For the juiciest turkey on the block, brining the bird with salt results in a plump, moist, and flavorful turkey every time. But is a wet brine or a dry turkey brine better? I tested both, and these are my recipes and results.
I discovered the genius of turkey brining several moons ago, and now, I can’t make a Thanksgiving turkey with one.
Whether to brine my turkey or not isn’t the question. It’s which method to go with: A wet brine soak in a salt water solution or a dry brine rubbed into and under the skin?
Brine me baby! And talk turkey to me.
I’ve used both methods separately before, but never in a side-by-side comparison. Until now. In my non-scientific kitchen lab, the results of which worked better was close, but my crack team of taste testers (my starving-after-work-and-basketball-practice husband and daughter) did choose a winner.
Is brining your turkey worth the effort? I say absolutely yes! There’s huge bang for your buck with these two easy methods. That’s why I’m giving you both of my brining recipes, plus my team’s results, so that you can try and see for yourself.
Illustration from Real Simple
How Long Do You Brine a Turkey?
Here’s my timeline for brining a turkey:
- 1-2 days for the turkey to thaw in the refrigerator
- 24 hours of wet brine time, plus 12-24 hours uncovered in the refrigerator to dry the skin
- 24-48 hours of dry brine time
I plan on at least 4 days before cooking to start my turkey making process.
What Does Brine Do to a Turkey?
Brining turkeys, chickens and other meats (my brined pork loin roast is a fave) are having a serious method-of-the-moment in the culinary world. I mean, who hasn’t regaled in the salty, flavor-packed deliciousness of a store-bought rotisserie chicken that is truly, finger-lickin’ good? Guess what you’re tasting there? Brine-infused poultry.
But sometimes, of-the-moment methods can spark fear in any cook when it comes to preparing traditional recipes. And there’s none more traditional than the Thanksgiving turkey.
Brining a turkey with salt alters the protein structure so it retains more moisture during cooking, enhancing the moist, plump-factor of the turkey thanks to its own natural juices.
So is brining your turkey worth the effort? 100%, absolutely, for sure. I mean, just take a gander at that beautiful bird with crisped skin and juicy meat above.
But which is better? A dry or wet brine? Read on to find out.
What’s the Difference Between a Wet and Dry Brine?
Salt is the key ingredient in both wet and dry brines, and truthfully, the only ingredient you need for either. Both methods infuse flavor into the protein by changing its structure so it retains more moisture as it cooks.
Here’s the differences between a wet and dry brine:
A wet brine works quickly (in as few as 12 to 24 hours) to infuse moisture into the turkey; skin, meat, and all. The brine penetrates directly into the flesh and skin, plumping and adding water and moisture as it soaks in its salt bath. When cooked, this results in an amazingly juicy turkey.
But, a wet brine can be somewhat awkward to maneuver since you’ll need more fridge space for a container big enough to submerge a 14-pound turkey in 2 gallons of saltwater solution (or more if your turkey is larger) and keep it cold as it brines (I share a different way to do it below).
A wet brine also adds more water to the skin, resulting in a less than golden brown bird.
On the flip side, a dry brine draws out moisture from the meat, then resettles into itself as it cooks, as a self-marinade in its salty brine. Dry brines take longer to work their ways (at least 24-48 hours), but take less fridge space since you can set it on a baking sheet and let it do its thing. And, the salt pulls out the moisture from the skin so it tightens and browns easier.
What’s In a Wet Turkey Brine
Kosher salt is the key ingredient in a wet brine. Mixed with hot water to dissolve, the brine absorbs into the turkey for flavor.
I keep things extra simple and stick with the basics, which are:
- Kosher salt (I use Morton’s Salt. If you use Diamond Crystal, use 1/4 less than what’s called for. Do not use iodized salt as it is too concentrated.)
