Cooking a turkey can be intimidating. They are large, cumbersome and everyone and their grandmother has a list of rules that CAN NOT be broken or else you’ll get the dreaded dry bird.
All your dry brining questions answered! How to dry brine a turkey to add flavor and get perfectly seasoned and succulent turkey everytime.
You know, like the one from National Lampoon’s Christmas vacation when Chevy Chase is nibbling and needs a whole glass of wine to force a bite down.
Some folks will insist that you use a Cajun injection or the best dry rub, or even the wine and butter cheesecloth method. When it comes down to it, it is all personal preference and I think they all have their benefits. See recipes for all of these below.
The most traditional way to brine a turkey is using a wet brine. Meaning to soak it in a salty water solution for about 24 hours.
However, a dry brine, the wet brine’s cousin, is can be just as effective with less mess.
I think most people are looking for a juicy turkey. Logically speaking, soaking a bird in water and osmosis doing its job, one would think that this would be the best way to get a moist bird, but dry brining has proved to be just as effective and even more foolproof at getting nicely browned and crispy skin.
Hopefully we’ll have some answers to your burning questions and will give you the confidence you need to make the best turkey ever!
What is a dry brine?
A dry brine, also known as pre-salting, is salt rub applied directly to the turkey without water. The salt mixture can be seasoned with fresh herbs, spices, citrus zests and even sugar to balance the acidity.
The hands-off part of process takes a little longer than a wet brine, but is less messy and requires less space than a giant cooler or brining bag. You can dry brine for 1 day, but 3-4 is the sweet spot.
The length also depends on the size of your bird. Under 18 pounds can get away with 3 days, while over 18 should aim for 4 days.
It will sit in your fridge covered for the first days and then uncovered for the last, resulting in seasoned meat, but also super crispy skin. This method is very similar to making crispy chicken skin or making Duck a’la Orange.
It seems scary to let is sit, all exposed, but as long as you handled it properly from thawing and cooking to the correct temperature, it will be fine.
How does salting a turkey make it more juicy?
It sounds like pre-salting should actually make the turkey more dry, doesn’t it? But this is science and things are happening that aren’t apparent to the naked eye.
Dry brining draws out the turkey’s natural moisture. Salt mixes with the juices and is reabsorbed into the meat which makes a super concentrated brine solution that breaks down the muscle proteins and prevents them from squeezing liquid out while cooking.
The last part is also what happens when a turkey is wet brined, just that salt has two different vehicles to get to the muscles. One is produced on its own and the other is through a wet brine.
Is a dry rub the same as a dry brine?
No, a dry brine is on the turkey for days, allowing a chemical reaction to happen. It will season the bird and produce its own concentrated brine. It is sometimes referred to as a salt brine or dry salt brine.
PRO TIP: Fresh herbs are best to take advantage of their natural oils, but you can also use dried herbs. The general substitution is 1 teaspoon of dried for every tablespoon of fresh.
A dry rub is good for throwing on right before you put the bird in the oven and will give you tasty skin, but won’t do anything to impact the rest of the meat.
What is the difference between a dry brine and a wet brine?
A wet brine is the most traditional of brining, but not the only method. Wet brining involves heating water with aromatics, spices, herbs and most importantly, salt.
After the water cools, the turkey is submerged in seasoned water for about 24 hours and then cooked. The water infuses the whole turkey with moisture and flavor.
Benefits are that it is faster and you can infuses the water with more flavors than a dry brine.
PRO TIP: Use an aluminum roasting pan and just throw it away after using.
A dry brine uses salt and no water. It can be seasoned with the same aromatics, spices and herbs, but omits the process of boiling and cooling water and also finding a vessel large enough for submerging the turkey. Instead you can place it on a serving dish and let it sit in the fridge for a few days.
The benefits of a dry brine are that it is easier, requires less prep time, less messy, takes up less space and naturally creates crispy skin.
Where do I apply the dry brine?
Dry brine is best applied evenly below the skin and over the skin with some being inside the cavity as well. Turkeys are big and have a lot of meat. Some areas are thicker and others thinner.
Putting part of the mixture under the skin takes less time to penetrate and putting it on the inside allows for it to sink in from both sides to reach all the way through faster.
How much turkey do I need person?
We recommend estimating 1 -1 1/2 pounds per person. This might sound like a lot, but remember much of the turkey is bones and other inedible parts. After you subtract out all of that you’ll have about ¾ pound per person and a little for leftovers.
These are our favorites ways to use up turkey leftovers.
Is it best to use a fresh turkey or a frozen turkey?
Fresh Turkey – The benefits of having a fresh turkey are knowing it hasn’t been sitting in a freezer for a ridiculous period of time and there is no need to thaw. Some people claim they are more flavorful, but I’ve never noticed a difference, especially after brining and roasting.
On the other hand, you’ll need to find a farm to purchase it from, which usually requires a hefty lead time, and will need to pick it up 1-4 days before cooking.
If you plan to dry brine, you’ll need to start working on the brine the day you pick it up.
Frozen Turkey – The benefits of a frozen turkey are being able to purchase it months before cooking it, they are typically a lot less expensive and you’ll have a wider range of sizes.
The downfall is that you’ll need to plan for thawing, which can take several days if you have a big bird.
How do I defrost a turkey fast?
Thawing a turkey is one thing I don’t usually recommend doing fast. Using the defrost function on the microwave will most certainly result in uneven thawing/cooking and rubbery texture.
To ensure proper handling and the least risk of foodborne illness, it shouldn’t sit at room temperature for long amounts of time.
These are the two most acceptable and safe ways to thaw a turkey:
Fridge – If you have the time (and the foresight) thaw in the fridge in original packaging for 24 hours for every 5 pounds of bird. Yes, a 15 pound bird will take about 3 days to thaw.
