How to brine a turkey for a Thanksgiving feast


A few years ago, I watched food guru Alton Brown propound the virtues of brining a turkey. He explained that the salt water brine changes the turkey’s cellular structure so that it holds more moisture, while seasoning the meat.

Patsy R. Brumfield The Southfacin' Cook

Patsy R. Brumfield
The Southfacin’ Cook

Boy, was he right! This has been my favorite way to roast a turkey ever since, and I’ve got a least one friend who insists it saved his family holiday meal. Amen, brother.

Of course, this recipe and approach can be used with other meats, especially chicken. For example, if you’d like to roast a whole, fresh chicken, half the recipe below.

You also should change your perspective on how long to cook the bird. Buy yourself a meat thermometer and cook by the internal temps, not how long it’s been cooking. You’ll be amazed at how much more flavorful the meat will be.

Header image is from and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported license.


 I have lots of Turkey Day guests, so I buy two birds – the biggest one I can find and then another, probably 16-18 pounds for leftovers. There’s almost nothing worse than not having enough turkey for those gorgeous sandwiches with homemade mayo (recipe), a little layer of dressing (recipe) and a slather of cranberry sauce.


  • 2 large plastic garbage bags (the unscented kind)
  • large container like my gumbo pot which will fit into your refrigerator
  • measuring equipment
  • chopping board
  • knife
  • long-handled wooden spoon

This recipe is for a 14-16 pound whole turkey. I make only slight adjustments because my birds are bigger.


  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons garlic or 3 whole cloves
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 cinnamon sticks or 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 2 gallons water


Two to three days before roasting, begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees F.

Day before your feast:

Combine the brining ingredients in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring the liquid to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature and refrigerate.

Take your plastic bags, inserting one into the other.

Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) into the plastic bags, breast side down, and then place the bagged turkey into the large pot, which will hold it in the fridge. Pour your brine into the turkey bag. Leave a little air in the brine bag, then twist the top tightly closed. If you don’t want to use bags, weigh down the bird in a large pot to ensure it is fully immersed and cover the pot. Refrigerate or set in a cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.



  • large roasting pan with metal rack on which to place the bird (no lid needed)
  • aluminum foil
  • probe thermometer

INGREDIENTS (besides your thawed turkey)

  • 1 red apple, sliced
  • 1/2 onion, sliced
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 celery stalk
  • vegetable oil


Remove your turkey from the fridge (leave it in the brine pot) an hour before you begin the following:

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Rinse the bird inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine. (I use this brine for my second turkey, which will go in the oven later in the day.)

Place the bird on the rack of roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, celery stalk and 1 cup of water in a microwave-safe dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add those steeped aromatics to the turkey’s cavity along with the rosemary and thyme. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with vegetable oil. You won’t need salt/pepper because they’re already in your turkey meat from the brine.

Boil a kettle of water. Before you close your oven with the turkey, pour about an inch of boiling water into your roasting pan. Try to maintain this level during the cooking. It will make the pan much easier to clean and give you some drippings to work with for gravy, if you like to do that.

Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes without the top on. Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 165 degrees. If the turkey breast begins to brown too much, make a tent of foil, slip it over the breast and continue baking. (I usually do this. The brown sugar in the brine almost always “darkens” the turkey skin as it roasts, so don’t be alarmed.)

A 14 to 16 pound bird should require about 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil for 15 minutes before carving.

Carve and enjoy! Happy Thanksgiving! And check out Patsy’s other holiday recipes.

Come back to every week for “Southfacin’ Cook,” where Patsy explains the basics to Southern cooking and eating. Contact her with suggestions, questions or requests at

Previous recipes from Patsy:

• Hummus
• Gumbo
• Quiche

One thought on “How to brine a turkey for a Thanksgiving feast

  1. Pingback: How to make homemade chicken-vegetable soup like a real Southerner | New in NOLA

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