- Sugar (white or brown: sweeteners help with browning the skin)
- Whole peppercorns
- Fresh herbs like rosemary, bay leaves, parsley
Additional flavorings to experiment with:
- Sliced citrus like oranges or lemons
- Sliced apples
- Red or white onion
- Spices like juniper berries, mustard seed, star anise, chiles, allspice, cinnamon sticks
- Apple juice or cider in lieu of half of the cold water
How to Make a Wet Brine for Turkey
When brining something large like a turkey, the longer you plan on soaking the turkey the weaker your saltwater solution should be.
Here’s my wet brine formula for a 14-16 lb. turkey: 2:2:1/2
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 2 gallons water
- 1/2 cup sugar
Make more solution using the proportions above for larger birds.
Allow 12-24 hours for the turkey to brine, then allow for 12-24 hours for the skin to dry out so it browns and crisps when it cooks.
If brining the turkey breast only, brine the breast for 6-8 hours.
Brines work best when the salt and sugar are fully dissolved.
Boil 8 cups of water on the stove with the salt, sugar and other aromatics for a minute or two until the salt and sugar are dissolved, or heat half of the water in a tea kettle at a time, and mix into the salt, sugar and aromatics. Once dissolved, combine the salt water solution with more water to make 2 gallons of solution.
Never add warm water brine to the turkey. Always allow the warm water to cool to room temperature before adding to the turkey to avoid bacterial contamination.
If the salt and sugar don’t seem to be dissolving, add more water to the solution and keep stirring. I’ve found the water can absorb only so much salt at one time, so the higher proportion of water there is to take in the salt, the better it will dissolve.
Add the saltwater solution to the remaining amount of COLD water and ice to make up 2 gallons of saltwater solution. Remember, keep it cold to avoid bacterial contamination.
**NOTE!!! NEVER add hot or warm saltwater solution to a raw turkey or you’ll end up with a potentially very bad bacteria contamination situation. Always use room temperature or chilled saltwater solution. I always use ice cubes to make up part of my amounts of water.
Submerge That Bird
It’s important the turkey is completely submerged in the wet brine, especially the breast since it is the part most likely to dry out.
To avoid bacteria from spreading, do not rinse the turkey in the sink before brining. Instead, drain the accumulated juices from the thawing turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or other large pan.
Place the brining bag in the sink, then add the turkey to the bag. Pour the brine over the turkey and add the herbs, and ice if using to make up for part of the water. Squeeze out the excess air in the bag and secure it closed, cinching the bag around the bird so it is fully submerged. Set the bagged turkey in a roasting pan, a large stock pot, or an extra clean ice chest or cooler.
Or, skip the bag and use a container large enough for the bird and 2 gallons of water and ice to fully submerge the bird. Or, line a 5 gallon bucket or ice chest with two garbage bags.
Keep the turkeys refrigerate or cold while brining for 12-24 hours. Remove from the brine, rinse with water, and pat dry. Refrigerate uncovered for 12-24 more hours for a crisper skin when cooked.
How to Make a Dry Brine for Turkey
A dry brine draws the moisture out of the meat then resettles into itself as it cooks. Dry brines take less time than wet to work their brining magic.
All you need for a dry brine is:
- Kosher salt
- Sugar (white or brown sugar)
Here’s the dry brine formula I use for a 14-16 lb. turkey: 1:1.
For a 14-16 lb. turkey I mix 4 tablespoons kosher salt to 4 teaspoons sugar.
Rub a Dub Turkey Brine Rub
It’s important the turkey is placed on a baking sheet with raised sides or in a roasting pan to catch the liquid that will release from the turkey as it’s drawn out of the turkey.
With your fingers, gently loosen the skin from the breast and legs of the bird, as much as you can without tearing the skin. Rub the salt mix under and on top of the skin and inside the cavity of the bird.
Set the turkey in the fridge for 24-48 hours to work its magic.
Do You Rinse the Brine Off or Not?
First off, experts say never rinse a turkey before brining. Take it straight from the bag, draining any of the residual juices, to the brining bag. Rinsing the turkey can spread bacteria and salmonella about the kitchen, and nobody wants that. And even though the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills felt it was okay, DO NOT wash poultry with soap and water.
