“Brining” has always been the secret method that chefs use to make a moist and flavorful baked turkey. Many years ago I asked a chef why her turkey meat tasted so good, and she led me back to the kitchen’s large, walk-in cooler filled with birds soaking in a fragrant bath. I immediately got her recipe.
But what is brining? There are two types: wet and dry. Dry brining is simply rubbing a turkey in a salt and herb mixture and letting it sit (refrigerated of course) for many hours (usually about one hour per pound). It's somewhat easier and more convenient than the alternative wet option, and advocates insist dry brining makes for a bird with a firmer meat texture, and the skin is sensational.
Wet brining, which does seem to be the most popular option, requires soaking a turkey in a salt-water solution (with herbs, spices, and sometimes even beer or molasses) for several hours or overnight. Still, with a solid recipe and a little know-how, giving your turkey a long, flavorful soaking bath is not difficult. Even better, the results are worth the effort.
Make sure your turkey fits your oven, roasting pan, and brining cooler. I have had more than one excited call from a reader who exclaims “what can I do?” when all the purchased turkey will not fit into their oven or roasting pan. Next assemble the ingredients, along with a thoroughly washed cooler with a tight lid and two brand new, non-leaking trash bags (test them). It is important to completely submerge the bird so make sure you have plenty of brine. Adjust the strength of brine if you change the duration of the brining. For instance, if a recipe calls for two gallons of water to two pounds of salt and a quick four to six hour soak, brine the turkey overnight by using half as much salt. The amount of salt is key, so use the specified amount.
Before soaking your thawed, clean turkey, be sure to whisk the brine to completely dissolve the salt. My recipe below requires a cooking step. Many cooks prefer to brine with kosher salt because its flaky texture dissolves easily. If you use table salt, just be sure to pay extra attention to the whisking step. Try incorporating the traditional Thanksgiving flavors — dried sage is a big one — or ingredients you're using in other dishes such as peppercorns, rosemary, or thyme.
A safe, convenient way to brine is to arrange a large nonporous plastic bag in a large bowl then place the turkey inside, breast side down, followed by the brine. Remove as much air as possible, seal the bag, and refrigerate it, or, put it into a cooler and cover the plastic bag with sealed plastic bags of ice. Make sure you have enough liquid to cover the bird. The bag and bowl method keeps everything neat and orderly and you don't have to worry about leaks and spills as your turn the bird over every 6 to 10 hours. I never had enough room in my refrigerator to hold a brining turkey, so I use a cooler set out in the garage with plenty of zip lock bags of ice on top. Put a thermometer on top to make sure the entire contents do not go above 40 degrees.
Once you remove the turkey from its overnight bath in brine, rinse it thoroughly with cold water, inside and out then pat it dry. Discard the brine solution and plastic bags. Scrub the cooler, or bowl with soap and water.
Also remember, never brine a kosher turkey as it's already been salted. You'll also want to avoid self-basted turkeys, which have added salt. Do not stuff a turkey if you brine it. The salt from the brine will soak into the stuffing and likely ruin it. I always brine overnight, turning the bird over once around midnight.
To basic brine a 10 to 14 lb. turkey, here is the recipe I use.
TURKEY BRINE RECIPE
16 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups kosher salt
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoon pickling spices (McCormick’s)
To roast the turkey, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove the turkey from the brine 30 minutes before roasting. Line a shallow roasting pan with long pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place the bird in a roasting pan.
I put 2 whole apples and 2 whole onions (peeled) inside the cavity, along with some fresh sprigs of herbs (thyme and sage, 2 sprigs each). Brush the outside with 4 tablespoons of melted butter; season all over with pepper.
Gather foil loosely on top and bake for 1 1/2 hours, or follow directions for weight of your bird. Open the foil and bake for 2 and 1/4 hours more, and watch thermometer like a hawk.
After foil is opened, baste every 30 minutes with broth and 2 tablespoons butter, until the turkey is golden brown and a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 165°F and the juices run clear. Transfer the breast to a cutting board; let rest for 15 minutes before carving.