The secret to a really juicy, flavorful turkey is all about brining. There are two kinds of brining – wet and dry. Wet brining involves soaking the turkey in a concentrated salt and sugar solution. Dry brining is more like a spice rub. Both add loads of flavor. If you haven’t tried it yet, do it this year and be prepared to be amazed at the difference!
I’m going to demonstrate how to brine a turkey using the dry method because it’s so, so, so much easier than wet brining since it takes up less room in the fridge. But I’ve also included notes on how to wet brine at the end of the post.
How To Pick the Right Turkey
Brining is only beneficial for fresh turkeys that do not have any broth or salt solution injected into them. Look for it on the label. Most of the turkeys you’ll find at the grocery store will have already been pre-seasoned in some way. If it says something like “enhanced with _% salt (or broth) solution,” then skip it, that turkey has already been “brined.” Also, turkeys that have been koshered have already been salted.
If it says “all-natural turkey” and there aren’t any other ingredients on the label, that’s the one you want to get. If the turkey is frozen or partially frozen (which is allowable by law when labeling it as a “fresh turkey”), then it will need to be thawed for a day or two before you start the brining process.
How To Make a Dry Brine Salt Rub
A lot of dry brining recipes just call for kosher salt. I like to add a blend of herbs when I’m brining the turkey. It’s totally personal preference. Spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and/or nutmeg could also be added or used in place of the herbs. Basically, the turkey is going to draw in the flavors from the salt rub, so whatever you put in there will be absorbed into the meat.
How To Dry Brine a Turkey – A 3-Day Process
After the turkey has been thawed the brining process takes three days. The easiest way to dry brine is by putting the turkey in a giant 2.5-gallon resealable plastic bag. If you can’t find a bag like the one pictured, a turkey bag is an okay substitute (though it might leak) or a clean, plastic garbage bag. This helps keep all the juices trapped inside the bag instead of all over your refrigerator. Also, be sure to keep the turkey on a tray or in a glass baking dish just in case the bag leaks. (I’ve never had a problem.)
Combine the kosher salt with the spices. This turkey is 9 pounds. The rule of thumb is 1 tablespoon kosher salt per 5 pounds of turkey. (Mine was about 9.57 pounds, so I used 2 tablespoons.) To the salt I added 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, and 4 bay leaves, which I tore into small pieces. For a larger turkey, double the amount of herbs.
Remove the turkey from the packaging. Remove the giblets and neck from the cavity. Rinse it out with cool water. (There’s some debate on whether that’s useful or safe, but I always do it.) Pat the turkey dry and place it in the large bag. Sprinkle about half of the salt rub mixture inside the cavity. Sprinkle the rest evenly over the rest of the turkey. Use your hands to rub it into the skin and under the wings and inside of the legs. Close up the bag, put it on a tray or in a baking dish breast-side up, and place in the bottom of the fridge for 24 hours.
DAYs 2 and 3
On days two and three, take the turkey out of the fridge (but not the bag), turn it over a few times to distribute the juices that have accumulated in the bottom of the bag and put it back in the fridge. On the day three, return the turkey to the fridge breast-side down.
About 30 minutes before roasting, remove the turkey from the fridge. Open the bag and as you lift it out, let any of the juices drip back down into the bag. Place the turkey on a tray and pat it dry. Let it stand for 30 minutes, then rub the entire surface of the turkey (get into all the nooks and crannies) with unsalted butter, about 2-4 tablespoons is plenty depending on the size of the bird.
How To Roast a Turkey
To roast the turkey, I use the method given by America’s Test Kitchen in the American Classics cookbook. Heat oven to 400°F. Turn the buttered turkey breast-side down on a V-rack set inside a roasting pan. Add diced onion, carrots and celery to the pan, along with 1 cup of water.
Roast the turkey, breast-side down for 1 hour, then reduce oven temperature to 250°F and roast for an additional 2 hours.
Remove turkey from oven and carefully turn it breast-side up using oven mitts or big wads of paper towels to protect your hands from the heat. Raise the oven temperature back to 400°F and roast the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165°F in the breast and 170-175°F in the thickest part of the thigh.
This will take another 1 to 1 1/2 hours or more depending on the size of the turkey. (These directions are for a 12-15 pound turkey, so my little 9.75 pound turkey didn’t take this long to roast.) If the breast is browning too quickly, form a large triangle out of foil and cover just the turkey breast while it roasts.
When it reaches the proper temperature, remove from the oven, cover with foil and let rest for 30 minutes before carving.
FAQ + OTHER Turkey TIPS
- Roasting breast-side down is essential to a really juicy turkey. It is shielded from the high heat during the bulk of the roasting time and exposed to it for long enough to finish cooking through, which allows the skin to crisp up nicely.
- No, the turkey will not be too salty. The salt draws the natural juices from the turkey, dissolves the salt and the seasoned juices are drawn back into the meat. The 1 tablespoon per 5 pounds will not give you overly salty meat. However, when making gravy from the drippings, you’ll want to use unsalted broth because they (the drippings) will be more seasoned (i.e., salty) than normal.
- This process can be shortened to 1 day if needed, but 3 days yields a better seasoned turkey.
- I don’t cook the stuffing inside the turkey. It can be cooked inside the turkey, but it may end up a tad saltier than normal. Also, be sure to increase the roasting time. Microwaving the stuffing (a tip from America’s Test Kitchen) before placing it inside the turkey will help ensure it’s cooked through.
- More aromatics like onion, garlic, apple halves or citrus can be placed inside the cavity to add even more flavor, but the roasting time will increase slightly.
- Tying the turkey legs together helps elevate them and they will cook more evenly. Most turkeys will come with some sort of metal or even plastic apparatus. But if not, just tie with kitchen twine.
- The wings can be clipped off to use in making turkey stock. I usually keep them on because it looks nicer when presented at the table. I do, however, tuck them behind the turkey because it makes it easier to turn. They can also be trussed to the side of the bird using twine.
- This is how I carve a turkey. (p.s. Alton Brown is my favorite. I think this video demos the carving process better than any of the others out there.)
How To Wet Brine a Turkey
Dissolve 4 cups kosher salt (or 2 cups table salt) and 4 cups sugar in 2 gallons of water in a large container or brining bag. Add the turkey along with any desired aromatics (herbs, spices, garlic, onion, etc.) to the container or bag. Secure the container or bag and place in a very cool spot (40°F or colder) for 8 hours, or overnight. For longer brining, cut the amount of salt and sugar in half or double the water. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry, then roast as directed above.
And that’s it! A juicy, tender turkey that your guests will rave about, and more importantly, will make the best sandwiches ever!