How to Brine a Turkey
Learn the basics of brining and you'll be guaranteed the top turkey in town.
Taking on the Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t need to be intimidating. You've probably heard that basting a turkey throughout the roasting process is the best way to avoid dry meat, but it's actually better to build up the turkey's inner moisture content by soaking it in a brine before cooking begins. Brining a turkey (or any lean protein) in a simple salt and water solution tenderizes the meat while adding flavor and moisture that lasts even after roasting. Follow the steps below to make a basic brine and ensure that this year’s bird boasts the juiciest, most tender meat to ever grace the holiday table.
First Things First: Best Birds for Brining
Before brining turkey or any type of poultry, select a bird that’s labeled “natural.” Turkeys labeled “self-basting” have been injected with salt solutions or other flavoring additives, which can lead to overly salted meat if they’re then brined. If you’re new to the process or have to feed just a few guests, try brining on a smaller scale: Test-drive the turkey breast only (which is simpler and quicker due to its size).
Pick the Proper Vessel
Before starting the brine, make sure that the container that will be holding the turkey is sufficiently sized for the task. Select a large stockpot or very clean bucket with a lid, or even better, use an oversized drink cooler with a spout for draining the brine. A drink cooler is especially well insulated and will help keep the turkey cool throughout the brining process. If you're not using an insulated cooler, the brining container must be able to fit in a refrigerator, or you'll have to monitor its temperature regularly to make sure the turkey stays cool enough during its soak.
The Day Before: Time to Brine
You’ll want to submerge your turkey in brine a solid day before you roast it to allow the bird enough time to become thoroughly saturated. You can make the brine itself two or three days ahead and keep it in the fridge to chill. At its most basic, a brine consists purely of salt and water. The typical ratio is one cup of salt for every gallon of water. To determine the amount of brine that you’ll need, place the turkey in the brining container, add water to cover it completely and then measure the water after removing the turkey. Kosher salt is the best choice to use, but you can substitute table salt as well. Just use half the amount of table salt, as the smaller grains fit much more densely into a measuring cup than larger-grained kosher salt. The salt in the brine changes the muscle structure of the meat, allowing it to absorb an increased amount of water and seasoning, which results in a moist and tender cooked turkey.