Next up comes the question, do you rinse the brine off after brining? There are differing opinions about rinsing the brine off or not.
I do not rinse the brine from the turkey. I have taste tested the turkey rinsed and not, and haven’t found the turkey straight from the brine to be too salty. In the end, I don’t want to risk spreading bacteria through the kitchen so I don’t rinse.
For the wet brine, I pat the turkey dry then put it back in the fridge for 12-24 hours for the skin to dry out so it will crisp in the oven. But, if you do wish to rinse the turkey—because some of you will—rinse it before putting it back in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out, not after!
For the dry brine, I’ll brush any extra salt off the skin if it hasn’t absorbed if it seems excessive. Otherwise I just leave it.
Don’t rise the bird after dry brining or you’ll ruin the dried skin.
Wet or Dry Brine? Which One Was Best? The Taste Tester Results
You’ve patiently waited for the final taste test results. So, which brine tasted best?
From the start, my hopes were pinned high on the dry brine coming out on top. A dry brine has fewer steps to complete, takes up less room in the fridge, and browns better when cooked. In my head I was already plotting the write-up for it’s winning announcement here.
But after my taste testers finished their task, the choice of best tasting brine took a turn.
While the dry brine was deemed very good, the wet brine was declared to be better.
Pleasantly salty and plumped, the wet brined turkey was moist, juicy, and everyone’s first choice. Although not as Malibu-Barbie browned as the dry brined turkey, the wet brined turkey’s uncovered rest in the refrigerator still produced a crisp skin that complimented the juicy meat.
And that’s how you talk turkey.
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.
THE BEST Turkey Brine — Wet
- Heavy Duty Turkey Brining Bags
- Rimmed Baking Sheet
- Roasting Pan with Rack
- 14-16 pound turkey , giblets, neck and innards removed
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon peppercorns
- fresh herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary, parsley
- Remove the innards from the turkey and drain any defrosted liquid from the turkey, inside and out. Pat the turkey dry. Place the brining bag in the sink and and place the turkey in the brining bag.
- Boil 8 cups of water on the stove with the salt, sugar and other aromatics for a minute or two until the salt and sugar are dissolved, whisking virgorously. Add the saltwater mixture to more water and ice cubes to make 2 gallons and the water cools to room temperature.
- Pour the cold brine into the brining bag and over the turkey then add the peppercorns and herbs. Squeeze out the excess air in the bag and secure it closed, cinching the bag around the bird so it is fully submerged. Set the bagged turkey in a roasting pan, a large stock pot, or an extra clean ice chest or cooler with ice.
- Keep the turkey refrigerated or cold while brining for 12-24 hours. Remove from the brine, and pat dry. Refrigerate uncovered for 12-24 more hours for a crisper skin when cooked.
THE BEST Turkey Brine — Dry
- Rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan
- 14-16 pound turkey , giblets and innards removed
- 4 tablespoons kosher salt
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- Remove the innards from the turkey and drain any defrosted liquid from the turkey, inside and out. Pat the turkey dry. Place on a baking sheet with raised sides or in a roasting pan to catch the liquid that will release from the turkey as it’s drawn out of the turkey.
- With your fingers, gently loosen the skin from the breast and legs of the bird, as much as you can without tearing the skin. Rub the salt mix under and on top of the skin and inside the cavity of the bird.
- Set the turkey in the fridge, uncovered, for 24-48 hours to work its magic before cooking.
3 Brining “Don’ts”
- Don’t brine a turkey that is labeled kosher, marinated, or basted. They’ve already been flavored.
- Don’t brine a turkey that you are planning on deep frying.
- Don’t forget to remove the giblets and neck before brining.
More Turkey Recipes
- Juicy Roast Turkey Breast
- Herb Butter Rotisserie Turkey
- Buffalo Oven Roasted Turkey
- Roasted Turkey Breast With Lemon And Oregano
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