Giving your Thanksgiving bird a bath in salt water isn't complicated—simply follow our step-by-step guide, which also includes the ingredients and tools you need to get this pre-roast task done.
Turkey in brine bag
Credit: John Kernick

Turkey is a relatively lean bird, and the breast-to-leg ratio isn't ideal: By the time the dark meat is cooked through, the breast meat may have overcooked. For many home chefs, wet brining is one way to counteract the dryness. The process—soaking the turkey in a saline solution prior to cooking—helps the turkey take in extra moisture, resulting in moist and juicy dark and light meat.

What You Need to Know Before You Brine

Giving your Thanksgiving turkey a bath in salt water isn't complicated, but there a few things to keep in mind before you start the brining process.

Plan Ahead

Perhaps the most important part of brining is planning ahead. Not only does the process take anywhere from 8 to 18 hours, but making the solution itself can be time-consuming, too. 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.


When you begin the brining process, set a timer or reminder to remove the turkey from the salt solution. Brining for 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.

Brine Upgrades

In its most basic form, the brine is salt and water—but many cooks don't stop there. Aromatics will add flavor and dimension to the cooked turkey; classic vegetables, like carrots and celery, your favorite herbs, like fresh garlic, and citrus fruits, such as lemon and orange, are all good additions.

rosemary thanksgiving spices onion garlic bay leaf

Brining Ingredients and Materials

This recipe makes enough brine for one 18- to 20-pound turkey.


  • 7 quarts (28 cups) water
  • 1 1/2 cups coarse salt
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon dried juniper berries
  • 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 fresh whole turkey (18 to 20 pounds), patted dry, neck and giblets reserved for stock, liver reserved for stuffing
  • 1 bottle dry riesling
  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme

Tools and Materials

  • 5-gallon brining container (tub, stockpot, or bucket)
  • Large brining or oven-roasting bag
  • Refrigerator (or a cooler with ice)
sliced roast turkey on a platter

How to Brine a Turkey

Step 1: Make the Brine

One day before roasting your turkey, bring 1 quart water, the salt, bay leaves, and spices to a simmer, stirring until salt has dissolved. Let cool for 5 minutes.

brining a turkey in white pot

Step 2: Submerge the Turkey

Line the container with a large brining or oven-roasting bag to minimize cleanup.

  • Line a 5-gallon container with a large brining or oven-roasting bag. Place the turkey in the bag.
  • Add salt mixture, remaining 6 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 the 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.

raw turkey before roasting thanksgiving

Step 3: Remove and Dry

Remove the turkey from the brine 1 hour before you're ready to roast it. Pat it dry inside and out.

roast turkey thermometer

Step 4: Roast

Let the brined turkey stand for up to one hour before roasting it following your recipe's specifications. Try our Perfect Roast Turkey or Roasted Heritage Turkey.


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