Brining the Thanksgiving Turkey

There are a lot of choices available for selecting your Thanksgiving turkey but my preference has always been for the standard supermarket bird which I brine and rub under the skin with herb butter.

This posting will initially go up without pictures because I want to give people time to plan their meal.  When I do my own I will take pictures and add them to the posting. (I’ve cooked my turkeys like this for years but I only started blogging early this year so I never took pictures.)

Brining is a time-tested process for improving poultry and lean meats.  The brine is a solution of salt and sugar in which the meat soaks prior to roasting.  The salt and sugar penetrate the flesh imparting moisture and seasoning.  The result is moist delicious meat that might otherwise have been dry.  If you’ve ever eaten turkey breast meat that was cooked until it dried out, you will appreciate what brining can do.

If you’re interested in the science of brining (and it is interesting) there is an excellent explanation on the Cook’s Illustrated website. 

Their site uses a brine of straight water salt and sugar.  My Thanksgiving turkey brine is much more seasonal and imparts the flavors of fall.  Ingredients like apple cider add more sugar and a bit of acid to the mix, and the spices will transform a plain old turkey into resplendent autumnal feast.

This autumnal brine uses apple cider, ginger, bay leaves and other Thanksgiving-inspired spices.

One reasonable question when you see the amount of salt and sugar in the brine recipe is, “Won’t the meat be overly sweet and salty?”  The answer is no.  It will indeed season the meat, but not to the proportions of the brine itself.

If you buy an expensive free-range organic turkey, consult the vendor as to whether they think brining is necessary.  I find it more useful on a garden-variety supermarket bird than I would on some of these specialty products.

This does require advance planning because a bird the size of a turkey will need 12-24 hours in the brine. 

After the brine process is over, I recommend you rub herb butter under the skin of the turkey prior to roasting.  Done properly, this adds another 1-2 days to the process.  This means you need to begin preparing the turkey on Monday! 

Don’t have that kind of time?  No problem.  You could put the turkey in the brine on Wednesday morning, give it 12 hours, and rub the butter under the skin and refrigerate overnight.  It will then be ready to roast Thursday morning.

The recipe for the herbed butter rub will post tomorrow.

Brine Recipe

  • 1 Turkey
  • 2 quarts apple cider
  • 2/3 cup kosher salt (plain table salt can be used…I prefer kosher)
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 oz sliced fresh ginger
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 tsp crushed peppercorns
  • 2 tsp allspice
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 oranges, quartered
  • 2 kitchen sized trash bags

In a sauce pan, combine the cider, salt, sugar, ginger, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns, and allspice.  Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Let boil for 3 minutes (your house will begin to smell like Thanksgiving!)

Add some of the water to help the brine cool to room temperature.

The easiest way to manage this is to position the bags and turkey in a large bowl, or in my case in a small sink.

Remove the bag of giblets and stuff the turkey with the orange quarters. 

Double the trash bags and put the turkey in them.  Add the brine and the remaining water.  Draw the bags up and tie them tight.  Refrigerate for 12-24 hours.

Pour the brine in the bag and draw it up tight around the turkey.

Note: If you do not have room in your refrigerator for this you can use a large cooler.  Add a bag or two of ice around the turkey/brine bag and fill the cooler with water.  Make sure the brine is closed tight so the cooler water does not dilute the brine.

This arrangement takes little more space than the turkey in its original packaging but if fridge space is limited you can use a cooler with ice surrounding the bag.

When the turkey comes out of the brine, rinse it off and discard the brine.  Next I recommend rubbing herb butter under the skin for a self-basting turkey.

When it is time to roast, here are some instructions on that:  Roasting the Thanksgiving Turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving!



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