The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Brine

I am a huge fan of brining poultry! I use brines in competition and at home. For those of you that have never tried brining, you simply must. There is just no better way to add moisture and get perfect seasoning all the way down to the bone. In addition to dramatically improving the flavor, the added moisture gives you an extra margin for error in avoiding the dreaded balsa-wood-like dry white meat.

I've tried many brine concoctions for my holiday birds, and I've settled on this one, at least for now. Give it a try and drop me a line to tell me what you think. This recipe works very well for both smoking or traditional roasting, and with Thanksgiving just days away, there's not really a better time to post it.

Ingredients
1 1/2 gal Ice water (lots of ice)
1/2 gal Hot tap water
2 cups Dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups Kosher salt
1/4 cup Old Bay seasoning (available in most grocery stores)
1 tsp Chinese five spice (Asian section of most grocery stores -- I like the Sun Luck brand)
Juice of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 oranges
Extra ice as needed

Notes:
  • If you can't find the Chinese five spice, just use allspice.
  • This recipe is scaled for a 14-16 pound turkey. You will need to scale it up for larger birds.
  • A good time guideline is 45 minutes per pound.

Method
Get a clean food-safe five-gallon bucket, wash it, then sanitized it with a gallon of water and a capful of bleach.

Make the ice water in the bucket.

Bring the tap water to a boil in a stock pot or large pan.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the salt, sugar, citrus juice and all of the seasonings.

Let the seasoning mixture sit in the pan, stirring occasionally, until all of the salt and sugar are dissolved.

The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Brine

Add the water and seasoning mixture to the ice water in the bucket.

Gently submerge the turkey in the brine, breast-side-down. Oh, and make sure you've removed both pouches of innards.

Note: It must be completely submerged, so add more ice and water if necessary. If the turkey tends to float, you can seal a rock in a zip-top bag and stuff it in the cavity.

Set the bucket in the coldest place you can find (I put mine outside or in the garage), cover with foil, wrap with a sleeping bag or blankets, and let sit at least 12 and up to 24 hours.

Caution: For food safety it's critical that the brine be kept at or under 40º throughout the entire brining process, so check the ice and add more as needed.

An hour before you're ready to cook the turkey, lift it gently and slowly from the brine, allowing it to drain completely. I turn it over just to make sure.

Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.

Rub the skin with canola oil and roast or smoke as desired.

Smoked Turkey

Enjoy!

Further reading: To Brine Or Not To Brine?

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52 Comments:
Anonymous Duong said...
This is a very late comment but I used your brine recipe for my turkey last Thanksgiving. Let me say that the outcome was AMAZING. Everyone was raving about the turkey. I can't wait to use this recipe this upcoming Thanksgiving. Thanks for sharing the recipe!
Anonymous JJones said...
You've made me a believer in brining.
Blogger Marlin said...
Is the recipe using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Marlin - Any Kosher salt will work well.
Anonymous Mr. Bo said...
Sounds great! I'm going to brine in a Xlarge ziplock bag and put the bag inside an ice chest. Just prepare per the recipe and add the 1 1/2 gallons of ice water? Will the smaller area for brine in the bag make a difference as far as the flavor of the finished product as opposed to the bucket method?

Thanks!
Blogger John Dawson said...
Bo - The bag will affect nothing. Just make sure it's submerged and let nature go to work. Let me know what you think. -John
Blogger lynette said...
Can you brine a turkey you are going to fry, Just dry really well?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Lynette - Yes, you can brine a turkey that will be fried. Just be sure to drain and dry it VERY well.
Anonymous mary said...
Do you need to baste or cover the turkey as it cooks?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Mary - No, you don't ever need to baste a turkey, and it doesn't need to be covered.
Anonymous Mr. Bo said...
John the two turkeys were awesome with this brine. Smoked on a ProQ and a WSM at around 275 degrees. There were two enhanced birds so I doubled the recipe and cut back on the salt by 1/2 but think I'll cut back a little more next time. Yes, I'll use this brine again and again. Thanks!
Anonymous Chicago Sizzlin said...
I wanted to add my comment about the brining. Just do it!! I tried this as my first brine on a Thanksgiving turkey and it came out incredible. I am a true believer on brining from here on out. You wont regret trying it out and get the brine bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond they were like $5 and perfect for it.
Blogger John Dawson said...
Thanks, guys. I really appreciate the kind comments, and I'm glad that you enjoyed the recipe.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
do i need to rinse the turkey after taking it out of the brine
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - Yes, you should always rinse brined meat and pat it dry with paper towels before cooking it.
Blogger Liz Mangeac said...
This is the best turkey recipe ever! I've been using this recipe for about 3 years and everybody loves it! I've tried so many before but this is truly the best! Thanks John!
Anonymous northern smokey said...
I love this brine for turkey. I am thinking of trying it for smoked salmon any thoughts?
Blogger Buddie Deal said...
made yet another brine believer! I will never go back! great recipe that i`ve been using for 3 years. Also great for large roasted chickens with some reductions to the ingredient amounts. Thanks much
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Is it ok to brine a turkey in a really big stock pot?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - A stock pot is just a big metal bucket, so yes. However, I'd avoid aluminum.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Are you able to use a spice rub on the bird after brining? Thanks!

