Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey (brined)

For this recipe, you will need three 10-pound bags of ice, 1 gallon of apple cider vinegar, 1-2 boxes of Morton’s Course Kosher Salt (see the recipe below for different types of salt), white sugar, canola oil, aluminum foil, a cooler, a roasting pan, a meat thermometer, and, of course, a turkey.  Do not brine a turkey that is labeled as “self basting” or “deep marinated” or “kosher.”  These turkeys have already been brined.  “Enhanced with a broth of sodium phosphate…” etc is okay to brine.  Your brine will actually suck that brine out and replace it with yours!

There has been a Renaissance recently in the knowledge about cooking turkey.  In theory, Americans have been eating turkey on Thanksgiving for hundreds of years, but to be honest, it’s not a very delicious bird when cooked via the traditional method: a long, slow roast with continuous basting.  Basically all that does is overcook the meat until it’s dry and tough, and soak the skin over and over until it may LOOK golden and delicious, but in reality is soggy.

Brining is the ultimate way to cook meat, ensuring succulent, juicy meats that are tender and flavorful.  And you can pair it with ANY of the recently-popular cooking methods, whether that’s a high-temperature quick roast, a deep fry, or a smoke.

A brine is a liquid that has been salted to an exact ratio that allows the liquid to penetrate the walls of the meat cells, carrying the flavor and salt into the cell. The salt dissolves strands of protein and causes them to fall into something like jelly, which traps that liquid inside the cell. When the meat is cooked, more liquid stays inside, which means moist, flavorful meat. Brilliant! It’s like marinating on steroids, because the flavor actually goes into each individual meat cell, all the way through the meat.

Brining isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.  There’s a lot of bad information floating around the internet about brining.  Some people say that a brined turkey is more likely to kill you of salmonella.  (For starters, salmonella is a MILD disease, most people don’t even realize they have it, and it’s only dangerous in people with compromised immune systems…people who would be equally threatened by a common cold.)  Some people say you have to bring in your refrigerator.  (Totally not necessary, and practically impossible on Thanksgiving when refrigerator real estate is in high demand!)  Some people say you need to boil your brine first to incorporate all sorts of extraneous flavors like garlic and rosemary and bay.  (But then you have to wait for the brine to fully cool before you immerse the turkey in it!  While these other flavors may come through a bit, it’s actually overkill in my opinion.  But you can still add things like garlic and onion powder to the brine without having to cook the brine.)

So let me re-invent this whole brining process for you, the easy way!

FIRST – Thaw your turkey.  I’ve experimented with different ways of actually thawing the turkey IN the brine, but it doesn’t work unless your turkey is at least MOSTLY thawed.  But there’s a quick way to thaw a turkey.  First, thoroughly clean your sink (or the cooler you will later use to brine the turkey) and sterilize it by filling it completely with hot water and adding a cup of bleach.  Let it sit for 5 minutes, then flush and rinse.  Place your naked, unwrapped turkey in the sink, breast side down, fill the sink with cold water, and place a 10-pound bag of ice on top of the turkey to keep it submerged.

The USDA says it will take 30 minutes of thawing per pound to thaw a turkey this way, but they recommend keeping the turkey wrapped.  Removing the wrapping allows the water to directly contact all surfaces of the turkey, which speeds this process considerably.  Also, if you’ll leave the water on at a trickle, the movement of the water around the turkey will also speed the thaw.  The bag of ice will help keep the water cold and keep bacteria from flourishing inside the turkey.

(The USDA wants you to keep the turkey wrapped because they are afraid the water may carry bacteria into your turkey.  In my uneducated opinion, the FASTER you thaw the turkey, the better, and if you cook the turkey to the proper safe temperature, any bacteria in the turkey will be killed anyway.  Duh!)

A 12-pound hard-frozen turkey will generally thaw in 3-4 hours this way.  Once the turkey is thawed, remove any “extras” from the cavities on either end of the turkey.  The neck is generally placed in the large cavity, between the breasts.  Sometimes a bag of “giblets” or organs is hidden in the opposite cavity.  If you can’t get these out because they are still frozen to the turkey, run lukewarm water into the cavity for a minute or two to get them unfrozen.  You CAN brine the turkey even if these things are still frozen into the cavities, provided the meat on the turkey is pretty soft and mostly thawed.  DO NOT REMOVE any plastic thermometers that were placed into the turkey by the manufacturer.  DO remove any metal trussing clips, as these will corrode in the brine.  Squeeze them out (it’s a little hard) or cut them in half with pliers and work them out.  Plastic trussing is fine to leave on.

Once your turkey comes out of the thawing water, it needs to go into the brine VERY QUICKLY.

SECOND – Brine your turkey.  Start with a STERILIZED cooler, hopefully one that will accommodate the turkey fairly snugly so you don’t have to make a bunch of extra brine.  To sterilize the cooler, fill it with hot water to the brim, and add a cup of bleach.  Let it sit for 5 minutes, then rinse it out.  Do this AGAIN if you thawed the turkey in the cooler and sterilized it before the thaw.

Place your turkey into the empty cooler.  Add:

1 gallon of apple cider vinegar

Then add cool water, 1 gallon at a time, until the turkey just begins to float, keeping track of how many gallons of water you add.  You want to add whole gallons of water.  With the final gallon, it’s perfectly fine to stop about a quart short of the whole gallon…I’ll explain why later.