Water Bath – If you forgot to take the turkey out or it isn’t defrosting as fast as you like, you can give it a cold water bath in the sink. Change the water every 30 minutes to around room temperature (NOT HOT). Plan for 30 minutes for every pound of bird.
A 15 pound bird will take 7 ½ hours. changing the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound of bird.
The benefit of brining, either dry or wet, is that you can apply the brine while the turkey is still partially frozen. It will just continue to defrost. If you are using a dry brine, you’ll need to change the platter or pan it is sitting in daily to prevent it from pooling at the bottom or even overflowing if a shallow dish.
What type of salt should I use for dry brining?
We recommend using a coarse sea salt. Diamond Crystal tends to be the chef’s choice as it has the right amount of sodium without being too salty.
Morton’s has a little more sodium, so we recommend using about ¾ the amount in a recipe when using this brand.
Do not use a fine sea salt or iodized salt. It will be WAY too salty and if iodized, taste metallic.
You’ll be using a scant 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt for every 5 pounds of turkey. Avoid a heaping spoonful, it will be too much.
Do I need to rinse a dry brined turkey?
You do not need to rinse a dry brined turkey. There isn’t a huge amount of salt, like you would have in a wet brine, and rinsing it will defeat the purpose of letting it sit uncovered for a day and prevent crispy turkey skin.
Let me also say that they are many ways to make a “perfect turkey”, not just one. It might take several tries before you find the recipe that suites you and I can almost guarantee it will be some sort of combo of a few.
Can you dry brine turkey breast?
Listen, you can brine any piece of piece including a turkey breast. Just adjust the amount of seasoning based on the weight.
What type of pan should I use for roasting a turkey?
Much like making anything in a skillet, do not overcrowd the pan. Use a roasting pan larger than your bird and make sure the sides aren’t too tall. I suggest 2-3 inches tall. If it is any taller, you’ll risk steaming the turkey, which will make the skin soggy (and ruin the crisp!)
Also, try to use a raised roasting pan (has a wire insert or large grooves to catch the juices). Keeping it up and out of the liquids will help keep the skin crispy.
Can I smoke or fry a dry brined turkey?
You sure can! In fact, a dry brined turkey is perfect for frying because it is so dry and perfectly seasoned.
You can also smoke it or grill it, whatever floats your boat.
Do I need to inject or rub a dry brined turkey?
No, it should already be at full capacity for additional liquid and flavor, so there is really no need to inject or use turkey seasoning. In fact, it might make it too salty. I would also recommend omitting, or at least reducing, the amount of salt in basting liquids, if using too.
Your best bet is to just roast it as-is.
Tips for Dry Brining a Turkey:
- Salt is the star ingredient for any brine. DO NOT USE A FINE SALT. Use coarse salt, either Diamond Crystal or Kosher. Read above about my notes on picking salt.
- Use a plain free-roaming or heritage turkey. Do not use a Kosher, pre-seasoned or self-basting turkey, they have added salt and will be too salty.
- Make sure your turkey is defrosted or at least 75% thawed. If it isn’t fully thawed, remove pooling water from the pan or tray daily. Plan ahead so you have enough time to thaw AND brine (about 7 days for an average turkey).
- Plan for at least 3 days, if not 4, for dry brining. You can cook a turkey after 1 or 2 days, but it won’t reach it’s fully juicy and flavorful potential.
Here are our whole turkey recipes:
And if cooking a whole bird isn’t appealing to you, here are turkey breast recipes:
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Dry Brine for Turkey
For Dry Brine:
For Dry Brining:
- In a small bowl, mix together ingredients for the dry brine. You can just use salt or any combination of the ingredients listed above.
- Remove the turkey from the packaging. Remove the giblets and neck from inside the cavity and discard or save for another use. Remove or discard any plastic or metal cages or pop-up thermometers.
- Rinse turkey under cold water.Pat the turkey dry, inside and out with paper towels.
- Using your fingers, gently loosen the skin from the meat around the breast and legs. Try to keep the skin intact without holes. If you do make a hole, don’t sweat it, it just looks prettier after roasting, it won’t impact the taste.
- Season the inside cavity with 2 teaspoons of dry brine.
- Rub the reminder of the dry brine between the skin and meat and over the top of the skin evenly.
- Bend the wings back and tuck under the breast to secure.
- Place the turkey breast-side up in a roasting pan and refrigerate covered for 2-4 days. Check daily for pooling liquid, discarding as needed. On the last day, remove cover and allow to air dry.
- Do not rinse before cooking. From here follow any recipe you like or use the instructions for roasting below.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- In the bottom of a clean roasting pan add roughly cut celery, onions, garlic, carrots and 1 cup of liquid- either chicken stock, water or white wine.
- Place the turkey upside down (breast side down) on a rack in a roasting pan. Juices will run down preventing the turkey breast from getting dry, so you don't have to baste and potentially hydrate the skin and prevent it from being crispy.
- Brush the bottom of the turkey with half of the melted unsalted butter.
- Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Roast for 1 hour.
- Remove turkey and carefully turn over, breast side up. Baste with remaining unsalted butter.
- Return to the oven and roast for an additional 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees in the meaty part of the thigh and not near a bone. This will vary greatly depending on the size and shape of your turkey. Check often using a digital thermometer.
- Remove turkey and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. Carving too soon will release all of the juices. Turkey will hold heat fairly well, but you can tent with aluminum foil or return to the oven on the servin tray for 3-4 minutes to reheat.
- If you do make turkey gravy, test drippings for saltiness before adding any additional salt to the gravy.
- We hope you enjoyed this recipe, come back and let us know how it was!