You can permanently say goodbye to dried-out, flavorless turkey with this easy turkey brine recipe! By following these step-by-step directions for how to brine a turkey, you will guarantee that your turkey is juicy, tender, and full of flavor.
Why Brine a Turkey?
Turkey has the reputation of being a dry, flavorless meat that needs to be slathered in turkey gravy to even be edible. But you can change that by first soaking your turkey in a brine.
Brining is the process of soaking meat in a saltwater solution before cooking. As the meat sits in the brine, it soaks up the salt water, which flavors the meat and adds moisture to the piece of meat.
When you brine a turkey, it soaks up the brine, which flavors the meat and helps to ensure that your turkey meat stays incredibly moist. In fact, a brined turkey is so juicy and so flavorful it does not even need gravy!
Notes on Ingredients and Equipment
I was first inspired by Alton Brown's turkey brine recipe, decades ago when I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. However, I have simplified his recipe and method for making a turkey brine to make it more affordable for the everyday cook. My method for preparing a turkey brine produces just as delicious roast turkey as Alton Brown's method but saves you tons of money as there is no need for any special or expensive ingredients.
- Kosher salt: Lots of salt! That is what flavors and tenderizes the meat. It is key!
- Brown Sugar: Brown sugar dissolves in the brine perfectly to add a bit of sweetness to the turkey.
- Vegetables: Celery and onions are key to adding flavor to the turkey brine. You can also opt to add in a carrot or two if desired.
- Apple: While it sounds odd, adding a sliced apple really helps to add a hint of sweetness to the turkey. Use any variety of apples you have on hand for this recipe.
- Spices/Herbs: I recommend using peppercorns, fresh rosemary, and garlic. You can also opt to add fresh thyme and dried bay leaves if desired.
- Water: You can use either water, apple juice, apple cider, chicken stock, turkey stock, or vegetable broth for your turkey brine. I find the difference in flavor to be negligible so I stick with water to cut down on the overall cost.
- Turkey: Before you proceed with preparing your turkey brine, keep in mind that this works best on a fresh turkey. You can use a frozen turkey, keep in mind that most frozen turkeys have been injected with a sodium solution before being frozen. That will inhibit the turkey from fully absorbing the brine. That said, even a previously frozen turkey will taste better after soaking it in this turkey brine.
- Stock Pan: You will need a large pot to prepare the turkey brine. If your pan is large enough to fit your turkey and brine AND fit in your refrigerator, you can use the pan to brine your turkey rather than a brining bag.
- Brining Bag or An Extra Large Ziploc Big Bag: If you have a large turkey, it is unlikely that your turkey and brine will fit into a pan that can fit into your refrigerator. Therefore, you will need a turkey brining bag to brine your turkey. If you can't find a brining bag large enough for your turkey, I have used an extra large Ziploc bag that holds the turkey in the brine and is easy to find and inexpensive.
How to Brine a Turkey
The following tips are provided to help you achieve perfect results. You will find the detailed instructions in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
Step One: Prepare the Turkey Brine
Two days before roasting your turkey, make your turkey brine. This will give the brine time to cool fully and save you time the night before your holiday.
Step Two: Brine Turkey
Before placing your turkey into the brine, remove and discard the packaging. Remove the gizzards and neck from the turkey cavity and plastic pop-up timer, if included. Refrigerate the turkey in the brine for at least 8 hours, and no longer than 18 hours.
Step Three: Remove Turkey from the Brine
Before removing your turkey from the brine, prepare your kitchen to prevent contamination. Remove any food or clean dishes from around your sink and place a trash can and roasting pan near the sink. This will make the clean-up process much easier to manage.
Step Four: Roast the Brined Turkey
You can opt to smoke, slow cook, or roast your turkey. My favorite method for cooking turkey is to roast it in the oven, as it allows the skin to get golden and crisp and keeps the meat nice and juicy.
Short on Time?
If you forgot to make your turkey brine in advance, you are not out of luck. Prepare the brine as directed and add 10 cups of ice to the prepared brine. It is crucial to cool the brine completely before adding the turkey. Adding a turkey to a hot brine will begin to cook the turkey and can cause bacteria growth.
