Brining: seriously, stop stressing about it
November 14th, 2011
09:05 AM ET
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Wow, do people get their wattles in a wad about brining. It's probably partly because we're all still traumatized by the powdery turkey of our childhood Thanksgivings. It's also because people enjoy having extra things to fuss over 'round this time of the year.

But really, it's not that complicated and whether you opt for a dunk or a rub, roasting, smoking or deep-frying, it's bound to add some extra moisture and flavor to your meat. You'll just have to find something else to stress about. Sorry.

What is brining?

Brining is a technique used to enhance the flavor, texture and moisture of meat through the prolonged application of salt. Osmosis allows muscle tissue to hydrate, absorbing water and flavor. The topic comes up frequently around Thanksgiving, because turkey tends toward the leaner side and needs all the help it can get to keep from turning to cardboard.

Wet vs Dry

There are two basic categories of brines: wet and dry. Many Thanksgiving fetishists will insist that starting a wet brine later than the Monday before Thanksgiving is a fool's errand. Those people have the text of the late R.W. Apple's 1999 New York Times recipe for a 72-hour fennel, coriander and star anise brine tattooed somewhere upon their spongy parts. Surely, they'll be possessed of a monumentally moist bird, but most folks don't have that kind of time.

Nor do they necessarily need to. While many, many food media outlets are all a-bray about brine, failure to do so won't condemn you to a dessicated dish. First of all – many birds, such as fresh Kosher turkeys and some pre-packaged varieties of brands like Butterball, have already been treated with a brining solution as part of processing. Read the label to assess saline levels.

Give that bird a bath

If the bird still could use a boost, don't overthink it. In a glass or plastic container (buckets and coolers work well), or a plastic brining bag, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup kosher salt into each gallon of water it take to thoroughly submerge the turkey. To figure out how much brine you'll need, place the meat in the container, pour in plain water and measure how much it takes to cover.

Bay leaves, juniper berries, gin, spices, chiles and other flavor agents aren't verboten, but they're by no means essential.

Next comes the tricky part - keeping the whole mess chilled for the next 6-24 hours, or about an hour per pound. A cooler with frequently updated freezer packs (make sure to wash them off before and after contact with the raw poultry water) will hold at a steady 40°F, but your best bet is to clear out some shelf space in the refrigerator. The meat will need to be turned over halfway through the process, so be mindful of splashes and also resist the urge to leave the meat in for longer. You can always brine more, but you can't un-brine and leaving meat in the solution will lead to mushy meat.

Once the cycle is finished, rinse the bird with cool water, pat it dry with paper towels and get cooking. This method works especially well if you're planning on roasting.

Here's the rub

However, if I were the one helming the meal, I'd rub that turkey - essentially dry-brining it - before smoking, deep-frying or roasting it. A solid, basic formula consists of:

1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.

From here, you can add your own personal twists - tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, powdered onion, garlic salt - up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, and dried herbs like thyme and sage add festive holiday notes.

Rinse and pat the bird dry with paper towels and, after removing any innards, pop-up timers or plastic trusses and trimming excess skin, rub the inner cavity, as well as under and atop the skin first with a light layer of cooking oil and then with the mixture. Put it back into the refrigerator while you either set up the smoker (complete with a big ol' foil drip pan at the bottom) or begin to heat your oven or frying oil. (Follow these step-by-step deep frying instructions.)


Though most smoking calls for a steady 225°F, bacteria control is paramount with turkey. Aim for somewhere between 235°F (30-35 minutes per pound) and 275°F (20-25 minutes per pound). Time, however, is just a guideline. For the turkey to be safely edible, the internal temperature needs to reach 165°F at its thickest part, read without the meat thermometer touching a bone. Place the bird breast-side up over the drip pan, close the lid and sidle away. Baste with oil or butter in the last hour of cooking.


Spatchcocking is another option for either roasting or grilling in a hurry. Just cut out the bird's backbone with poultry shears or a sharp knife, open it up like book, crack the breast and flatten the whole body. Not only will it save you a good bit of cooking time - it also gives you a great excuse to say "spatchcock" in polite company.

