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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
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.
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.
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.
No Time To Brine? Try These Recipes Instead
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.