Pro-Tips for the Best Brined Turkey
- Remember it is best to use a fresh turkey. A frozen turkey has been injected with a sodium solution, that will prevent the turkey from fully absorbing the brine. That said, I have brined a frozen turkey before and it still tastes better than NOT if you don't brine it.
- I prefer to place the turkey in the brining bag in either a large stock pan or in an empty produce drawer in my fridge. That way in case anything leaks from the brine, everything else in your fridge is safe from raw turkey juices.
- The turkey and brine can be quite heavy! Remember that you may need two people or a strong set of arms to carry the turkey in the brine to the sink.
- Money-Saving Tip: In the weeks leading up to the time when I plan to brine a turkey, I store vegetable and fruit scraps, along with wilted herbs in a large freezer-safe bag in the freezer. Onion peels, celery ends, apple cores/peels, orange peels, wilted herbs, stems of rosemary, and thyme are all perfect for flavoring your turkey brine. Use 4 cups of vegetable scraps in place of the fresh vegetables, herbs, and apples in the brine.
- No room in your fridge? If you live in an area with a temperature that will stay below 40 degrees F, you can place your turkey and brine in a large cooler and place the turkey outside in the cold. Keep in mind, that this is NOT safe if the temperature reaches above 40 degrees F. You also run the risk of the turkey partially freezing if the temperature is below 31 degrees F for long. I personally feel much safer ensuring there is room inside my refrigerator to accommodate the turkey and brine.
- Sanitize everything! After handling the raw turkey, be sure to sanitize your sink and counters with bleach to prevent food poisoning.
Can you Brine a Frozen Turkey?
Yes! Even if your frozen turkey has been previously injected with a sodium solution, the brine will still add a bit of flavor to your turkey. That said, you MUST fully defrost your turkey before you brine it. You need to be able to remove the giblets and neck from the cavity of the turkey before you brine it. Remember to plan on a full 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey for thawing your turkey.
Complete Your Meal
- Green Bean Casserole from Scratch
- Twice Baked Butternut Squash
- Green Beans Almondine
- Corn Casserole
- Homemade Pumpkin Pie
If you tried this turkey brine recipe, I would love for you to leave a comment and review below.
How to Brine a Turkey + Easy Turkey Brine Recipe
- 1 cup kosher salt NO exceptions
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 sprigs fresh Rosemary
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 4-5 cloves garlic peeled
- 1 tablespoon peppercorns
- 2 large onions peeled and cut in half
- 5 stalkes celery
- 1 large apple sliced
- 10-12 cups water plus an additional 1 gallon of water for the brining process
Turkey Brine Recipe (Prepare 24 hours before cooking turkey)
- Place the salt, sugar, herbs, peppercorns, carrots, onions, celery, and apples into a large stock pan. Cover with cold, filtered water or chicken/turkey stock.
- Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until sugar and salt have dissolved in water into the brine.
- Remove the brine from the heat and let the brine cool for 30 minutes at room temperature and then cover and transfer it to the refrigerator to cool fully.
- At this point, you can strain off the solids from your brine. I typically leave them in the brine and then discard them with the brining bag in the morning after removing the turkey from the brine. The choice is completely yours.
How to Brine a Turkey
- On the night before you plan to roast your turkey, remove the turkey from the packaging, and discard the packaging, pop-up thermometer, gizzards, and neck from the cavity of the turkey.
- Place the turkey into the brining bag or large stock pan and pour the brining liquid over the turkey into the bag.
- Add additional cold water to cover the turkey completely in liquid. This is about 1 gallon of cold water.
- Seal the brining bag, and place it into a container (such as a large pan or an empty produce drawer) to prevent cross-contamination if your turkey brine bag were to leak. Refrigerate the turkey in the brine for at least 8 hours or up to 18 hours.
- Before roasting the turkey, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse off the excess salt on the turkey. Blot the turkey dry with paper towels.
- Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F.
- Roast the turkey on the lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 161 degrees F. A 14 to 16-pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 ½ hours of roasting. If needed, tent the turkey breasts with foil if you notice they are browning too quickly.
- Remove the turkey from the oven after it reaches the desired temperature and let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil for 15 minutes before carving.
This post was published originally in 2017 but has been updated with new tips in November 2019 and new photos in 2023.