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em

I've often said it's a sin to waste good smoke, especially if you've got the monster stoked up all day. Slide in foil pans of halved lemons and limes, pierced ginger root, salt, cherries (when in season), apples, garlic, potatoes - and let them soak up the flavor as well. When you go to replenish the coals and wood chips, give the pan a shake and just make sure they're not drying out. Rotate in pans of fresh supplies as needed and add an extra layer of flavor to every part of the meal.

Smoked cherries can be refrigerated in jars of whiskey or brandy, citrus and ginger made into crowd-pleasing cocktails, and smoked salt adds a kick to any dish it's in.

Here's to a divine brine and a stupendous smoke!

Got a Thanksgiving kitchen conundrum of your own? We'll be here, manning the hotline. Just share your query in the comments below or @eatocracy on Twitter and we'll do our best to educate - or at least amuse.

Perfect pie crust
Quick, simple vegetable sides
How to cook a turkey
- All our best Thanksgiving advice

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Filed under: Feature • Holiday • Holidays • HolidayShopping • How To • Make • Recipes • Roasting • Smoking • T Minus • Techniques & Tips • Thanksgiving

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Barb

    Been doing the Alton Brown Honey Brined Smoke Turkey for 5 years now and love it. We use a old cooler and lots of ice to brine and smoke on the grill with smoke "bombs" make of tinfoil and oakwood....YUM

    November 15, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • MeatLover

      I use his Brine as well. I have a commercial grade smoker for doing the actual smoking though, and I "wet smoke" eveything

      To those who don't brine and say their turkey is never dry... well all I can say is both my wife and I agree – we never ate Turkey this good growing up and we always though the turkey growing up wasn't dry. I brine all poultry, and will even sometimes brine pork.

      November 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  2. me

    turkey brine

    November 14, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  3. The briney Deep

    Ive been brining the Turkey for a long time now.. Go to the nearest Mcd's or Burger King ask them for one of there Pickle containers with a lid it works perfect.. keep ice going i normally place the bucket in the bathtub surrouned by ice and by morning its ready to pop in the oven.. OH yeah and ive even added some Wine to the mix

    November 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  4. Joe

    I think it is importent to note that cooking a bird to 165 F makes it safe to eat but this is not the temperature at which the bird is a quality product. Poultry tends to have the best quality and flavor at between 175 F and 185 F.

    November 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Bill

      I will usually pull it at 155 and let carryover take it up for about 15-20 min. Anything over 160ish is usually a dry mess.

      November 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
      • Small town Chef


        November 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  5. Jules

    Brining is not that complicated. The day before Thanksgiving, get a bucket and a garbage bag. Fill with brine solution. If the weather cooperates, stick the bird outside. Otherwise keep ice on it. I like a nice apple cider brine myself...

    November 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • dnfromge

      I like the apple cider based brine as well. I add allspice, ginger, cloves, bay leaf, thyme sprigs and black peppercorns to the brine when simmering/cooking. I stuff the turkey with orange slices, 1 quartered onion, garlic cloves, fresh thyme sprigs, and sage while it sits in the apple cider brine – remove and rinse for cooking!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  6. Sarah

    Never brined a turkey in my life. Buy a free-range, fresh turkey, preferably organic, and don't over-cook it. It is that simple. Full of falvor, tender, and makes the best soup afterwards.

    November 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Pat

      I never brine either. I cook my stuffing in the bird and make the gravy from the drippings. I have found both tend to be a little salty when the bird is brined. I am just careful in cooking it. Never had a dry bird. Cooking the bird for an hour or so breast side down can help quite a bit but can ber very messy if stuffed.

      November 15, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  7. No more brining for me

    or you could just buy a kosher turkey, it's already been brined!

    November 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  8. JBJingles

    I brined my first turkey last year at Christmas and it was wonderful! I didn't have a container large enough to hold the bird and the liquid, so I went to the dollar store and bought a heavy doodie plastic pale that just fit. It was kind of funny to see the birds legs sticking up out of the bucket though. :0

    November 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Beevis

      She said doodie.

