Cooking Tips · Techniques

Brining your turkey – is it worth it?

How do you cook your Thanksgiving turkey? Do you brine it or do you use a different method of preparation? What brining is, how to do it and whether it is worth it is the subject of this Cooking Tip. I am posting this Tip early with the hope that it will help you decide if it is something that you want to do this Thanksgiving.

Brining your turkey became popular a few decades ago and chefs everywhere proclaimed its usefulness and home cooks fell in step. However, it is not nearly as popular as it once was for a number of reasons. Even chefs who were once great proponents have fallen off the “brining bandwagon”. Before we investigate why this is so, let’s look at what it is and what it is supposed to do. I will start with the procedure for wet brining and then discuss a nice alternative of dry brining at the end.

A wet brine is basically just a strong solution of salt and water. It is said to have three goals – producing meat that is tender, juicy and well-seasoned. As your turkey (or other protein) sits in this solution, salt is drawn into the meat and the protein structure of the meat changes. This reduces its toughness and increases its capacity to hold on to water and stay juicy. It also seasons the meat all the way to its interior.

Brining is not a difficult process but you must adhere to the instructions. You need to take the following items into consideration. I am not going to list actual recipes as you can find them anywhere. Instead, I want to talk about some general principles. With those, you do not necessarily need a recipe.

Ratio of salt to water

  • This is the most important factor in successful brining.
  • Most experts recommend a 5-8% salt solution. This should be done by weight, not volume, although most recipes will have done the math for you.
  • Cooks Illustrated likes a 9% solution as their tasters liked the extra salt.
  • Many scientific studies have shown that the maximal moisture absorption occurs at 6% and this is the ratio that Serious Eats recommends.
  • Pay attention to what type of salt you are using if you are measuring by volume. A cup of table salt is going to weigh much more than a cup of kosher salt. Also, the weight can even vary among brands of kosher salt. Therefore, if you are making your own brine without a recipe, grab a kitchen scale and measure it correctly. Otherwise, note which salt your recipe specifies.


  • Your turkey must be totally submerged in the solution. Depending on how large your turkey is, this can be difficult to achieve.
  • For smaller birds, a large stock pot may work.
  • Some people use coolers, other use plastic bags or some other large container. I must advise caution with these methods, though, due to the next concern – that of keeping it cold.


  • Since your turkey is going to be brining for a long time, it needs to stay cold (under 40°F) during this entire time. That is not a problem if you have space in your refrigerator.
  • If not, you need to ensure it stays properly cold. If you live where the weather is cold, your garage may be a viable alternative. However, stay vigilant and check that the water solution stays cold.


  • Most recipes will give you a range of times for brining. Although you always want to brine for at least the lower time, you do not need to go to the longest time. Most of the salt movement happens within the first 4 hours.
  • You can brine in less time by using a more concentrated salt solution. For example, Cooks Illustrated’s normal brine using ½ cup table salt per gallon of water recommends a time of 12-14 hours. However, if you increase this to 1 cup table salt per gallon of water, they recommend reducing the brining time to 4-6 hours.


  • After brining, the turkey needs to be thoroughly dried. If you are short of time, you can just pat it dry.
  • For crispier skin, let it sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for a few hours or even overnight.


  • Do not brine kosher or self-basing (enhanced, injected) turkeys as they have already been treated with salt.
  • Many recipes add aromatics and sweeteners to the brine. These are totally unnecessary as they only will flavor the skin.
  • Turkey is not the only protein that you can brine but you can do the same with chicken, pork, etc.

If brining has been so popular, why would you not do it? Here are two main reasons.

  1. It is a hassle – see the technique discussion above.
  2. It washes out the turkey flavor. The added moisture that you get from a wet brine is mostly water that is absorbed into the turkey. This can lead to a watered down turkey flavor.

What is the alternative?

  • First, do not over-cook your turkey. Use care and an instant read thermometer to help you get a safe but not dry turkey.
  • Try spatchcocking your turkey. The downside of this is that you do not have the entire, pretty and golden turkey to put on your table.
  • Dry Brine
    • A dry brine is basically pre-salting your protein for an appropriate amount of time. See this Tip for more info on this.This method helps a turkey to retain its natural moisture without adding any water, leading to more intense flavors. Adding baking powder to the salt can help the skin to crisp up and brown better.Here is a basic dry brine – Mix ½ cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 6 Tbsp Morton’s kosher salt with 2 Tbsp baking powder. Pat turkey dry and sprinkle salt mixture on all surfaces. How much of this mixture you use will depend on the size of your bird. Set it on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered 12-24 hours. Proceed with roasting, without rinsing, but do not add any additional salt.
    • The proponents of this measure feel that Kosher salt is a must for easy sprinkling and prevention of clumping as it falls evenly over the surface.

So, there you have it – the pros and cons of brining. I hope this Tip helps make your Thanksgiving dinner prep just a bit less stressful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!