A basic turkey brine recipe is a simple way to add flavor to turkey or any poultry. Follow these easy steps for how to brine a turkey for juicy and perfectly cooked holiday birds every time. But first, let’s talk about what a brine is.
We have cooked thousands of turkeys over the years between catering and our cookbook and we have learned that brining is a key technique when cooking poultry low and slow. You can also check out our guide on your first smoked turkey if researching the best tips for smoking a bird.
What is a Brine?
Brining is using a ratio of salt and water to add flavor to a meat. There are two types of brines.
- Wet Brine – Using liquid and other flavor elements and submersing the meat into the brine.
- Dry Brine – Using salt and other herbs and spices without a liquid and applied directly to the meat.
What Does a Brine Do?
The process of osmosis occurs, which allows the salt solution in the brine to pass through the cells of the meat, adding moisture and flavor into the meat.
The Reason This Works
A brine is not necessary, but a brine is especially helpful in adding flavor and moisture to lean meats, including turkey and chicken. There are some cooking techniques that also are enhanced by a brine, like smoking turkey. Because of the longer cooking time, there is a greater chance of the meat drying out, which is why we recommended making a brine for turkey or poultry.
Be sure to start with a thawed turkey. If it’s frozen it takes longer to first defrost and then take on the brine. So be sure to start with a thawed turkey.
Chef’s Tip: Be sure the turkey or poultry is not pre-brined, soaked in salt solution, or its equivalent. Pre-brined poultry won’t take on additional flavor.
Start with understanding how big the turkey is that is going to be brined. Next, be sure you have a vessel large enough to hold the brine and the turkey. If you do not have a large stock pot, alternatives for storing the brine include:
- Using a Brine Bag – These are large plastic bags that contain the liquid and the meat and seal up like a large Ziploc bag.
- Use a Cooler – A cooler is another alternative for storing a brine. Make the brine in a pot, and then transfer to a clean cooler and add the turkey.
- Use a Bucket – Using a food safe bucket add the brine and protein.
Regardless of the technique, if you don’t have a large enough stock pot, grab a brine bag, and then use one of the alternative vessels.
Finally, be sure it stays cool. Add ice outside the bag so the ice does not melt and dilute the brine (this is, of course, if you’re not storing it in the refrigerator as seen in the photo above). Keep the temperature of the brine under 40 degrees Fahrenheit for food safety purposes.
How to Brine a Turkey
- Start with water. Measure out 8 quarts and add to a large stock pot. If you only have smaller pots, you can split the recipe in half and then make two versions and combine in the storage vessel.
- Next add kosher salt. Kosher salt is key. We use a salt ratio of ¾ cups salt for every 4 quarts of water. Taste the water (before raw meat immersed), it should taste like ocean salt water.
- Add sugar to offset the salt. Our ratio for sugar is ¼ cup sugar for every 4 quarts.
- Finally add the remaining ingredients you would like in the brine. Citrus, onion, and spices are great additions and will add aromatics to the brine and the flavor of the turkey. Cut up the citrus and onion so more surface area of the ingredient is exposed to the water and adding flavor.
A brine is a blank canvass add or subtract the following based on your preference. Remember that the kosher salt and sugar are the two most important ingredients. Everything else is added flavor and aromatics.
- Whole Pepper Corns
- Red Chili Pepper Flakes
- Bay Leaves
- Alcohol (like Bourbon)
- Fresh or Dried Herbs
- Juice (apple juice is a nice addition)
Frequently Asked Questions
Turkey is best brined for a minimum of 12 hours and no more than 36 hours. Our sweet spot is 24 hours. If the turkey is left in too long, the cells will start to break down and the texture will start to harden and become gummy after the turkey is cooked.
No. It’s not necessary, but patting the turkey dry with paper towels and removing any leftover brine ingredients from the turkey is helpful prior to adding a dry rub. When smoking a turkey, a dry turkey is important to achieving crispy skin.
It is not recommended to re-use a brine based upon the contamination with raw poultry. This is true even if boiling.
Recipes Using a Brine
- Bourbon Brined Smoked Turkey
- Dry Brined Smoked Chicken and Carolina Glaze
- Turkey Breast with Maple Glaze
- Smoked Cajun Spatchcocked Turkey
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Basic Turkey Brine Recipe
- 8 quarts water
- 1 ½ cups kosher salt
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 2 oranges, quartered
- 2 lemons, quartered
- 1 red onion, quartered
- ¼ cup whole peppercorns
- 4 dry bay leaves
- 5 whole dried cloves, (optional)
- 1 cup Bourbon or Whiskey, (optional, for added flavor)
- In a large stock pot add water, salt, and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt in the water.
- Add remaining ingredients, squeeze the citrus to add to the flavor and stir.
- Add 12 – 16 pound turkey to the stock pot and cover. Brine for 24 – 30 hours to maximize flavor.