How to Brine a Turkey

This year, I decided I wanted a little more of a traditional turkey kind of Thanksgiving meal. You see, I have been creating meals for this lovely holiday for years and often try to throw a few curve balls in there, just to keep it lively. I might make duck, or ham, or ostrich or something other than turkey – but sometimes, a good old fashioned treatment is all that is needed…or wanted.

And there was at least one thing I had never done to a turkey before that I kept seeing mentioned, and that was brining it. Brine was an alien thing to me until I read up on it a little, and then it made perfect sense – so I made my family the guinea pigs this year as I brined my first bird.

What is Brine?

Brine is a solution where there is a lot of salt. Kind of like salt water/stock on steroids. The salt-to-stock content is over 50 parts per thousand, so this is a thickly salty solution.

Why Make Brine?

They used to used brine to preserve food, but we have better ways to do that today.  Brine is used today primarily to enhance flavors and cooking or pickling techniques. Making your own gives you control over flavors more than anything else, in my opinion. If you make it, you can depend on how it behaves (or should). And the magic words: it is easy.

For me, I wanted a way to keep my bird moist through cooking for a long time in the oven, while infusing a little flavor. The things I read about brining made me think it was a smarter way to prep a large bird. I have basted many of them in the past with great success – they truly look like champs, but the meat is often very dry. I saw brine as a way to get deeper to the meat in preparation for a long day spent in the oven.

My Approach to Brining the Turkey

Once I decided on brine, I had to learn how to do it. Essentially, you make a saltwater boil – dissolving a lot of salt into the fluid. I am sure there are measurements somewhere, but I eyeballed it, and just dumped most of a new shaker full of Kosher salt into a pot of boiling stock – (I used beef, vegetable and chicken stock…mostly vegetable). A shaker here means something similar to a shaker of Parmesan cheese size…about a cup an a half to every gallon of stock. Just remember this brine needs to be more than 50 parts salt per every thousand.

The salt is what permeates the skin and opens up the flavor options. So I added a bunch of stuff to my brine to kick it up, like a quartered apple, a bunch of allspice berries and some star of anise, some cayenne pepper, honey, brown sugar, black and pink peppercorns, and other “darker” flavors. Chucked in a half bottle of Napa Valley red, just to be fair. I was going for a specific taste, so built on the allspice swirl with cinnamon sticks and coarsely ground nutmeg. I knew most of this nuance is lost in the process, but figured what the hell. 🙂

I brought the brine to a boil, then simmered it for about a half hour to mix it all and blend really well. I kept adding stuff too – like a kid and his chemistry set. It smelled like a warm winter’s drink. I cursed my lack of ginger root…but it still came together. Looked like spiced soup.

I killed the heat and brought it down to room temp. Once at room temp, I put the whole pot in the freezer for a little while, to create a chill for it.

When it was chilled, it was done.

The Ice Bath

One point of brining that I learned was you need to do it very cold to avoid bacteria. This is why I needed to put the brine in the freezer to chill it, and this is why I needed to complete the process with an ice bath.

I took my thawed turkey, removed the neck and giblets, rinsed and dried it, and put it in a new Tupperware 10 gallon storage thing I bought at the store. I poured on my chilled brine. I then took all of the ice from the freezer, and added about 2-3 gallons of water, to make the turkey float. I said goodnight, set an alarm for 5 hours and left it in the garage overnight like this.

Ice cubes all over my 18 pound turkey

The ice bath was a key to letting me simply drop it and go, too. I liked the idea that the meat would be fine, that bugs and bacteria were both repulsed by the cold and that it stayed easy.

I did have to buy a new Tupperware thingy to hold this, but that was a small price to pay for the technique being clean and simple.

You can’t tell by the picture, but the turkey was floating here – just enough fluid to keep it off the sides and bottom. The ratio of water to brine was about 70/30 in favor of the brine. I did have more salt, just in case – but I figured the kosher stuff I added to the brine would be fine.

I flipped this bird in its icy brine bath about halfway through – 5 hours in. I added a little more ice, and some salt…just handfuls of each.

After I woke-up on turkey day, I went down, removed it from the brine, patted it dry, and put it in the refrigerator. It had been there about 12-13 hours – it was an 18-pound bird.

Keys for Cooking a Turkey: First, Don’t Stuff It

I learned that stuffing a turkey slows down the cooking time as well as introducing the potential for salmonella. So instead of looking at the turkey’s empty cavity as a dutch oven to cram full of stuff (which I usually did), I used it for the space in creating aromatic/taste infusions. I cut a bunch of fresh herbs from my garden (sage, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, etc.) and layered them with sliced apples and oranges, leaving most of it open (it was a big bird). A little more than halfway with the layers.

stuffing a turkey with fresh herbs

Sliced apples, oranges, and fresh herbs

Next, Don’t Prolong It

The other thing that I now see as a mistake I made for years, was to cook the turkey too long.  By extending the time in the oven, the potential to dry out the meat increases greatly. So my older way of doing this, might be to put the turkey in there on a relatively low heat (350-375F), opening the oven every 30 minutes to baste. But what I did not realize, was this constant opening the door, and the loss of heat simply made everything take longer.

To fix this, and still get a nice crispy skin, I again kept it simple. I rubbed it down with some extra virgin olive oil. I made a little tinfoil cover for the breasts, knowing they would need it to keep from burning – and I set it aside (easier when the turkey is still cold). I set the oven for 500F and once it hit temp, I popped it in.

After 30 minutes, I dropped the heat to 350F (my oven cooks hot), put the tinfoil on it, and let it go. It still took me about 41/2 hours to cook it off from there – but that was considerably less time than it would take for a bird this size, if I did not start out really hot like that, I believe. No basting either – I allowed the heat and the olive oil to take care of that for me.

brined turkey

Yep - it was as good as it looks. 🙂

So I was pretty pleased with this – I waited for the little pop-up thing to go up, and I checked internal temps to make sure it was at least 160F. I let it rest and made a traditional gravy – in the roasting pan, using a simple butter and flour roux.  When I carved it up, I had the pleasure of finding it to be moist and perfectly cooked throughout -the brine left subtle flavors, but was more of a way to keep the texture and consistency stable while the bird cooked.

There were only six of us there to eat on the thing, so it is now 3 days later, and I am still eating it for every meal. We killed the white meat today – but thru it all, the brine was a champ – even on reheats, this turkey did NOT dry out at all – not even a little bit. I got my traditional bird flavors and textures, and learned more about a cool way to prep big pieces of meat.

I will be trying this with things other than turkeys – so watch out world. Listen for that dinner bell, and bring your appetites!