How to Brine a Turkey

I am really excited to share this complete guide for how to brine a turkey! We filmed each step of the process when preparing our Thanksgiving turkey so y’all can use this tutorial for your Christmas dinner! Brining a turkey is a super simple process. It does take a little bit of planning ahead, but oh my goodness, it is SO worth it!

This recipe is tried and true. We have used this method for brining a turkey for several years now. And every year, I tell my husband the same thing: “This is the BEST turkey I’ve ever had!”

brined/smoked turkey sliced in a casserole dish ready to eat - Life Full and Frugal - How to Brine a Turkey

Why Brine a Turkey?

  • Salt locks in moisture, making the finished product tender and juicy.
  • It also seasons the meat and helps it to absorb the spices.
  • Think of brining a turkey as internal basting. Only this is better, because you don’t have to continually baste. It’s already done from the inside out! 

What is the Salt to Water Ratio for a Turkey Brine?

The general rule for salt to water ratio in brining a turkey is 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. We use both salt and sugar in this brining method. Sugar also adds flavor and helps the skin caramelize. Our method calls for a ratio of 1/2 cup sugar to 1 gallon of water.

How Long Should You Brine a Turkey?

When I was researching how long to brine a turkey, I found varying answers. Most of the suggestions I came across were between 12 to 24 hours.

Our method is a little different, because we always brine our turkeys for 36 hours. I did read that you should never brine a turkey for over 48 hours. Apparently it will cause the meat to have a spongy texture, which sounds super gross!

I’m sure this probably depends on how much the turkey weighs as well. However, we have used the same recipe/method for both a 14 and a 17 pound turkey with fantastic results! I love that this method frees up time to prep, bake and set the table for Thanksgiving (or Christmas!) dinner!

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How to Brine a Turkey:

What You Will Need:

  • A Cooler This frees up your refrigerator so the turkey doesn’t take up all that valuable real estate! (We like this one because it has wheels and a luggage handle)
  • Giant Ziploc Bag This isn’t completely necessary, but it sure does make cleanup easier. Just make sure the bag is BPA FREE.
  • Ice – If you live in a really cold climate, you can obviously skip this step and just place your cooler outside in the cold. But if you live in the south country, you will need to surround the turkey with ice in the cooler.
ingredients for a turkey brine - How to Brine a Turkey - Life Full and Frugal

Ingredients for the Turkey Brine:

  • 12-15 lb. Turkey (any size, really)
  • 2 Quarts Plus 1 1/2 Gallons Water
  • 2 cups Salt
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 2 Lemons, halved
  • 6 cloves of Garlic, crushed
  • 3 Bay Leaves
  • 1 medium Onion
  • 3 sprigs Fresh Rosemary (or 1 TBSP dried)
  • 1 TBSP Thyme
  • 1 TBSP Sage1 tsp.
  • 1 tsp. Black Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. AllSpice
turkey in brine with lemons, onions, garlic, rosemary - How to Brine a Turkey - Life Full and Frugal

Directions for Brining a Turkey:

  1. Move turkey from freezer to fridge at least 4-5 days before brining.
  2. Gently warm 2 quarts of water in a large sauce pan. Add the salt and sugar, then whisk to dissolve. Next, add remaining brine ingredients. Whisk until well incorporated. Allow to cool completely.
  3. Place giant ziplock bag in the cooler and park it right by your sink.
  4. Remove neck and giblets from turkey, rinse it off with cool water, then transfer it to your ziplock bag in the cooler.
  5. Pour the brine over turkey inside the bag, along with the remaining 1 1/2 gallons of water.
  6. Next, remove as much air out of the bag as possible while twisting it tightly. Wiggle the turkey inside the bag until completely surrounded by the brine. Secure the bag with a zip tie or a heavy duty twist tie.
  7. If you live in a warm climate, fill the cooler with ice and allow it to sit in the brine for 12-36 hours. If you live in a colder climate, simply place the turkey in the cooler and set it outside where it will stay nice and cold in the sub-freezing temperatures.

How to Prepare a Brined Turkey for Cooking:

When it is time to cook your turkey, remove it from the brine, then give it a light rinse with cool water. Pat it dry with paper towels, removing as much water as possible.

At this point I like to rub the skin with a mixture of 1/2 stick of butter and 1 tsp. of Cajun blend seasoning. Now your turkey is ready to cook with your preferred cooking method!

How Long to Cook a Turkey?

When it comes to how long you should cook a turkey, I found this article from Allrecipes really helpful. They recommend roasting an unstuffed turkey in a 350 degree oven for 13 minutes per pound. The ideal internal temperature for turkey is 165 degrees. 

golden brown smoked turkey resting in casserole dish next to big green egg smoker - How to Brine a Turkey - Life Full and Frugal

For Smoked Turkey:

We always smoke ours in a ceramic smoker with apple wood chunks. It cooks so efficiently, it never takes as long as you would expect. This year we smoked a 14 lb. turkey in 5 1/2 hours, and it was PERFECT! 

If you have a ceramic grill/smoker, you might consider investing in a SMOBOT. They are a little pricey, but they take all the guess work out of managing temperature control. The kit even comes with two internal temperature probes and will notify you when the turkey reaches 165 degrees. My husband is quite the grilling enthusiast, and he has been very happy with how the SMOBOT performs. 

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How to Brine a Turkey - Life Full and Frugal


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