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I love Thanksgiving and how it gives us a day together as a family to pause and reflect on all the things we’re thankful for each year. In fact, it’s not long into the Fall before I start thinking about Thanksgiving and start working on my meal plan for the big day.
I don’t start this far in advance just because I’m into planning (ok, maybe I am a little) but also because I want to have time to brine my turkey before roasting it.
If you’ve never heard of brining a turkey or skipped this step in the past, make this the year to try it! This one simple step makes the traditional turkey meal at least twice as delicious.
Why Brine a Turkey Before Roasting?
Brining involves soaking a turkey in a salt and liquid solution for at least a day prior to roasting, grilling, or frying. Brining adds flavor and moisture and helps the turkey retain flavor during cooking.
This is especially helpful if you use a pastured organic turkey from a local farm (more on that below) since they are not pre-brined like a conventional store-bought turkeys. (With a soy vegetable protein solution … no thank you!)
Brining takes a little planning ahead but really very little hands-on time, and the result is so worth it!
Ingredients for Brining a Turkey
The essential elements of brining a turkey are:
- Liquid of some kind: Water works but I like to add apple cider and bone broth for added flavor.
- Salt: The common amount is 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup per gallon of water. I personally like to use 2 gallons of liquid and 1.5 cups of salt.
- Spices: Add any spices of choice. I like to add minced garlic, cracked pepper, and thyme. I also like to add two lemons and one orange, both zested and sliced.
You can customize these elements to suit your own taste. In a pinch, just use water, salt and any spices you like.
How to Make the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey (By Giving It a Bath!)
If you’re aiming to make the the turkey the star of the show this year, great news … it takes less effort to brine a turkey than to roast one! It’s the truth!
In fact brining makes the roasting process faster and results in a juicy, moist turkey with a whole lot of flavor … not like the dry, bland turkey so many of us grew up eating at holidays.
There are several ways to brine but the main thing is to use a big airtight container that maintains a cold temperature. The two ways I have accomplished this are:
- In a large stock pot in the fridge – This only works if you have room in the fridge, and I often don’t this close to Thanksgiving. The best and easiest way I’ve ever done this was the year I did have room in the fridge and I put a frozen turkey in the brine in the fridge two days before Thanksgiving in a 5-gallon food grade bucket. It defrosted and brined in those two days and the results were great.
- In a large cooler with replenished ice – A little more work refilling with ice but gives the same results if you don’t have fridge space. Basically, put the turkey in a large air-tight bag or container of some kind and pack ice around it. Check it to make sure that it is maintaining a temperature above freezing but below 40 degrees.
No Time? Still Brine!
Extra bonus: Brining not only makes turkey moist but it also defrosts the turkey quickly! So even a still-frozen turkey only a day or two before Thanksgiving has a hope for being ready on time and seasoned to perfection. The brine actually defrosts the turkey more quickly and infuses flavor as it does.
My Favorite Turkey Brine Recipe
This is my go-to recipe and the one I am prepping for this year…
How to Brine a Turkey (and Why You Should)
- 1 gal water (warm)
- 1½ cups salt
- 3 qt apple cider
- 1 qt chicken broth (or more apple cider)
- 6 sprigs thyme (or 1 TBSP dried)
- 8 cloves garlic (minced)
- 2 lemons (zested and sliced)
- 1 orange (zested and sliced)
- 1 tsp whole cloves (optional)
- Dissolve the salt in the warm water.
- Add the apple cider, broth, thyme, garlic, lemons and orange and stir to combine.
- Place the turkey in whatever container you will use for brining (stockpot, 5-gallon bucket, or bag) and add brine.
- Cover or seal tightly and leave at least 24 hours but no more than 48 before your planned cook time. TIP: Place breast side down and make sure brine is touching all sides, if possible.
- Before cooking, rinse well and pat dry. I recommend rubbing skin with butter and adding spices before roasting.
- TIP: Roast breast side down and stuff with 1 apple, 1 lemon, 1 orange and 1 onion (all quartered). I roast uncovered at 450 for 45 minutes and then cover and reduce to 325 until done.
Where to Find Organic Free Range Turkeys
I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking the best place to find organic, free-range turkeys for Thanksgiving. There are several options and I’m listing them in order of my preference:
Find a Local One from a Farmer
This is by far my favorite option and what we do whenever possible. The only problem is that it is often difficult to find a farmer with truly free range turkeys and they often have already pre-sold them by this time of year. Also, most farmers ask customers to pre-order in the spring when they hatch the turkeys so for most, it is too late to buy one. If you can find one this way, it is definitely preferable though.
Buy One from a Local Grocery Store
If you can’t get one from a local farmer in your area, sometimes regular grocery stores carry them. I’ve seen a couple here at different times, though the prices can sometimes be incredibly high. This is probably the second easiest option if your store has them. The only caution here is that many organic turkeys labeled organic have just been fed organic feed but are not truly free range. Still a better option, but no where near the nutrients of truly free range turkeys.
Order One Online
I have done this in the past from companies I trust and have been impressed with them. Butcher Box occasionally has some great quality turkeys and U.S. Wellness Meats currently has some in stock as well.
Are you excited for Thanksgiving this year? Have you ever brined your turkey? Share your favorite recipes or Thanksgiving memories below!
Discussion (49 Comments)
Can I do the same for chicken?
What size turkey is this brine recipe for?
Any size so long as it fits in a 5 gallon bucket.
HELP….I’m confused. I want to do the defrost/brine combo deal and because I do not have room in the fridge for the 18# turkey I have, I will need to use the cooler method….with the turkey in a bag. My questions:
1. what type of bag will fit a 18#+ turkey?
2. I assume that the brine goes in the bag as well
3. wow, that’s some bag!
Or did I miss something? Can someone please clarify, help, enlighten me? Thanks!
I’ve only done 3 turkeys in my life, but read that brining was the way to go years ago. So much more moist and tastier in my opinion. After brining, I always soak a disposable cheesecloth in a white wine and butter sauce to cover the bird while cooking and baste about every 30 minutes or so. This keeps the breast from browing too quickly and also adds “fat” so it doesn’t dry out. It is the most delicious turkey ever! However, I seem to be the only one in the family that likes it this way.
I was reading your instructions for brineing a turkey. You gave all the ingredients, but not the size of the turkey. ??
Thank you! I was just thinking about brining and defrosting a turkey. I was unsure of timing – brine after defrosting but not leaving bird unfrozen too long. Can’t wait to try your method. Happy holidays,
I have tried every type of turkey prep over the 50 yrs I’ve been cooking. My favorite is the dry salt brine. No need for water/vinegar, just cake salt all over the bird, cover with plastic wrap for a day. I brush off some of the salt before baking the stuffed bird.
Thank you; going to try this one. I was lucky and bought two free range turkeys for only 7 dollars with coupons. Please do a blog on how to use left overs; thanks; always a pleasure to read your articles. Bekki.
Katie, what do you cover your turkey with while cooking it that is nontoxic?
Thank you so much for all the useful information on brining a turkey. I will be using your instructions this year. Happy Thanksgiving.