Brining makes a moist, juicy turkey that they’ll never stop talking about. Especially if you’re cooking your holiday turkey on the grill or smoker, wet brine first. We show you how to brine a turkey before roasting or grilling.
What is brining a turkey?
Applying salt to a turkey with either a wet brine saltwater solution, or by rubbing salt on the bird as a dry brine, tenderizes the meat making it moist, and adds flavor.
It keeps the meat from drying out when cooking, resulting in a juicy turkey. This is especially necessary when smoking or grilling a turkey.
You can brine a turkey breast, or a whole bird.
How does brining a turkey make it moist?
Fine Cooking says, “The concentration of salt in the brine is more dilute than the protein-rich liquid inside the meat cells, and so the brine moves into the flesh. There, the water from the brine bonds to the proteins, resulting in juicier meats. As salt enters the meat cells, it alters the structure of the muscle fibers and proteins, swelling their water-holding capacity by about 10 percent. Since most meat loses about 20 percent of its moisture during cooking, brining meat can cut moisture losses by almost half.“
How to wet brine a turkey in 5 easy steps.
1. Start with a thawed turkey.
Turkey must be completely thawed.
Don’t use a self-basting turkey. It will be too salty.
Clean out the giblets & neck.
Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Make the salt solution.
The rule of thumb for turkey brine is two cups of kosher salt to two gallons of water. Add sweeteners to balance the saltiness. Create a signature turkey by using other liquids with the water and flavorings.
Do you want to add other flavorings?
When you get hooked on using a turkey brine to serve the moistest turkey ever (and you will), you can try different flavorings to create a signature turkey for your holiday dinners or 4th of July cookout.
Start with a liquid flavoring. The rule of thumb is 1 cup of liquid per gallon, but you can replace some or all of the salt solution.
Add other flavorings, if you wish. Here are a few suggestions.
Dissolve kosher salt and sugar, if using, in a gallon of warm water.
(How many gallons of water will you need to cover your turkey breast or bird? Dissolve 1 cup kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar for every gallon.)
If an egg floats, you know you have enough salt.
Boil for 5 minutes. Add your liquids and flavorings. Allow to cool completely before using.
Try our turkey brine recipes, especially if it is your first time brining a turkey.
Want to use prepared brine seasonings? Try 5280 Culinary brine mixes.
To cook a 6-8 lb turkey breast, use 1/3 of a package with 2 quarts of water and follow same brining directions.
3. Choose the correct container.
You need the right container for your turkey brine:
- non-corrosive so it’s not affected by the saltwater
- big enough for turkey to be fully submerged in brine
- small enough to fit in your fridge
The best choice is to use an enamel coated or stainless steel stock pot, or a roasting pan in your fridge.
If the turkey is too big for your cooking pots, you can put it and the brine in a brining bag in the fridge. Most bags will hold 20-25 lbs, which is total for bird & brine.
Flip the brining bag halfway through to ensure even brining.
If your turkey is too big for the fridge, you can use a plastic bucket. Put ice in a plastic bag to keep it from watering down the brine.
Keep brine & turkey under 40° F. Change the ice when necessary to keep it cold and submerged.
If the turkey is too big for your fridge or a plastic bucket, you can use a cooler.
Put bags of ice in the cooler to keep the turkey and the brine below 40° F, and so it doesn’t water down the brine.
5. Soak the turkey in brine for 8 – 24 hours.
- Don’t over-brine – turkey will become mushy. Less than 24 hours is a must!
- Don’t forget to check the brine temperature periodically. Both the turkey and the brine must keep under 40° F to be free of food poisoning bacteria.
How to Cook a Brined Turkey
How to Roast a Brined Turkey
Roast a brined turkey as usual with a few exceptions:
- don’t stuff the turkey – it will be too salty
- don’t use salted butter to baste
- don’t use seasonings with salt
- don’t salt the gravy at all; if it’s too salty add a pinch of brown sugar to counteract the saltiness, or add some heavy cream
How to BBQ a brined Turkey
You can barbecue your turkey the way you usually would, but here are recommendations from the pros who know.
Spatchcocking (splitting, then flattening) the turkey makes it grill evenly, with crisp skin. Martha Stewart shows how to spatchcock here.
Whether you spatchcock your turkey or not, the best way to grill a turkey is by using the 2 Zone Fire method. It is exactly what it sounds like – a grilling surface that is separated into to areas:
- one high-heat side with charcoal directly under the grates
- one low-heat side with no charcoal under the grates, using indirect heat
(This can be accomplished on electric & gas barbecues by having the burners on one side turned off.)
Barbecuing on the low-heat side allows you to cook slowly without fear of burning. It’s like using a convection oven. Place the darker meat towards the hottest part of your two-zone grill. That way, the leaner white meat will not dry out and the chicken will cook consistently. For more information, see How to Grill Like a Pitmaster: BBQ Tips from Chris Lilly.
Want more? See all of our side dish recipes.
Want some ideas to serve as side dishes to your roast, steak, pork chops or turkey? See our side dish recipes! Easy step by step instructions.
Want even more? See our new turkey dinner recipes.
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