Brine and Cook a Turkey with Ease—Really!
“If it were only that simple,” you might be saying right about now. Cooking a whole turkey, whether wild or domestic, can seem like a daunting task. But trust me, with just a few steps, you can have a perfect turkey on the table.
We all covet those beautiful turkeys we see people put on that festively decorated Thanksgiving or Christmas table. I can almost taste it: crispy skin with tender, flavorful meat. You can create a perfect turkey every time by following the steps below for your chosen method of cooking.
In this article I give step-by-step instructions and tips for:
- Wet vs. dry brining and how to do each
- Spatchcocking the turkey for faster cooking
- Roasting a whole turkey
- Frying a turkey
- Smoking a turkey
Wild vs. Domesticated Turkey
If you are cooking a wild turkey, you will want to make sure it has aged properly. I prefer dry aging my meat before it is frozen. During dry aging, the meat needs to be surrounded by a constant air temperature of 34-37 degrees. This denatures (breaks down) the meat.
A domesticated turkey from the grocery store, on the other hand, is ready to cook. You can thaw the meat as per the instructions and then begin with a brine.
If you decide to spatchcock your bird (which I highly recommend), you can brine it either before or after you spatchcock.
- If I want to wet brine the turkey, I will spatchcock after brining.
- On the other hand, if I plan to dry brine, I will spatchcock the turkey before putting the dry rub on the bird.
How to Brine a Turkey: Two Methods
Brining ensures moisture will be retained in the meat during the cooking process. There are two types of brine; a wet brine and a dry brine. Salt is the key component to both.
Wet Brine a Turkey
A wet brine is simply a mixture of salt, water, and spices used to season and retain moisture in meats. Along with the salt, the water gets absorbed at the cellular level into the bird. This ensures a moist turkey on the table.
I enjoy a lightly flavored brine that enhances the turkey’s flavor, especially if cooking a wild turkey. In addition to salt, I find that acid assists in poultry prep by aiding in the breaking down of muscle fiber and connective tissue to further enhance tenderness and flavor. I also add sugar to balance the saltiness and sourness. To me, it’s a perfect balance.
Prepare the brine to your favorite flavor profile; just be sure to have at least an 8% salt to water by weight to ensure the retention of water during cooking.
Problem: Wet brining a whole turkey can prove troublesome because the bird has to stay completely submerged in the brining solution. You may not have enough room in your refrigerator to keep the turkey and brine cold for the entire brining process.
Solution: Place the brine in a trash bag inside a cooler. By periodically pouring ice into the bag, you can ensure that your turkey will remain at a safe temperature (between 35 and 40 degrees F).
Tip: To keep the brine from getting too diluted, you can wrap the bag around the turkey and pour ice over the bag.
Timing: I brine my turkey for 24 to 48 hours.
When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the brine and then rinse and dry it very well.
Watch me demonstrate how to wet brine a turkey for the Outdoor Channel:
Turkey Wet Brine Recipe
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup salt
- 5 cloves garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon pepper
- peel of one lemon
- In a large pot, bring water, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, and salt to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn off the heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Add the garlic cloves, bay leaves, pepper, and lemon peel. Allow mixture to cool completely. Add 4 cups of ice to the mixture.
- Place a large plastic trash bag inside a cooler. Put the clean, dry turkey inside the cooler and pour the brine over the turkey. Periodically check the temperature of the cooler. It should remain between 35 and 40 degrees F. Leave the turkey in the brine for 24 hours.
Close the bag around the turkey and pour ice over the bag to ensure a consistent right temperature.
Dry Brine a Turkey (Dry Rub)
I often use dry brines, especially with venison and beef, as detailed in my post Tenderizing Tough Cuts of Meat with the Best Dry Rub Recipe.
A dry brine works equally well with a turkey. A dry brine will help your turkey retain its natural moisture.
Problem: Tough cuts of meat are usually tough due to the connective tissue and muscle fiber in the meat of the animal.
Solution: Kosher salt breaks down the protein and improves the texture of the meat. How? It draws out the hydrogen while leaving oxygen in the muscles. As a result, lactic acid forms. The acid then breaks down the fibers in the muscles and connective tissue.
To use this method, combine salt and spices and rub vigorously into the meat. Refrigerate uncovered overnight to allow the spices to permeate flavor into the meat while tenderizing it.
Tip: Keeping the turkey uncovered will help dry the skin producing a much more crispy skin. My Favorite!
In the video below, I show you how to spatchcock, dry brine, and smoke a turkey:
Turkey Dry Brine Recipe
- 1/2 cup Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary minced
- 3 Tablespoons garlic powder
- In a medium-sized bowl, mix salt, brown sugar, rosemary, and garlic powder until fully incorporated. Place turkey on a roasting rack inside a large roasting pan. Pat mixture all over the entire surface area of the turkey, inside and out. Chill in the refrigerator uncovered (air needs to surround the turkey) for 48 hours.
