Choosing a Turkey Brine Recipe: Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine? (2024)

With your bird in hand—a Thanksgiving turkey, perhaps—it's time to decide: dry brine or wet brine? If you're wondering how to brine a turkey—a technique that retains a turkey's moisture and improves its flavor—you have two options: dry brine in a salt-heavy rub or soak the turkey in a flavored saltwater solution, both of which have their benefits and drawbacks.

The choice to dry brine or wet brine a turkey depends on several factors. Let us guide your decision-making process by explaining the differences between dry and wet brining, presenting their pros and cons, and then providing a step-by-step procedure for each brining method.

What Is Brining?

The magic of brining is all about salt. You can use other flavoring ingredients to a brine—sugar, spices, and citrus zest are common—but they're ancillary. The difference between the two brining options is in how the salt works.

Technically speaking, brine—whether it's dry or wet—infuses meat with salt, which breaks down its muscle protein strands, allowing water to absorb into the muscles. While the turkey cooks, its muscles can't contract because the salt destroyed its protein strands. This reduces the amount of liquid that's expelled from the bird, helping it retain moisture and leaving you with a deliciously juicy showstopper.

Dry Brine

A dry brine draws the turkey's natural moisture out of the meat. Salt mixes with the turkey's juices and is then reabsorbed into the meat. This very concentrated brine breaks down muscle proteins and prevents them from squeezing out liquid during the cooking process.

Wet Brine

In a wet brine, a bath of salt-infused water saturates the meat. The water solution plumps the bird with infused liquid, and the salt helps the muscles retain that liquid during cooking.

Is Dry Brining or Wet Brining Better?

Both brining techniques are effective ways for making turkey (as well as pork and lamb) moist and juicy. That makes the decision between the dry vs. wet brining come down to just a handful of factors.

Space Demands

If you have limited refrigerator space, a dry brine may be your friend. Both techniques require valuable shelf space, but here's the difference:

  • With a dry brine, you only have to refrigerate the turkey, not a large bucket or vessel of saltwater and raw turkey juices.
  • For a wet brine, the turkey must remain fully submerged in a large pot or bucket of saltwater during refrigeration, consuming a larger portion of hot real estate: that is, your fridge space over the holidays.

Alternatively, you can wet brine turkey outside of the fridge in a cooler, but you have to carefully monitor the cooler’s inside temperature to ensure the turkey and its brining solution stay below 40°F. (Above that threshold, bacteria multiply quickly and risks foodborne illness.)

Flavor vs. Moisture

Are you more interested in using the brining process to infuse flavor into your turkey or to add moisture? Your answer may determine whether a dry or wet brine is best for you:

  • A dry brine imparts a richer, more intense flavor directly into the meat because of the close contact between the dry-rub mixture and the turkey meat.
  • A wet brine adds more moisture to your turkey.

While a juicy, moist turkey sounds great, the problem with wet brining is that added moisture can leave your turkey very juicy, if not a bit watery. Brining in a richly-concentrated liquid like homemade chicken stock won't do much good either. The turkey only picks up salt and water from the wet brine, which means any flavor impact from aromatics is minimal.

Comfort Level

The wet brining process is not for the squeamish, and its "ick" factor may be a consideration for which brine you choose:

  • For a dry brine, all you have to do is remove the turkey's packaging, pat the bird dry, and then apply the dry rub.
  • For a wet brine, you have the issue of managing a slimy bird in a vat of swirling meat juice.

If handling a cumbersome and slippery 20-pound raw turkey doesn't appeal to you, you're not alone. That may be enough to deter even the most seasoned Thanksgiving cook from using the wet brine technique.

How to Dry Brine a Turkey

Start the dry brining process the day before serving, ensuring your turkey is properly thawed.

What You Need:

  • Kosher salt
  • Herbs and spices (as desired)
  • Turkey
  • Paper towels
  • Butter (optional)
  • Rimmed baking sheet and rack

Step 1: Create the Dry Brine

Not surprisingly, the amount of salt needed for a dry brine depends on the size of your turkey. As a rule, use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 2 pounds of turkey. For example, for an 8-pound turkey, that comes out to 4 tablespoons of salt.

You can add other dry herbs and spices to your dry brine mixture. Make any combination you prefer—black pepper, paprika, sugar, rosemary, thyme, and oregano are common—and then mix well with the salt.

Step 2: Pat-Dry the Turkey

Empty the bird's cavity and then thoroughly dry the surface of your turkey with paper towels. This is important becausea wet turkey doesn't brown properly and can result in a soggy roast due to excess steam.

