefer: roasting, grilling or even smoking.


It's Time to Bake