- About 1 hour before you will be cooking the turkey, remove turkey from refrigerator and rinse thoroughly. Pat turkey until completely dry. Allow to come to room temperature before you cook the bird. It will cook more evenly and more quickly.
- Your turkey has been brined and is now ready to fry, roast, or smoke!
Fresh Garlic or Garlic Powder?
I’m a huge believer in using fresh garlic, but I make an exception for dry brines. I find that incorporating garlic powder with the other dry brining ingredients not only is convenient but tastes better. The garlic powder adds “just enough” flavor to the meat without overpowering it.
Slate.com states my exact sentiment with much more finesse: “but garlic powder acts like glue behind glitter, adding a subtle fullness of flavor that may be more difficult to detect, but nonetheless makes the meal taste better.”
Cooking the Turkey
Now you’re ready to cook your turkey!
Roast Spatchcocked Turkey
Problem: Turkeys take such a long time to cook.
Solution: Spatchcocking is a way to get a turkey on the table fast.
Spatchcocking is really just a fancy term for removing the backbone from the bird before you roast it. Spatchcocked turkeys take less time to cook and also tend to cook more evenly than a whole roast turkey.
Other than when I fry a turkey whole, I prefer to spatchcock my turkey for more even cooking and crispier skin. If I wet brine the turkey, then I do the brining first. (You can reverse the steps if you’re doing a dry brine.)
Below is my Roast Spatchcocked Turkey Recipe.
Note: Don’t discard the backbone. It’s perfect for making a deep flavored broth!
Tip #1: Begin checking the turkey for doneness about 20 minutes after you reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Check the temperature every 15 minutes ensuring you do not overcook the turkey.
Tip #2: Don’t forget to allow the turkey to rest for at least 30 minutes on a cutting board before cutting. During this resting time, carry-over cooking will occur and the juices will redistribute, making a juicy bird.
Roast Spatchcocked Turkey Recipe
- 1 whole fresh turkey 12 – 14 pounds
- 1/2 stick melted butter
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
- 2 Tablespoon freshly ground pepper
- 2 teaspoon fresh rosemary minced
- 2 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped
- With the breast-side down, cut the backbone out of the turkey with heavy-duty kitchen shears. Save the backbone for making stock for gravy.
- Remove the wishbone from the turkey.
- Turn the bird over and flatten by pressing the middle of the turkey with both hands to break the breast bone.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- In a small bowl, combine melted butter, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme and mix well.
- Rinse and dry the turkey including the inside of the turkey.
- Place turkey on a roasting rack inside the roasting pan or on rack on a sheet pan. Tuck the wingtips under the breast.
- Liberally rub butter mixture on the skin and the on the inside of the turkey reserving 1/4 cup for basting.
- Place turkey in 450 degree oven for 30 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and baste with reserved butter mixture every 30 minutes.
- Roast the turkey until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees F., about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the size of your turkey and your oven.
- Remove turkey to a cutting board and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. Make gravy while you wait.
Roasting a Whole Turkey
I remember one year my mom made the best turkey I had ever had. I was 13 years old, and my Meme and Momsie were coming over. My mom took the roasted turkey out of the oven and I just had to get a pinch. It was the best pinch EVER!
The secret to that turkey was in the cooking method. She cooked on high heat for an hour or so then turned the oven off — yes, I said off — and in the morning, there was a gorgeous turkey waiting to be eaten.
Although I do not plan on cooking the turkey for 20 plus hours, I do use the technique of roasting at a high temperature for the first 45 minutes and then lowering the temperature to 350 degrees for the remainder of the cooking time.
See the recipe right below for steps and tips for roasting a whole turkey. Jump down further for tips on frying a turkey.
How to Roast a Turkey
Turkey Dry Rub
- 2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
- 1 Tablespoon freshly ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme chopped
Turkey Basting Recipe
- 1 stick melted butter
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Mix dry rub ingredients in a small bowl.
- Combine melted butter, olive oil, and garlic in a small bowl.
- Place turkey, breast side up, on a rack inside a roasting pan. Fill the bottom of the pan with about 1 cup of water to keep the drippings from burning the pan. Brush butter mixture over the entire turkey and inside the cavity of the turkey. Liberally massage turkey rub all over turkey. Reserve some of the butter mixture for basting during the cooking process.
- Roast turkey for 45 minutes or until skin is golden brown. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to roast turkey, basting with butter mixture every 30 minutes. After the second hour, begin checking the temperature of the turkey every 15 minutes to keep from overcooking.
- Remove turkey when an instant-read thermometer reaches 160 degree when thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the breast. Allow the turkey to rest on a cutting board for at least 30 minutes to one hour for carry-over cooking and to allow the juices to redistribute.
