Turkey can be a hard main dish to prepare because it is such a lean animal — plus, it can be extra tricky because oftentimes by the time the dark meat is done, the white meat is overcooked. This Thanksgiving, why not try one of the best ways to ensure that your turkey comes out perfectly moist and juicy — brine.
There are several steps that go into brining a turkey regardless of what recipe you’re using, so read on to find out exactly how to do it. Then at the end, we highlight our favorite turkey brine recipe to use a jumping-off point for yours.
1. Leave Plenty of Time
Brining is not a process that can be done at the last minute. A good brine should sit for at least eight hours, and honestly, it’s better if it can go from 12 to 24 hours. Also, the brine needs to be cooled so that it doesn’t cause bacteria to start growing on the turkey, so you should definitely start the entire process about two days before you want to cook your turkey.
2. Get the Proper Materials
In addition to the brine ingredients (which we’ll get to later), you need a container big enough to hold your turkey in its brining bag and a refrigerator large enough to hold the entire thing.
A brining or roasting bag is easy to come by, but what you will need in addition to that is a tub, stockpot or bucket to put the turkey in once it’s inside the bag with all the brining liquid. The container should hold at least five gallons.
Then after you have the turkey in the bag and the bag in the bucket, it needs to be kept cold. A large fridge is perfect, but one year, we didn’t actually have a refrigerator big enough, so we put the turkey bucket in our uninsulated garage for two days. Just make sure it is up and out of the way on a workbench or shelf, lest some enterprising critters get a whiff of your Thanksgiving dinner.
3. Make the Brine
Brine is basically salt water with extra ingredients added for flavor. The brine not only makes turkey juicier at the start of cooking because it has absorbed some of the liquid, but the salt actually dissolves some of the muscle fiber proteins during the brining process, which helps the meat from getting too tough while it cooks.
The most important thing with a brine is that the salt has completely dissolved in the water (or stock, if you want to add some flavor that way). The best way to ensure that happens is to boil the water and then add the salt. But then you’ll need to cool the brine off before you pour it on the turkey, so that’s another important reason to work ahead.
Now, be careful not to make your brine too salty or the meat will taste salty. A good rule of thumb is that you’ll want to use 1/3 cup of salt and 9 cups of water or stock per 5 lbs of turkey. So a 20-lb turkey would need 1 1/3 cups of salt and 36 cups of water/stock (which is approximately 2.5 gallons)
The boiling process is also when you’ll want to add your spices. Spices and aromatics can add flavor to your turkey — and they are entirely up to the chef. Common ones used in turkey brine include bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, onions, garlic cloves, thyme, and even dry white wine.
Our favorite turkey brine recipe is courtesy of the Food Network’s Alton Brown. His recipe is for a ~15-lb turkey. It calls for:
1 cup of salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 gallon of vegetable stock (or water)
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp allspice berries
1 1/2 tsp chopped candied ginger
1 gallon heavily iced water
Two days before you are going to roast your turkey, combine all the brine ingredients except the gallon of water in a stockpot and bring it to a boil until all the solids have dissolved. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.
The next day, combine the brine, gallon of water and ice in a 5-gallon bucket — line it with a brining bag for easier cleanup. Place the turkey in the liquid breast side down and if need be, weight it down with a plate to make sure the turkey is fully immersed. Leave it to brine in a refrigerator or in cool outdoor temperatures for at least eight hours, though 18 to 24 is even better. Turn the turkey over halfway through the brining process.
When you’re done brining, remove the turkey, pat it dry and let it sit for an hour before roasting. This is the point where you can stuff the turkey’s cavity with aromatics, like rosemary, sage, cinnamon, apples, etc.
Roast the turkey for 30 minutes at 500 degrees, then lower the oven temperature to 350 and roast the bird for 90 minutes more. At this point, check the turkey’s internal temperature with a meat thermometer. You want it to be at 160 degrees. Once it reaches that temperature, let the turkey rest while covered with foil for 15 minutes before carving.
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