Step 3: Rub with Butter (Optional)

A salt brine has the tendency to make turkey skin tough, which makes basting it with butter (or other basting medium) after brining more difficult. To counteract this, you may want to rub butter—seasoned or plain—between the turkey skin and meat before starting a dry brine. This easy self-basting technique helps flavor the meat while it roasts, helping keep it moist and delicious.

Step 4: Dry-Rub the Turkey

Gently rub the salt (or salt-seasoning mixture) over the surface of the turkey and inside the turkey's cavity.

Step 5: Refrigerate

Set the turkey on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet, transfer the uncovered turkey and baking sheet to the refrigerator, and let the turkey brine for 12 to 24 hours.

Step 6: Brush and Roast

After brining, you can brush off the remaining dry brine if you want or leave it in place to provide extra flavor while roasting. From here, you can roast the turkey according to your recipe's instructions.

How to Wet Brine a Turkey

Start the wet brining process the day before serving, ensuring your turkey is properly thawed. If you prefer extra-crispy skin (see Step 8), you may want to start two days ahead.

What You Need:

  • Container for brining
  • Salt
  • Herbs and spices (optional)
  • Paper towels
  • Rimmed baking sheet and rack

Step 1: Choose a Suitable Container

The selection of your container for brining determines how much water you'll need for a wet brine and, in turn, how much salt. Suitable containers range from a stockpot, enamel-coated pot, 5-gallon plastic bucket, cooler, and plastic food storage container to specially made brining containers sold commercially.

Here's what not to use for wet brining: trash cans, trash bags, your sink, or any container that's not food-safe. You can opt for a non-food-safe container only if you line it with a large brining or oven-roasting bag.

Besides being food-safe, the most important consideration is to ensure your turkey fits in your container and can be fully submerged with a few inches to spare. If in doubt, this is best tested with a wrapped turkey before adding water. If you can't find a container big enough to fully cover your turkey, it's acceptable for your turkey to pop up a bit above the waterline, provided you rotate your bird periodically so all sides get a briny treatment.

If you plan to wet brine in the refrigerator, make sure your selected container will fit, adjusting shelf heights as necessary. Plan ahead and test for fit with an empty container, not with one full of salt water and raw turkey.

Step 2: Determine How Much Water You Need

For wet brining, you need enough water to completely submerge your turkey, plus a few extra inches. You can estimate how much water you need, or perform this little test:

  1. With your turkey thawed but still wrapped, put it in your selected container and fill it with water to a few inches above the turkey.
  2. Remove the turkey and measure the water remaining. That's the amount to base your salt content on.

Step 3: Create the Wet Brine

The salt-to-water ratio is the most important part of a wet brine. Knowing how much water you need—by estimate or actual—you can determine how much salt is required.

A good rule of thumb is 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. For example, an 8- to 12-pound turkey requires about 2 cups of salt in 2 gallons of water to fully submerge the bird.

For a wet brine, the type of salt is not as important because it doesn't directly contact the turkey as it does for a dry brine. In this case, using an inexpensive table salt is fine.

Step 4: Add Aromatics (Optional)

You're welcome to add the following aromatics to your wet brine solution:

  • Bay leaves
  • Peppercorns
  • Garlic
  • Whole allspice
  • Hearty herbs like rosemary and thyme
  • Citrus zest

You can also add sugar: about ¼ cup for every cup of salt.

When you've selected the added ingredients you want, bring them to a boil with some of the saltwater you've reserved for brine. Let the infused liquid cool completely, and then add it to your brining vessel with the rest of your solution.

Step 5: Submerge the Turkey in Brine

Carefully remove any plastic wrappings from the turkey and empty its cavities. Next, gently lower the bird into your container with brining solution. If the turkey floats above the waterline (and it probably will), weigh it down with a clean plate or platter so the whole bird is submerged.

Step 6: Refrigerate

Let the turkey brine in your saltwater solution at least overnight (8 hours) or up to 24 hours. If you're brining in a cooler (instead of a refrigerator), ensure you keep the turkey and brining liquid below 40 °F during the entire process. If needed, rotate the bird during brining so all sides get coverage.

Step 7: Remove and Pat-Dry the Turkey

After the brining is complete, remove your turkey from its brine and discard the solution. Place the turkey on a rack in a rimmed baking pan and then pat it dry with paper towels. Your turkey is ready to roast according to your recipe's directions.

Step 8: Re-refrigerate (Optional)

If you like the texture and juiciness of a wet-brined turkey but adore crispy skin, you can take your wet-brine process one step further and let your turkey dry in the fridge overnight. Here's how: After removing the turkey from the brine and patting it dry, place the bird on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet, uncovered, and place it in the fridge. This extra step helps wick away the remaining moisture on the turkey's surface and in its skin, leading to delicious browning when roasted.

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Choosing a Turkey Brine Recipe: Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine? (2024)

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