Remove the turkey from the cooler.  Then add salt and sugar in the following ratio PER GALLON of water:

1 1/2 cups Morton’s Kosher Salt (or 3/4 cup NON-iodized table salt, or 2 cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt)

1/4 cup white sugar

Add that much for EACH gallon of brine you made.  Then add ONE more set of salt and sugar, which will count for the 10-pound bag of ice you’re about to add.  So if you added 1 gallon of apple cider vinegar and 2 gallons of water to get the turkey to float, you will add 4 units of the above ratio…(ie 6 cups of Morton’s Kosher Salt and 1 cup of sugar).  P.S. The apple cider vinegar reeks, and you’ll be nervous that your turkey will taste like it, but it won’t…it’ll be delicious.

Get the biggest whisk you have, or a couple of wooden spoons, and stir the heck out of the brine.  It will turn cloudy and you won’t be able to see if there is still undissolved salt in the bottom, but if you’ll stir VIGOROUSLY for 2-3 minutes, most of it will get dissolved.  Then open another 10-pound bag of ice and empty it into the brine.  Then stir it around again vigorously.  Place the turkey into the brine, breast side down, and place an UNOPENED 10-pound bag of ice on top of the turkey to keep it submerged in the brine.

Place the lid on the cooler.  If it won’t go, place a folded blanket on top of the bag of ice to insulate it.  Leave the cooler in the coldest part of your house for the brining duration, which is 1 hour per pound of turkey.

THIRD – Roast the turkey!  About 20 minutes before the bird comes out of the brine, place your oven rack onto the lowest 1 or 2 positions, so the turkey will fit into the oven without scraping the top.  Then preheat the oven to 500 degrees.  (That’s NOT a misprint.)  Choose your roasting pan.  If you don’t have one large enough to fit the turkey, get one of those disposable aluminum ones at the grocery store, but make certain you place it on a baking sheet to support the bottom, as those are never strong enough to hold a turkey.  You do not need a roasting rack if you don’t have one, all it does is give you eatable meat on the bottom of the turkey, which isn’t meat you really eat anyway.  If you roast the turkey directly in a pan, it will overcook on the bottom where it contacts the pan bottom, and the meat along the bottom of the turkey will braise in the drippings, rather than roast.  (The lower thigh meat may end up a little overdone and salty.)

Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels.  (If you haven’t yet removed the neck and giblets, do so now.)  Do not rinse it.  Take a big square of aluminum foil and fold it in half diagonally into a triangle.  Press the triangle over the turkey breast, covering as much of the breast as possible.  (See the video for a great visual.)  Once you have shaped this “breastplate” which will later prevent the breast from overcooking, remove it and place it next to the oven so you can get to it later.

Rub the turkey all over with canola oil, getting into all the cracks.  DO NOT stuff the turkey.  That’s a terrible idea that MAY land everyone at your Thanksgiving table with food poisoning.  You can place aromatics inside the cavity…my favorites are rosemary and apple slices…but honestly they won’t contribute much flavor to your turkey.  They’ll just make the kitchen smell even better.

Truss the turkey with kitchen twine if you desire.  I don’t truss my turkeys.  Search YouTube for a trussing video if you want to truss your bird.  Trussing is primarily visual, it doesn’t affect flavor.

Place the turkey into the oven with the leg bones pointing toward the back wall of the oven.  Roast the turkey at 500F for 30 minutes.  Remove the turkey from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 350F.  Carefully place the foil breastplate onto the breast, and push the probe of your thermometer through the foil into the thickest part of the breast.  Try to avoid pushing it in so far that you contact bone, which will result in a false reading.  (Again, the video does a great job of showing you how.)  A remote probe thermometer is best, because the unit which displays the temperature stays outside the oven so you don’t have to open the oven door to see what the internal temp is.  But a regular dial meat thermometer will work.  (An LCD display will NOT work, as it is not meant to remain inside the oven.)  You will have to leave the thermometer inside the turkey until it comes out of the oven.

When the meat inside the breast reaches 161F, the turkey is done and SAFE to eat.  Any bacteria that might have existed inside the turkey have long since died.

Remove the turkey from the oven and gently tent with foil.  (Don’t wrap it tightly or you will steam the skin.)  Leave the thermometer in the meat.  Let the turkey rest a minimum of 15 minutes, preferably 30.  The temp will continue to rise for a few moments, then will gradually drop.  During this time, the juices that are boiling inside the turkey will cool and reabsorb into the meat.

Remove the thermometer, and any plastic thermometer that may have been in the turkey, and carve yourself the most juicy, tender, delicious turkey meat you’ll EVER taste!

***The juices from this turkey are VERY salty.  They cannot be used alone to make gravy, unless you like a REALLY salty gravy.  Use 1/4 cup of drippings to 3/4 cup of chicken stock to make an AMAZING gravy.***

38 Responses to Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey (brined)

  1. Ben Loved you since the show and have cooked my turkey each year this way since, the problem I have tho each year is the dark meat still has blood by the bones each year ( I carve the breasts and wings off and throw the rest back in the oven) would really like to NOT do this tho, any suggestions? ( old post I know)

  2. Hi from Lithuania! I tried brining a half of the chicken like this. It weighed 1.7 kg, so I left it in the brine for slightly more than 3 hours. Did not work though 🙁 The chicken was not brined through. The brine was quite salty, may be not salty enough? I tried to convert cups into ml here, and think I got the calculations right…

  3. I have a completely zany question.. I’m actually cooking two turkeys, I thought I could throw them into the same brining bag to save on apple cider vinegar, but if I’m brining hour per lb of turkey, should I still stick to 1 hour per lb? I imagine if I brined the combined turkeys (they are 12 each) for 24 hours that would be way too salty! The things that keep me up at night..

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