Last updated on October 16th, 2019
If there’s one thing I ask you to do for as a Thanksgiving host this year—before you spatchcock, truss, stuff, roast, grill, fry, or otherwise heat your bird—please humor me and go the extra mile to make yourself a brined Thanksgiving turkey.
Brining is an insurance policy against dry, overcooked meat. It’s a way of infusing moisture and flavor into meat from the inside out—the anti-marinade, if you will.
Why brine your turkey?
Whereas marinades only work on the outer layers of muscle and have a negligible effect on penetrating further than an eighth of an inch (yes, it’s true), submerging a cut of meat in a salt solution allows diffusion to occur. (Remember those osmosis experiments in tenth grade biology?)
A brined Thanksgiving turkey absorbs the flavorful liquid in an effort to create equilibrium between the saltiness outside its cells and the relatively salt-free liquid within its muscle walls.
And as I noted in my recent post on cooking quail, I recommend brining for all members of the poultry persuasion, and for pork too.
You’ll end up with a moister and tastier roast, loin, chop, breast, or whole bird every time—pork that stays rosy pink rather than sad gray at temperature, and chicken that actually tastes like chicken instead of a bland anonymous cutlet, just as long as you brine it first.
So what’s in a brine?
Quite simply, a brine can be nothing more than water and salt, but I prefer mine to at least be water, salt, and sugar to balance out the intense salinity.
My fundamental brine recipe, which can be scaled up or down depending on the size of what you’re brining, is:
- 1 quart (4 cups) water
- 1 1/4 ounces kosher salt by weight
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- plus an extra quart ice cold water OR 2 pounds ice to chill the brine
After that, the flavorings and seasonings you add are completely up to you.
Sage leaves, fennel seeds, and apple cider are natural pairings for a fall pork dish; chipotle powder, cloves, and orange peel give chicken a sweet and spicy boost. Or how about the classic combo of garlic, rosemary, and lemon?
Or the fresh flavors of star anise, ginger, lime, and lemongrass? Just a teaspoon or two of each aromatic has a powerful effect.
How do I make a brine?
Stir the salt, sugar, and seasonings into the quart of water and bring to a simmer to dissolve the salt and sugar completely.
Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, adding the second quart of water (or the ice if you really need to speed things up), then placing in the fridge to chill.
Add the meat when the brine is cold—never add your meat to a steaming hot brine! Hello, bacteria-fest!
Brine smaller cuts like pork chops and chickens for 4-8 hours; bigger meats like turkeys get to hang out in the brine for 12-18 hours, depending on the weight of the bird.
A word about containing all of this salty goodness: for smaller cuts, I use regular old gallon-size zip-top bags, but for whole brined Thanksgiving turkeys, I splurge on the big old branded brining bags.
They’re heavy duty and worth every penny, especially when you have two gallons of spice-studded brothy stuff sloshing around inside.
- 2 gallons (8 quarts) water, divided, or 1 gallon water + 8 pounds ice
- 10 ounces kosher salt
- 3 3/4 oz. (1/2 cup) brown sugar or 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup fresh orange juice + the squeezed peels of 2 oranges
- 1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons whole cloves
- 2 tablespoons allspice berries
- 2 tablespoons star anise
- 6 sage leaves
- 6 bay leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 medium shallot, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced sage
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 whole turkey, about 12 pounds
- 2 cups chicken broth
- Stir 1 gallon of water, salt, sugar, orange peels, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, star anise, sage, bay leaves, and garlic together in a large stockpot, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat to dissolve the salt and sugar.
- Remove from the heat and add the second gallon of water or ice and the orange juice, cooling the brine to room temperature.
- Transfer the brine to the brining bag and chill in the refrigerator until completely cold.
- Add the turkey to the brine, using a baking pan or roasting pan underneath the bag to stabilize and a casserole dish on top of the turkey to weigh it down if needed so the bird remains completely submerged in the brine.
- Return to the refrigerator and chill overnight.
- While the turkey brines, make the compound butter by smashing the softened stick of butter, garlic, shallot, sage, orange zest, and salt together with a fork or your hands until well combined.
- Cover and refrigerate.
- Remove the turkey from the brine, then rinse and pat dry.
- Grab the compound butter from the fridge.
- Let the turkey and butter sit for 1 hour to bring them to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- Take the compound butter and, separating the skin from the meat across the breast, spread the butter thickly over the breast with your hands. Do the same for the drumsticks if possible (it's sometimes hard to get between the skin and the meat there) and stick a few clumps of butter into the turkey cavity.
- Move the turkey to the roasting pan (on a rack if you've got one) and pour 2 cups chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan.
- Stick that bird in the preheated oven.
- After 45 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F and roast the turkey until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees F. This can take anywhere from 2-4 more hours depending on the size of the bird.
- Tent the turkey with foil if it begins to brown too much before the meat is done.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer to a platter. Tent loosely with foil and let the turkey rest for a half hour as its internal temperature rises to 170-175 degrees F.
- Strain the pan drippings and use for gravy, if desired.