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How to Brine a Turkey: Wet and Dry Brining

It is time to think about how you are going to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey. How do you prepare yours? Have you ever tried brining to add flavor and moisture? Brining meat is the process of adding salt before cooking to add moisture and flavor. A turkey can be brined using a wet or dry process. It is important to consider both methods before choosing which one you want to use. Both ways produce a flavorful and moist turkey but have other important considerations that may impact your choice.

Wet brines infuse flavor and moisture more quickly than dry brines; however, a larger vessel for the brining process will be needed as well as enough refrigerator space. Turkeys that have been wet brined often yield slightly less brown skin due to more water in the skin.

Dry brines work by drawing out moisture in the turkey at the beginning of the brining process, but then the moisture will redistribute with the infused flavors towards the end of the process and during cooking. Dry brining takes longer than wet brining but requires less refrigerator space and results in browner and crispier skin.

Before brining, some prep work needs to be done. If purchasing a frozen turkey, make sure it is thawed before brining. Refer to the HGIC 3560, How to Cook a Turkey, to learn more about safe methods and times for thawing. Consider how long your turkey will need to be thawed in addition to the amount of time that will be required for the entire brining process to know when to begin to thaw the turkey.

For wet brining, you will need approximately 2 gallons of brine for a 16-to-20-pound turkey, 1 gallon for 12 to 14 pounds, or 2 quarts for a turkey breast or turkey that is less than 12 pounds. A 16-to-20-pound turkey should be submerged in the brine for 12 to 24 hours, a 12-to-14-pound turkey for 12 hours, and smaller turkeys for 6 to 8 hours. An additional 12 to 24 hours should be added to allow the turkey to dry in the refrigerator after wet brining and before roasting for a crispier skin.

To prepare a wet brine, mix 2 cups kosher salt, ½ cup white or brown sugar, 2 quarts of water, 2 quarts of apple cider, 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns, 2 tablespoons dried rosemary (or 3 sprigs fresh), 3 bay leaves, 1 half lemon roughly chopped, 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or 4 whole garlic cloves), ½ red or white onion sliced, and 2 tablespoons mustard seed. Simmer until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow to cool. Ice or cold water can then be added to equal the amount of liquid needed for your turkey. Be sure that the brine is cold before adding the thawed turkey. Place the turkey and brine in a brining bag or non-corrosive food-safe container, making sure the turkey is fully submerged in the liquid. Cover and keep in the refrigerator for the recommended amount of time. When the brining time is complete, remove the turkey from the brine and blot with paper towels to remove excess liquid. Place turkey in a pan, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours to allow the skin to dry.

Turkey fully submerged in the wet brine.

Turkey fully submerged in the wet brine.
Kimberly Baker, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Turkey roasted after being wet brined.

Turkey roasted after being wet brined.
Kimberly Baker, ©2021, Clemson Extension

To prepare a dry brine, combine ¼ cup kosher salt, 2 tablespoons white or brown sugar, 2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 2 teaspoons dried thyme, 1 teaspoon garlic powder. Place the turkey in a pan and blot dry with a paper towel. Rub the salt mixture under the skin, on top of the skin, and in the cavity. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours. Before roasting, wipe off any remaining salt and pat dry.

Common dry ingredients for a wet brine before adding water and apple cider.

Common dry ingredients for a wet brine before adding water and apple cider.
Kimberly Baker, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Turkey breast coated with a dry brine.

Turkey breast coated with a dry brine.
Kimberly Baker, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Both recipes above for the wet and dry brine can be altered with various herbs, seasoning, and other aromatic ingredients, so feel free to be creative. The most important ingredients of the brines are salt and sugar. After the brining process, the turkey can then be roasted as usual (see HGIC, Turkey Roasting Tips for more information on roasting).

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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