How to Brine a Turkey and Other Meats

Tired of dry, tasteless turkey? Add flavor and moisture with this simple solution.

What does brining a turkey mean?

Brining is a way of marinating and adding moisture to lean meat. The turkey or other meat is soaked in a mixture of salt and water for a few hours or days before cooking. Some recipes call for adding other flavoring ingredients to the brine, such as sugar, herbs, and spices, but they aren’t necessary. In the days before refrigeration, brining was used as a way to preserve meat (think ham and pastrami), but now it’s a popular way to add flavor and moisture to lean meats.

Why should I brine my meat?

Brining makes meat juicier and more flavorful and improves its texture. “Salt adds tremendous flavor,” says scientist Greg Blonder, Ph.D. “And brining, if you do it right, will get the salt deep into the meat, so every bite has a nice, salty taste.” Brining is also a cook’s insurance policy against accidentally overcooked meat, because brining helps to lock in moisture. In other words: no more dry turkey.

But won’t brining make the meat too salty?

Brine recipes are carefully crafted so they contain only 5 to 8 percent salt. Blonder explains that even though the brine would be too salty to drink, it takes a long time for the solution to penetrate the meat fully. If you follow the recipe directions on how long to brine the meat, you shouldn’t have a problem with oversalted food, since typically only a few teaspoons of the salt solution will penetrate.

How do I brine a turkey?

Start with this basic recipe:

Ingredients

  • 2 gallons cold water
  • 2 cups kosher salt
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 12- to 18-pound turkey

Important: You will need a food-safe container large enough to hold the turkey and brine while it is marinating. Make sure the container fits inside your refrigerator.

Directions

  1. In a large pot, mix together the water, salt, and sugar until dissolved. Place the turkey in the container and cover with the brining liquid. If necessary, use a heavy plate to keep the turkey submerged. Brine the turkey for 18 to 24 hours.
  2. Remove the turkey from the liquid and place on a large platter. Discard the brining liquid. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. If you plan to roast the bird within 2 hours, you can leave it uncovered on the counter. If you aren’t going to roast it for 2 hours or more, return the turkey uncovered to the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it.

I don’t have a container large enough to brine my turkey. What do I do?

You can purchase a brining kit, which generally includes a bag of spices and a large heavy-duty bag. Or you can buy a brining bag. Some sources:

Turkey Brine and Brining Bag
To buy: $10, crateandbarrel.com.

Fire & Flavor Turkey Perfect Herb Blend Brining Kit
To buy: $10, bedbathandbeyond.com.

Brining Bags
To buy: $17 for 4, williams-sonoma.com.

What other kinds of meat can I brine?

Beef, pork, lamb, and poultry all respond well to brining, says Bruce Aidells, a meat expert and the author of The Great Meat Cookbook ($35, amazon.com). Aidells recommends brining lean cuts of meat, such as those from the loin, round, and sirloin areas. Lean cuts of meat can easily get dried out: Brining helps add moisture and flavor.

Get additional brine recipes for pork and lamb.

Is it worth it to brine a turkey?

Many people dislike Thanksgiving turkey because all they’ve ever eaten is chalky, dry pieces of meat that even the tastiest gravy can’t save. Which is why, when asked if brining is worth the effort, our experts gave an enthusiastic yes. “I think brining is worth it,” says Sam Sifton, the author of Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well ($18, amazon.com). “I don’t always do it, but you definitely get a juicy, delicious bird from brining. There is no question about it.”

Don’t be afraid to try it at home. “Get out of the mind-set that it’s something daunting,” says Aidells. “It’s like any marinade. It’s just based on salt water, and it may take a little longer.”

Helpful Brining Tips and Tricks

  • Check the turkey. Before you start brining, read the label on the turkey to make sure it hasn’t already been injected with salt water or another chemical solution, says Blonder: “Because the last thing you want to do is take a bird that’s already been salted and add more salt.”
  • Use the right salt. Read the brining recipe carefully and be sure to use the specific salt your recipe calls for. A cup of regular table salt, Morton kosher salt, and Diamond Crystal kosher salt may look the same, but they have different weights due to differently sized crystals. Substitute a cup of table salt for a cup of Diamond Crystal kosher salt and your brine will be oversalted.

    If you are stuck for ingredients, use these substitutions:
    1 cup table salt = 2 cups Diamond Crystal kosher salt = 1½ cups Morton kosher salt.
  • Make sure the brine is cold. Many brine recipes require you to heat the ingredients to ensure that the salt and the sugar dissolve. But be sure to chill the brine before using it or you will poach your meat and increase the risk of bacteria growth. Chris Gesualdi, a chef-instructor at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, suggests making the brine a day ahead so you can be sure that it’s cold when you need it.
  • Keep the meat cold. It’s essential that the meat be refrigerated during brining to prevent food-borne-illness-causing bacteria from growing. While many recipes suggest that you can brine a turkey for 24 hours in a cooler kept in a cold garage, you need to add ice packs (in sealed bags) constantly and monitor the temperature of the brine to ensure that it stays below 40° F. (Bacteria thrive in temperatures between 40° F and 140° F.) “I’ve said many times that you can [brine] in a cooler, and you can. But you’ve got to be adding ice to it much more often than I think people are prepared to do,” says Sifton. “It’s a commitment.”
  • Brine ahead of time. It’s fine to brine meat a day or two in advance so that when you’re ready to cook, the meat is already seasoned and full of flavor. Planning ahead is key. If you’re making pork chops for dinner, “brine them at least 2 to 4 hours in advance” says Aidells. Or you can brine them overnight. “Just take [the chops] out of the brine and keep [them] in the refrigerator until it’s time to cook them the next day or even two days later,” he says.
  • In some cases—for example, that Thanksgiving turkey—it’s beneficial to brine ahead. Sifton suggests taking the bird out of the brine the day before you cook it, patting it dry, and leaving it uncovered in the refrigerator until you’re ready to roast. Letting the bird air-dry in the refrigerator overnight helps the skin crisp up beautifully during cooking.

    If you don’t get the chance to brine a day ahead, don’t worry, says Sifton. However, it’s important to leave enough time to remove the turkey from the brine 2 to 3 hours before roasting, so it can dry out thoroughly and get close to room temperature. “I want to get that bird as dry as I possibly can before I apply salt and pepper and butter and put it in the oven to roast,” says Sifton. “You don’t want the oven heat to have to evaporate the excess moisture on or around the turkey before it gets to work seizing up the skin and starting the process of creating a properly roasted and beautiful turkey.“