It’s Thanksgiving, and you’re hosting. The most hotly debated question of the day, aside from who will eat the most food: Should you brine your turkey or not? Your foodie relatives are saying yes, you just haaave to wet-brine, because it’s the only way to get a succulent bird. But you read online that it’s a total scam. The truth? It’s kind of complicated.
Wait, what is a brine?
Basically, a brine is a highly concentrated solution of salt in water that’s used for preservation (think pickles and olives) and seasoning. It’s a way to tenderize and enhance the flavor of your food, similar to marinating. You can brine something for as little as 30 minutes or up to several days, and in addition to salt, the brining solution can include flavorings like herbs and spices. Simple enough, right?
So why would I brine my turkey?
No offense to turkey, but it’s pretty dry. (Hello, gravy.) It’s a relatively lean protein, so there’s not a lot of fat to keep that bird juicy while it cooks for hours. The idea is that a wet brine will help keep your turkey from drying out, while also seasoning it all the way to the bone (because the only thing worse than a dry turkey is a bland one).
In the case of a Thanksgiving turkey, you’d typically soak your bird in a saltwater solution—using about ½ cup of salt for every gallon of water—for about 24 hours. That also means you’ve located a vessel large enough (like a cooler…or, um, a bathtub) to keep that 18-pound turkey submerged in water at a food-safe temperature for an entire day.
I heard I should dry-brine my turkey. What’s that about?
Dry-brining, as you can guess, involves no water at all. It’s just a fancy way of saying you seasoned the meat in advance. Think of it like a barbecue rub: You coat the turkey in salt and let it rest in the fridge for a day.
And even though there’s no extra moisture involved, dry-brining can actually lead to a juicier, more flavorful end result than wet-brining. That’s because the salt in the dry brine draws out the natural moisture in the bird, then mixes with those juices before getting reabsorbed. It also changes the protein structure so that moisture doesn’t leech out during the cooking process. So instead of adding water to the turkey (and thereby diluting its turkey-licious flavor), you’re just adding seasoning. Fans of crispy skin will also prefer dry-brining, because it’s pretty hard to get shatteringly crisp skin on a turkey that’s been bathing in water for hours.
So should I brine my turkey or not?
You should definitely season your turkey in some way, and if you want to give brining a try, we prefer the dry method. There’s no sloppy turkey water, you don’t need special equipment and the work is done in advance. Plus, crispy skin and juicy, well-seasoned meat—what’s not to love?
Here’s how to dry-brine a turkey:
1. Once your turkey is fully thawed, place it on a rimmed baking sheet and pat it dry.
2. Using about one tablespoon of kosher salt per four pounds of turkey, rub the bird all over with salt, getting into the cavities and under the skin.
3. Wrap the turkey and baking sheet in plastic wrap or a large plastic bag and place it in the refrigerator overnight.
4. A few hours before cooking, remove the turkey from the fridge, uncover it and pat it dry. Let the bird come to room temperature, cook it using your preferred method, carve it and prepare for the oohs and ahhs.