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How to Brine a Turkey {Wet Brine}

Stockpot full of turkey brine.

Brining your turkey promises a juicy and flavorful feast every time. This recipe brings apple cider, citrus, and fresh herbs to the pot for something extra.

No matter how much we love those carb-y sides, there’s no denying that the turkey is the holiday centerpiece. And the pressure to make it good is real. If you serve it dry and flavorless, your family will never let you live it down. Which is why I swear by brining. Whether I’m working with a full bird or just a turkey breast, brining has become my go-to method. Because, in the event that things do get a little hectic in the kitchen and you slightly overcook the turkey, a brined turkey will retain the moisture that’s needed in order to be the succulent star it should be.

Why brine a turkey?

There’s no better way to guarantee yourself a tender and juicy bird than to give it a soak in a salt bath. Poultry lacks the fat that pork and beef have—the fat that adds flavor and locks in juices during the cooking process. So it needs help, and marinating isn’t the answer. (America’s Test Kitchen confirmed that marinating poultry does nothing.) But brining? Brining is our friend! It breaks down the strands of protein in the meat over time making it incredibly tender. It also increases flavor absorption and moisture retention. There are two ways to brine a turkey: with a wet brine or a dry brine. In this post, I’m going to tell you how to rock a wet brine.

How long should you brine a turkey?

Based on personal experience, my rule of thumb is an hour per pound. If you’re cooking a simple three pound breast, brine it for three hours; an entire bird will need to be brined overnight. Just don’t overdo it. Over-brining will leave the meat way too salty and it will lose quality in its texture.

What ingredients do you use in a turkey brine?

Photo of brine ingredients scattered over a surface.

The main ingredients are salt (lots of it) and cold water. But adding sweeteners and acidity cuts the saltiness to balance things out. Here’s a list of ingredients you can consider in order to get creative:

Fresh herbs. I like to use the prepackaged “poultry blend” herbs, which include fresh sprigs of rosemary, thyme, and parsley. You can also throw in some sage, oregano, and a few bay leaves.

Citrus fruit. I’m pretty devoted to oranges and lemons when it comes to brining turkey. Depending on the recipe and how you’ll be seasoning it, limes could also work. Make sure to use the fruits in their entirety! Squeeze the juices from the fruit, then plop the remains into the brine. This really brightens up the flavors.

Spices. Other than the obvious salt, I like to add whole tricolor peppercorns to the brine. You could also throw in cinnamon sticks, anise, cardamom pods, or cloves, depending on what you’re going for.

Sweeteners. Adding sugar is important. Again, it balances out the saltiness. I always go for brown sugar.

Other liquids. I love cooking with apple cider throughout the cooler months, and this is the perfect opportunity to do it. Most brine recipes that I’ve stumbled upon that use cider use a pretty minimal amount. I’ve gone as far as to use an entire gallon before, and it was fantastic! So don’t be shy. You can also use a splash of Worcestershire sauce or a bit of wine. If you’re brining a summer-inspired dish, using some orange or pineapple juice could be a fun experiment.

Garlic. There’s always room for garlic. I use a generous amount of cloves and smash them before dropping them into the brine. Smashing the cloves releases a stronger flavor. You could also include onions.

What kind of container should you use?

When it comes to choosing a container, you want to consider material and size. Make sure the container is made up of a non-corrosive material such as stainless steel, plastic, glass, or something enamel-coated. The most ideal container would be a large stock pot, a bucket, plastic tub or container, or a large plastic brining bag. As for the size of the container, you’ll want something big enough to comfortably fit your bird, but small enough to fit in your refrigerator.

How do you cook a brined turkey?

Close up of sliced tender turkey.

Remove the turkey from the brine prior to cooking. Carefully rinse it under cold tap water, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a large plate or cooking vessel. You can use a dry rub at this point to season the outside, but keep in mind that the turkey is already salty, so go lightly. At our house, we’ve used this brine for roasting and smoking, and both have turned out amazingly.

If you plan on making a gravy with pan drippings, make sure the ingredients you use for it—like spices or butter—don’t have any added salt. I wouldn’t recommend stuffing a brined bird as you risk having an over-salted stuffing.

How to Brine a Turkey {Wet Brine}

Brining your turkey promises a tender, juicy, and flavorful feast every time. This recipe brings apple cider, citrus, and fresh herbs to the pot for something extra.

Ingredients

For 12-16 lb turkey (see notes for turkey breast).

  • 2 gallons water (or 1 gallon of water and 1 gallon of apple cider)
  • 1.5 cups coarse kosher salt or coarse sea salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 orange, juiced and halved
  • 1 lemon, juiced and halved
  • 8 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 2 oranges, juiced and halved
  • 2 lemons, juiced and halved
  • 4 TBSP full peppercorns
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 6 sprigs of fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, and parsley

Instructions

  • Fill a large stock pot with water, salt, and brown sugar. Add the smashed garlic cloves. Bring the contents to a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add the herbs and peppercorn. Then, squeeze the juice from the orange and lemon into the pot (don't worry about the pits); place the squeezed orange and lemon into the pot as well. Remove the pot from the heat and let the liquid cool. (Speed up the process by adding ice to the stock pot). Once the brine is cool, carefully place the turkey into it. Or, if you're brining in a different container, transfer the brine to that container and carefully place the turkey into that one. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours, but no longer than 18 hours (again, based on a 12-16 lb turkey. Use the hour per pound rule.) When ready, carefully transfer the turkey from the brine to a large platter or cooking vessel. Rinse it under cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Season it as you wish, but keep in mind that the turkey is pretty salty as is, so go lightly.

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