Brining your turkey will take it from “just okay” to “now, that’s a great turkey!”.
It’s a step that many people overlook or ignore, but I’m a firm believer in brining if you want a juicy and flavorful turkey.
I think we all probably have at least one core memory of biting into a hunk of turkey as a kid and feeling like we were just spoon-fed wood pulp from a lumberjack. I always thought that’s why gravy was invented. To save the poor bird.
However, when I started to brine, I realized those birds in the past needlessly suffered. I find the flavors and succulence of the meat, especially in the traditional dryer areas like the turkey breast, are greatly amplified.
This ridiculous easy turkey brine recipe for smoking makes all the difference. Your Thanksgiving table won’t be the same again!
What is a brine?
At the simplest level, a brine is a measured amount of salt dissolved in water. However, there are plenty of flavor options you can add.
- Do you want it sweet? Try some brown sugar in the mix.
- Do you want it spicy? Throw in some cayenne.
- Do you want some citrus notes? Add some orange, lemon, or even grapefruit.
- Feeling festive? Go with rosemary and cranberries.
The nice thing about a brine is that the recipe is pretty forgiving. Even though the brine liquid itself is strong, it soaks into the meat smoothly, adding those subtleties and nuances that make for a great bite of delicious turkey.
I used this brine recipe for my pellet grill smoked turkey recipe.
What’s the difference between a wet brine and a dry brine?
This is a wet brine recipe. This means the turkey is submerged in salted water for 24 hours. A dry brine is a wet brine without the water. You rub the turkey with salt (and other ingredients), which absorbs into the meat overnight.
Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to dry brine a turkey.
Pros and cons of brining
The brine is like turkey spa day before hitting the heat. It should moisten the meat all the way through, preventing those easily overcooked areas from becoming dry.
Now, there are some negatives to using a turkey brine:
- You have to get the balance of salt right. Too little and you will just have a wet bird. Too much and your guests will be rushing for water.
- Time and effort. A good brine should last from 8 to 24 hours. Any longer and the texture of the skin can deteriorate.
- General messiness and hassle of making the brine and finding a suitable vessel for the bird to sit in.
Also, note that the time and the strength of the brine should correlate, just like with a marinade. Use a stronger brine for less time and vice versa.
What you need to make a turkey brine
As mentioned, your turkey brine can take on whatever flavor profile you like. In this instance, we’re going for a festive blend of savory, sweet, and citrus notes. Trust us, the different flavors blend together seamlessly. It’s a brine that works perfectly for a Thanksgiving turkey and one my family uses every year without fail.
- Salt and black pepper: We use Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. But you can also use whole peppercorns.
- Brown sugar
- Citrus: Oranges and lemons cut into wedges. But feel free to swap the oranges for clementines if you prefer.
- Fresh garlic cloves
- Fresh herbs: We’re using rosemary sprigs and thyme, but other popular options include sage and coriander.
- Large pot to make the brine.
- A brining container.
What’s the best vessel to brine in?
Depending on the size of your turkey, you may have some trouble finding a container large enough to hold the whole turkey and brine in. If you have a smaller turkey, a brining bag works great. Just put the turkey and brine in the bag, tie it closed, and refrigerate.
If you do use a bag, place the turkey inside breast side down. Then at about hour 18 of 24, flip the turkey in the bag for maximum impact.
A food-safe 5-gallon bucket, stock pot, or container may also be a good option to brine the turkey. If you can find room in your fridge to house something that tall or wide, that is.
My personal favorite vessel for wet brining turkey though? A cooler.
With a cooler, I have plenty of space for any size turkey. With some ice on top, I can also leave it there overnight. This leaves room in my fridge for other Thanksgiving necessities.
How to brine a turkey
1. Heat water
Grab a large pot and heat one gallon of water on the stovetop.
2. Add brine ingredients
Once the water heats, place all the turkey brine ingredients in the pot. Constantly stir until the sugar and salt have both dissolved.
3. Add cold water
Remove the pot from the heat and add a gallon of cold water. This helps cool the brine down to room temperature. If it’s still hot you can add ice to cool it down faster.
If you plan on using ice to cool down your brine, it will dilute it some. So make sure you start with less water or increase the ingredients in the brine mix to make it more concentrated.
If you don’t let the brine cool completely, the heat will start cooking the meat. You don’t want boiled turkey for Thanksgiving!
3. Combine turkey and brine
Place the turkey in the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. If your turkey is too big to fit in a container in the fridge or a brining bag, remember a cooler filled with the brine and a bag of ice is a great alternative.
4. Remove turkey from brine
Once your 24 hours are up, you can remove the brined turkey and pat it dry with a few paper towels. There’s no need to rinse the turkey before cooking. Patting it dry ensures you get a delicious golden brown crispy skin.
Now you’re ready to make a smoked turkey.
Turkey brine FAQs
What is the best turkey for brining?
Ideally, you want to brine a fresh turkey. This is because most frozen turkeys are pre-salted. Look out for terms like “kosher” or “enhanced” if you’re unsure. You just don’t want to add more salt on top of this. An organic frozen turkey is usually a safe bet, but make sure it’s thawed before brining.
How long should you brine a turkey?
Turkey brining should last for at least 18 hours, but up to 24 hours. The larger the bird, the longer you should brine it. We recommend brining for a maximum of 24 hours though.
Can you brine a turkey for too long?
Yes, you don’t want to leave your uncooked turkey in the brine for longer than 24 hours. This will make your turkey taste too salty.
Do you rinse turkey after brining?
When you are ready to cook the turkey, you should remove it from the brine liquid and wipe it dry with a few paper towels. There’s no need to wash the meat before cooking.
In fact, washing the turkey has been proven to spread bacteria to other surfaces in your kitchen.
Is sugar required for a brine?
No, sugar isn’t mandatory. But we like to add brown sugar to our easy turkey brine recipe because it enhances the turkey’s flavor and encourages better skin browning come cooking time.
Can you make the brine in advance?
Yes, you can cook the brine a few days ahead of time. Keep it stored in an airtight container in the fridge until brining time. Making it in advance also means you don’t have to wait for it to cool down.
Can you make gravy from a brined turkey?
Yes, you can still make gravy from brined turkey drippings. But it will be saltier, so you probably won’t need to add more salt. If it’s too salty, add water or unsalted stock to balance out the flavors.
Does brining a turkey really make a difference?
Yes, it really does. It results in a juicy turkey that’s literally bursting with so much flavor. You’ll just have to try it yourself to see the difference.
Recipes to use this brine with
You can use this brine solution for any of our whole turkey recipes or use it to add extra flavor to wings, breasts, or legs. Here are just some of our favorite turkey recipes:
- Smoked Spatchcock Turkey Recipe
- The Best Deep-Fried Turkey Recipe
- Easy Smoked Turkey Breast: Texas-Style
- How to Smoke Turkey on a Pellet Grill
- Smoked Turkey Wings
- Smoked Turkey Legs
The BEST Turkey Brine Recipe for Juicy and Flavorful turkey
- 2 gallons water
- 1½ cups Kosher salt
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 3 tbsp black pepper
- 3 oranges cut into wedges
- 3 lemons cut into wedges
- 5 cloves garlic
- 4 tbsp fresh rosemary
- 4 tbsp fresh thyme
- Heat one gallon of water.
- Place all ingredients into water and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved.
- Pour in the other gallon of cold water to help cool down the brine to room temperature. If it's still hot you can add ice to cool down faster.
- Add turkey to brine and refrigerate for 24 hours.
- Remove turkey from brine and pat dry. There is no need to rinse the turkey.