      November 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
      • Butt-Head

        WHOA! She did say doodie. huh huh huh huh huh huh huh

        November 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • dnfromge

      I do the same thing – large plastic pail – similar to the orange ones at Home Depot. They are so cheap I can get a new one every year!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  9. Richard G

    I've always thought that this would just be way too difficult, but I picked up some brining bags and am going to try it! Serving it up with our homemade apple cider, pear cider, and peach wine. Check out our wine recipes and resources at the winemaker's notebook The Winemaker‘s Notebook

    November 14, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  10. Jann

    Seriously!!?? "Just cut out the bird's backbone with poultry shears or a sharp knife, open it up like book, crack the breast and flatten the whole body."

    Just how cruel can you get?? Sorry, but no bird is getting this treatment if you just chose Tofu!!

    Meat is bad for you anyway and I'm sure everyone could use to lose a few pounds instead of the gluttony that is American holidays.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Lynn Ann

      The scriptures instruct us to be meat eaters like our beloved Lord. Tofurkey is the Devils food.

      November 14, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Peanut M&M

      I'm pretty sure she was referring to dead turkeys, not one that was still alive. Yes. People breed and then kill animals for food. They've been doing so for a very long time. You might want to get over that one. And there's more evidence that fermented soy (ie, tofu) in excess amounts causes more health problems than modest amounts of lean poultry.

      November 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • montyhp

      Can you supply some references to your claims? Peer reviewed scientific journals only please.

      November 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
      • Peanut M&M

        Learn how to do it yourself. Go to Pub Med and type in the word "soy".

        November 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Jules

      The bird is lready dead. It won't feel anything, I promise. I also think that going vegetarian is a good option for those who want to eat healthfully, but I think every vegan needs to consider these animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years. They are bred and raised by humans. Turning them out because "eating meat is cruel" will absolutely wreak havoc on the established ecosystem and lead cows, chickens, and turkeys to die of starvation. We have robbed them of the knowledge to survive and they depend on humans. Please think a little before spouting ridiculous, rehearsed , unoriginal platitudes.

      November 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Geeezzzz

      Shut Up, for GODs sake, Shut the hell UP!!!!!

      November 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
      • Dr. Phill@Geeezzzz

        You seem a little uptight.
        You eat meat, don't you?
        How's that workin' for ya?

        November 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • colonelingus

      Jann, if God didn't want us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat? I love animals as much as the next person. Right next to the mashed potatoes! I brine all my Turkeys and what I do is take the crisper out of the bottom of the fridge ( clean before and after using ). Most birds fit great and it keeps the bird cold untill ready for cooking. Bon Appetite!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • RCS

      Oh BROTHER, here we go with the hippy tofu junk. Tofu is NOT even half of what it's cracked out to be. Too much of it causes health issues with men. And what makes you think tofu will make you lose weight? Too much of anything will make you fat. So get off your organic, free-trade soap box and focus on your yoga/pilates classes.

      You can go off and enjoy your coagulated snot while I enjoy a nice, juicy serving of REAL turkey.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  11. Lila

    I love to brine and tried smoking a few times. The only thing I didn't like was the slight change in flavor, it taste a little like pork which I don't care for. Then again, I had my old grill and not the nice smoker I have today maybe I'll have better results. The smoked cherry, garlic, etc is making my mouth water and now I'm rethinking smoking this year.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Tommy Chong

      Dude! The only problem I have with smoking turkeys is finding papers big enough.

      November 14, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  12. R. King

    Spactch*cking, or butterflying works very well if you're roasting a chicken or hen. Not so well for a turkey. Most readers will have a devil of a time fitting a fully splayed-out turkey into a consumer-sized oven. Larger commercial ovens can handle them fine.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • C. Howie Pfartz

      A 22# bird fits nicely in my Calfalon roasting pan. Split her in half, place the halves back to back, on a bed of loose mixed herbs, rub with butter, salt and pepper, bury in more mixed herbs with halfed heads of garlic, and a splash of white wine for good measure. Pop in the oven with your remote thermometer and watch the game.

      November 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  13. Smart Aleck

    Betcha didn't get moderated for posting "spatchc0ck", didja?

    November 14, 2011 at 7:21 am |
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