How to Brine a Turkey

Learn the basics of brining and you'll be guaranteed the top turkey in town.
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alton-brown-good-eats-roast-turkey-recipe_s4x3

Taking on the Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t need to be intimidating. You've probably heard that basting a turkey throughout the roasting process is the best way to avoid dry meat, but it's actually better to build up the turkey's inner moisture content by soaking it in a brine before cooking begins. Brining a turkey (or any lean protein) in a simple salt and water solution tenderizes the meat while adding flavor and moisture that lasts even after roasting. Follow the steps below to make a basic brine and ensure that this year’s bird boasts the juiciest, most tender meat to ever grace the holiday table.

First Things First: Best Birds for Brining
Before brining turkey or any type of poultry, select a bird that’s labeled “natural.” Turkeys labeled “self-basting” have been injected with salt solutions or other flavoring additives, which can lead to overly salted meat if they’re then brined. If you’re new to the process or have to feed just a few guests, try brining on a smaller scale: Test-drive the turkey breast only (which is simpler and quicker due to its size).

Pick the Proper Vessel
Before starting the brine, make sure that the container that will be holding the turkey is sufficiently sized for the task. Select a large stockpot or very clean bucket with a lid, or even better, use an oversized drink cooler with a spout for draining the brine. A drink cooler is especially well insulated and will help keep the turkey cool throughout the brining process. If you're not using an insulated cooler, the brining container must be able to fit in a refrigerator, or you'll have to monitor its temperature regularly to make sure the turkey stays cool enough during its soak. 

The Day Before: Time to Brine
You’ll want to submerge your turkey in brine a solid day before you roast it to allow the bird enough time to become thoroughly saturated. You can make the brine itself two or three days ahead and keep it in the fridge to chill. At its most basic, a brine consists purely of salt and water. The typical ratio is one cup of salt for every gallon of water. To determine the amount of brine that you’ll need, place the turkey in the brining container, add water to cover it completely and then measure the water after removing the turkey. Kosher salt is the best choice to use, but you can substitute table salt as well. Just use half the amount of table salt, as the smaller grains fit much more densely into a measuring cup than larger-grained kosher salt. The salt in the brine changes the muscle structure of the meat, allowing it to absorb an increased amount of water and seasoning, which results in a moist and tender cooked turkey.

Select Special Seasonings
Here’s the fun part: Add flavor and flair to the brine with a range of seasonings, from the simple addition of sugar (to balance out the salt) to a creative collection of herbs and spices. Sweet options include molasses, honey or agave while savory selections range from soy sauce, beer, peppercorns, mustard and garlic to holiday herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage or bay leaves. For even more flavor from the very start, use any type of broth (Alton’s roast turkey uses vegetable broth) as the main brining liquid instead of pure water.

Definitely Dissolve
Before adding the turkey to the brine, stir the mixture extremely well and check that the salt is fully dissolved. Adding the salt to boiling water will speed up this process, but then you’ll need extra time to cool the brine down completely (with ice or in the fridge) before the turkey can be submerged. Another way to ensure that the salt dissolves more quickly is to grind kosher salt in a food processor to reduce the size of the grains.

Chill Out
Once the brine is chilled, place the turkey with the breast side down in the liquid, as that’s the area that tends to dry out the most when cooked. Weigh it down with a plate or other heavy object to make sure that it’s completely submerged and cover the container with a lid. It’s crucial to keep the turkey cool during its swim, so monitor the temperature, keeping it below 40 degrees F at all times. If the container fits in a refrigerator, leave it there, or keep it in a cool area and add ice or frozen bottles of water to the brine to keep the temperature consistent. Frozen bottles or ice packs in plastic bags are preferred, as ice cubes will melt and dilute the brine. Flip the turkey halfway through brining so that all of the meat receives the same amount of saturation.

Turkey Timetable
Plan on brining a whole turkey for one hour per every pound of meat, but if that’s not possible, even just one hour of brining will make a difference in the meat’s moisture content. The first time around, it’s best to brine on the lower end of the time range so that the meat doesn’t turn out overly salted for your taste, and the time can always be increased on the next attempt. If you’re using turkey breasts, the brining time will obviously be greatly reduced, to even as little as 45 minutes.

Rinse and Pat Procedure
Once the turkey is removed from the brine, rinse it well under cold water, including the cavity. Then pat the outside skin and cavity dry with a paper towel to remove any extra salt. It’s important to dry the skin, as this will affect the way that the turkey browns during cooking. Finally, cook the beautifully brined bird according to your favorite method, but avoid salting the meat beforehand and don’t overcook it, as brined turkey cooks faster than its unbrined feathered friends.

Pick a Recipe
Now that you’ve got the brining basics down, try out these chef-approved recipes and produce the best possible bird for your festive feast.

Watch and Learn
Got more bird-related queries on the brain? Cooking Channel chefs show you how to build their favorite brines.
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Aarón Sanchez

The co-star of the hit series Heat Seekers and Food Network AND rsquo;s Chopped Aar AND oacute;n Sanchez is the executive chef and co-owner of Centrico Restaurant and Mestizo By Aar AND oacute;n S AND aacute;nchez. He is also the culinary visionary behind Tacombi Tacqueria and Crossroads at House of Blues.

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