SHORTCUT to Roasting a Turkey – Instead of brining the turkey, add all dry rub and basting ingredients together and rub the turkey inside and out. Place in the refrigerator uncovered for 24 to 48 hours. Remove from oven and place in 425 degree oven for 45 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. With an internal thermometer, periodically check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast. When the temperature reaches 160 degrees, remove the turkey to a cutting board and allow to rest at least 30 minutes before carving.
Frying the Turkey
For many years, we have loved frying our turkey for the holidays. For one thing, it leaves me plenty of cooking space in the oven for the sides, which happen to be my favorite things. Another advantage is that the men love hanging out and frying the turkey for me, so there is one less item on my to-do list.
There are several culinary advantages to frying a turkey as well. For one thing, this method dramatically reduces cooking time. Take a look at the stats:
- Roasting a Spatchcocked Turkey: 8 to 10 minutes per pound on average
- Roasting a Whole Turkey: 20 minutes per pound on average
- Smoking a Turkey: 30 minutes per pound on average if temperature is around 120 degrees
- Frying a Whole Turkey: 3 to 5 minutes per pound on average
Along with reduced cooking time, super crispy skin and juicy, delicious meat will await you!
Though the advantages are many, there are a few challenges to frying a turkey. When I had young kids, I worried about the hot oil for safety reasons. Of course, adults using caution will have no problems. However, you may encounter the issue of an unevenly cooked bird.
Problem: If you don’t have the right amount of oil in the fryer, only some of your bird will get done.
Solution: As far as knowing how much oil to use, there is a simple trick that always works. Simply place the turkey inside a pot or bucket large enough to hold the turkey and fill with water over the turkey 3 inches. Then remove the turkey from the vessel and measure the amount of water left. Use this measurement to determine the amount of oil you will need for frying.
Brining the turkey always leaves me with a much better bird than those I don’t brine before frying. The meat tends to dry out more quickly when frying than when using other cooking methods, but not if brined and not overcooked.
It is best to use turkeys that are less than 12 pounds when frying.
Below are step-by-step instructions for frying a whole turkey.
Frying a Whole Turkey
- 4 to 5 gallons cooking oil peanut oil if no one has allergies to peanuts, for a 12 to 14 pound turkey in a 30 quart pot
- 1 12 to 14 pound turkey
- Turkey Dry Rub mixture of 2 Tbsp. Kosher salt, 1 Tbsp. pepper, 1 tsp. garlic powder, 2 tsp. thyme, 2 tsp. rosemary
- Bring oil in the fryer to 375 degrees.
- Dry the brined turkey and cover with the dry rub, inside and out.
- Once the oil reaches 375 degrees, SLOWLY lower the turkey into the hot oil until fully submerged. This should take at least 5 minutes. The temperature of the oil will drop. Bring the temperature of the oil back up to 350 degrees and continue to cook at 350 degrees until the turkey is done, 40 to 50 minutes or when the instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reaches 165 degrees.
Smoking the Turkey
Smoking meat rocks! I can’t say it any more clearly than that. I thought my roasted chicken tasted just as good as smoked chicken, but my husband begged to differ. We had a cook-off to determine who as correct. Hands down, smoked meat has a flavor that just can’t be touched. Don’t get me wrong, I love roasted meat — but side-by-side, smoked flavor rules.
Smoking meat is one of life’s treats to me. I love to use my smoker and cook chicken, sausage, and pork butt all at one time. Then we feast throughout the week on the bounty.
Smoked turkey is just fabulous. You get tender, succulent, juicy meat with a crispy exterior packed with flavor. What’s not to love?
Perfect Smoked Turkey Recipe
Perfect Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 1 turkey 12-14 pounds
- 1/4 cup butter melted
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 tablespoons Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
- Rinse the turkey and dry thoroughly.
- Spatchcock the turkey for more even cooking.
- Place turkey breast side up on a sheet pan. Liberally rub butter-herb mixture completely over entire turkey. Refrigerate 24 to 48 hours uncovered.
- Remove turkey from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature while your grill or smoker is reaching 225 degrees.
- Oil the rungs of the rack to keep the bird from sticking.
- Bring either the grill or smoker to 225 degrees. Add several chunks of hickory or apple wood (they burn more slowly and won’t overtake the flavor of the turkey) to the smoker or on top of the charcoal if using a grill.
- Place turkey in the middle of a smoker or on the grill preheated to 225 degrees. Maintain temperature between 225 to 250 degrees during entire cooking process, 2 to 2 1/2 hours depending on the size of the bird. Account for 11-13 minutes per pound.
- Once the bird reaches 160 degrees, remove from the smoker and cover loosely with foil and allow to rest 30 minutes before carving.
– Happy Thanksgiving from Stacy Lyn!
Here are more of my top holiday recipes.