Use this step-by-step guide to brining to bring out your turkey's juiciest, most flavorful side.

Devon O'Brien
Updated September 11, 2020
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A big, beautifully roasted whole turkey at the center of your Thanksgiving table is already so special it hardly seems there'd be anything you could do to take it to the next level. That's where brining steps in to tell you you're wrong. Soaking your bird in a luxurious salty herb bath will truly make you feel like you're at a royal feast.

What Is Brining and Why Should You Do It?

"Wet brining" refers to the act of soaking a raw turkey in a water-and-salt solution overnight. "Dry brining" means rubbing the salt and seasonings directly onto the bird and letting it sit overnight (no liquid required). Brining brings out turkey's juiciest, most flavorful side—the taste you'll crave year after year. The salt in the brine solution breaks down connective tissues in the muscles of the meat to give you the most tender melt-in-your-mouth turkey you've ever eaten. Meanwhile, the turkey is absorbing extra moisture to make sure it stays juicy throughout the cooking process while infusing flavor deep into the bird no matter how you cook your turkey afterward. It takes some planning, but the flavor payoff is worth it.

The Best Turkey to Brine

When it comes to brining, skip the conventional supermarket turkey that's been enhanced with water and sodium. Make sure you start with an all-natural bird without any added sodium solution as you will be enhancing the turkey yourself without adding a ton of extra sodium.

Equipment

Here's what you'll need for wet brining:

The container you use should be large enough to hold the turkey but small enough to fit in your refrigerator (you can let it brine outside if it's cold enough—under 40°F). Skip this if you are dry-brining: you can do that right in a roasting pan or on a platter.

Step 1: Make Your Brine

For this turkey brine recipe, we used José Andrés' Brined Roast Turkey & Gravy. You can use different flavorings but the salt, sugar and water ratios will work for most seasonings.

For a wet brine: Bring 1 gallon water to a boil in a large pot. Add kosher salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Turn off the heat. Add flavorings such as carrots, onions, celery, spices and fresh herbs. Add 2 more gallons of water to the pot.

For a dry brine: Mash minced garlic and salt together on a cutting board to form a paste. Transfer to a medium bowl and mix in olive oil, sugar and flavorings such as citrus zest, juice, spices and fresh herbs.

Step 2: Brine Your Turkey

For wet brining: Remove giblets and neck from the turkey and make sure there is nothing in the cavity. Place the turkey in a container large enough to hold it and the brine, such as a large pot, clean 5-gallon bucket, similar-size clean cooler or brining bag. Add the brine. Place a plate on top of the turkey, if necessary, so it stays below the surface, or add enough additional liquid to make sure the brine covers the turkey. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

For dry brining: Remove giblets and neck from the turkey and make sure there is nothing in the cavity. Thoroughly pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Place on a platter or in a roasting pan and loosen the skin of the breast and legs. Spread about one-third of the dry rub mixture under the skin, one-third on the outside and the remaining third inside the cavity. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

Step 3: Remove from Brine

For wet-brined turkey: When you're ready to cook your turkey, remove the turkey from the brine, pat dry with paper towels, brush off any bits and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Discard the brine.

For dry-brined turkey: Leave the brine rub on, but use paper towels to carefully dab away any excess liquid. Transfer the turkey to a roasting rack fitted into a roasting pan.

Step 4: Roast Your Turkey

Pictured Recipe: Cider-Brined Spatchcock Turkey

A brined turkey can be cooked just like an unbrined one. Prepare your turkey by tucking the wing tips under the bird, tying the legs together with kitchen string and filling the cavity with any additional citrus or aromatics. Roast using your favorite method—whether it's a turkey breast in a pressure cooker or a whole turkey in a roasting bag, this method will give you a juicy Thanksgiving turkey.

Watch: How to Brine a Turkey

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