Giving your Thanksgiving bird a bath in salt water isn't complicated, but there a few things to know before you start the brining process. Here, we outline exactly how to brine a turkey for delicious results. Follow our instructions to prepare a perfectly brined turkey and download our complete turkey guide for more Thanksgiving tips.
Turkey is a relatively lean bird, and the breast-to-leg ratio isn't ideal (i.e., by the time the dark meat is cooked through, the breast meat may have overcooked). For many home cooks, brining is one way to counteract the dryness. The process—soaking the turkey in a saline solution prior to cooking it—helps the turkey take in extra moisture, resulting in moist and juicy dark and light meat.
Perhaps the most important part of brining is planning ahead. Not only does the brining itself take anywhere from eight to 18 hours, but making the solution can also take awhile. You'll want the salt to dissolve into the water—and a reliable way to ensure that happens is by heating the water and simmering it until the salt is completely absorbed. Then, you need to cool the brine to room temperature before using it, since pouring hot or warm brine over a raw turkey can cause bacteria growth. One more note on time: Set a timer or reminder to take the turkey out of the brine. Brining too long can result in meat that tastes overly salty and has a spongy texture. If you're not ready to roast the bird after 18 hours, remove it from the brine, rinse it, pat it dry and refrigerate for up to two days.
As for what to add to the brine? The minimum is salt and water, but many cooks don't stop there. Aromatics will add flavor and dimension to the cooked turkey, and can including classic vegetables like carrots and celery, your favorite herbs, fresh garlic, and citrus fruits such as lemon and orange.
To minimize cleanup, line a five-gallon container with a large brining or oven-roasting bag. Place turkey in bag. Add salt mixture, remaining six quarts (24 cups) water, and the other ingredients. Tie bag; if turkey is not submerged, weight it with a plate. Refrigerate for 24 hours, flipping turkey once.
If there isn't room in your refrigerator, place the bagged bird inside a cooler, and surround it with ice, replenishing as necessary to keep it at 40 degrees.