Dave
Blogger John Dawson said...
Dave - Absolutely not! It's strictly forbidden by Federal law. I kid, of course. Yes, please use your favorite rub.
Blogger Steve Gouge said...
Do you need to modify the amount of salt in the brine solution for turkeys that have been injected with the Saline solution at the processing plant?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Steve - As I mention here, cut the salt in half when brining an "enhanced" bird.
Anonymous Tatiana said...
At my house we put the submerged turkey in a large oven bag and keep it in the refrigerator for two days. It's a great way to get a good flavor. I have done many variations but not with Old Bay, that sounds really tasty. Going to add some Old Bay to the mix this year. Great photo of your bird by the way! Nummmm
Anonymous Anonymous said...
14lb turkey 8% water how long should I brine it for. Thanks Pat.
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - See the notes at the end of the post.
Blogger panthers76 said...
I agree, brining is the only way to go with a bird of any type. But, I have never tried on something like a pheasant. Have you, and what were the results?

Thanks,

Bill
Blogger John Dawson said...
Bill - No, I've never used the brine on anything but turkey. Sorry.
Blogger Andrew Cumming said...
It would be useful to measure your salt by weight. Not everyone has kosher salt available. (I'm in Australia and I've never seen it, though we have flake salt, rock salt and everything between). Other salts may substitute exactly by weight though.
Blogger CPMatthew said...
John, Thanks for sharing this. I just dunked the Christmas Turkey for tomorrow.

Andrew, in other recipes I have substituted sea salt for kosher salt. Generally you want coarse ground (not rock) salt.
Blogger CaymanMum3 said...
Ok freaked out! Cannot find Old Bay seasoning. Can you suggest a substitute? I am in Canada
Blogger John Dawson said...
CPMatthew - Here you go. ;-)
OpenID crystinebean22 said...
If I was just doing a bone in turkey breast would this work? also how would I change the amounts?
Blogger John Dawson said...
crystine - It will work beautifully, and you don't need to alter anything. Just go with 45 minutes to an hour per pound.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
First time smoking a turkey. Wanted to practice before the holiday. I was awesome!!! I smoked 14lb bird on my UDS for 5 hours and it was the best turkey I ever had. NO more fried turkeys for me. We are going to do two for the holidays, one in the oven and one on the smoker. Thanks!!
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - I am so glad that the brine recipe worked well for you. Thanks for your kind feedback.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Anonymous said...
Trying this for my first turkey and advice? I have a 14 pd turkey. How long should I brine and cook? What temp! Lol don't laught first time cooking one, all on my own now!!!
Thanks B
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - I recommend brining for 45 minutes per pound, as I mention here. As for cooking, this should help, just substitute this brine for the Big Bird Bath.
Blogger jerr7 said...
I Have a 8 lb bone in turkey breast going to smoke .Should I cut the brine in Half or use the original full brine for the 14 lb.
jerry
Blogger John Dawson said...
Jerry - It's all about volume. You just need enough to submerge/cover the breast, so go with 2/3 of the recipe.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I recently brined my first bird using a variant of this recipe for a New Years Eve party. Being from Maryland ( the home of Old Bay) I substituted I used 1 cup Kosher salt and 1 Cup Old Bay and did a short 8 hr soak. I also rubbed some Old Bay under the skin on the breasts before cooking the bird in the oven.
The turkey was the smash hit of the NYE party and I'll never cook another without brining again. Couldn't believe how moist the entire bird was and was extremely surprised and pleased that it did not turn out too salty. The Old Bay flavor was noticable, but was subtle and not overpowering. A true home run!
Thanks for the easy to follow recipe and for all the good advice !
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - I am so glad that your bird was a hit. Thanks for your kind words.
Blogger dkgetz said...
Will the turkey taste like Old Bay and/or Chinese spices when eaten ? Thanks
Blogger John Dawson said...
dlgetz - No, the meat will just be nicely seasoned.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
do you need to use ice if you use refrigerator
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - The ice serves to quickly cool and dilute the hot ingredients, so you need it for that purpose. After that, just make sure that the liquid stays at 40 degrees or colder using whatever method you prefer.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I brined a turkey in the past and the wife said it was too salty, I don't remember but it must have been a pre-injected turkey. I want to brine again this year but I ordered a fresh turkey from a farm that is not injected. If I follow this recipe can I also inject a butter/garlic mixture in the turkey and if so should I use unsalted butter?
Blogger Matthew Federick said...
I use a home depot bucket hope it's ok
Blogger John Dawson said...
Matthew - So do I, so you're good. ;-)
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Would it be okay to let the turkey sit in the brine for 48 hrs?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous - No, brining that long will make the meat mushy. Please stick to the guideline of 45 minutes to one hour per pound.

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