The secret to perfect poultry lies not just in how it’s cooked, but how it’s prepared. A dry rub might suffice for pork and beef, but when it comes to poultry, you’ve got to think beyond the surface. How can you keep the bird intact, the skin crisp, and the meat tender, juicy, and flavorful? All you have to do is whip up an easy turkey brine.
What is a Turkey Brine?
Simply put, a turkey brine is what prepares your meat for a good smoking. The brine is what locks flavor into the meat. A bare-bones easy turkey brine would just be water and salt, but smoked turkey brines usually bring in more zesty and earthy flavors.
Brine Infuses Moisture and Flavor
Brining your turkey is a crucial step in the cooking process. A brine achieves two things that are key to making the most of your turkey – moisture and flavor.
The salt concentration in water triggers a chemical reaction so that the liquid will slowly enter the cells of turkey meat, bringing all the added flavor from the herbs in with it. Once the salt has entered the meat, it retains moisture and flavor throughout the cooking process. The more time the bird sits in the brine, the more salt will be absorbed into the meat, and the more flavorful your turkey will be.
However you flavor your brine, it's critical that the brine be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit when you add the turkey, and throughout the brining process. You'll need to clear some room in your fridge, for sure.
Ideally, you want to brine your bird for 24 hours but don’t worry, if you don’t have that much time, a quick brine of even an hour is better than not doing one at all. You can even inject the brine directly into the bird if you're strapped for time.
For optimal flavor and ease of use, check out our specialty Turkey Pellet Blend which includes a brining kit as well.
If you opt to make your own brine, here are the three main ingredients that you’ll want to use:
Keeping your bird’s moisture content as high as possible before smoking, roasting or cooking is essential to a perfectly juicy outcome. You can also use other liquid in place of or additional to water such as:
- apple juice
- orange juice
- rice wine vinegar
- apple cider vinegar
- chicken stock
- maple syrup
Whatever liquid you use, you want to make sure your turkey is well submerged so that all of the meat will be flavorful. To plan ahead, a good rule of thumb is to use as much liquid by weight as you have meat.
The type of liquid you choose should pair well with the overall flavor you’re craving.
- For a simple or classic savory flavor, stick with water, beer, or stock.
- To give a nice accent of sweetness, you can top off your brine with a few cups of vinegar, juice, or wine.
- Spirits always pair well with easy turkey brines. Our maple-brined turkey recipe calls for bourbon, and some Traeger reviewers have mentioned adding a cup of whiskey enhanced the flavor of our Traeger Brine Kit!
Turkeys absorb salt really well, and so dissolving salt in your brining water achieves two key things – flavor and tenderization. Be aware though, that the longer the bird brines, the saltier it will be.
As a general rule, use one-half cup of salt for every gallon of water. If you’re trying out different liquid flavors, it may be good to reduce the salt in that ratio because cooking wines, cooking stocks, and soy sauce are often loaded with salt.
Herbs and Spices
It’s really easy to get creative with what you toss in, and really hard to go wrong.
Poultry flavored with herbs and spices are a tale as old as time. You’ll want to make sure to add a few, if not all, of the following to your brine:
- bay leaves
- brown sugar
- bell peppers
Golden Secret to Golden Skin
While the turkey brine helps moisten the meat, the skin needs to be nice and dry in order to crispify.
- When you remove the bird from the brine, remember to let the cavity drain well.
- Let it rest. If you have the time after letting it brine overnight in the fridge, you can also let it sit in the fridge one more night. The skin will air out, but it’s already covering the meat so that the moisture will be kept.
- Cooking the bird evenly is key. A pellet grill is ideal because you can control the temperature and it’s designed to circulate hot air – no need to worry about tying up the wings and thighs!
- For extra crispy skin, start cooking the bird covered at a low temperature, and then take the foil off to cook at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Whatever you do, make sure the meat is fully cooked. The breast at 165 degrees and the thigh reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Let it rest (again). When your bird has reached the desired color, temperature, and crispiness, resist the temptation to start carving right away, or you’ll ruin your hard work!
When the meat is cooking, all the moisture is drawn inwards but when you pull it out to rest, the moisture starts traveling back to the meat’s surface. You'll lose some of that delicious brine flavor if you start cutting right away.
Give your turkey a good 20 to 30 minutes to rest so that the juices can thicken and settle back into the meat. That way when you carve and serve, every piece will be full of juicy flavor.
If you're going for classic flavor, you can buy a Turkey Brining Kit and Traeger seasonings. Get meat probes, an injector kit, or a digital temperature controller, and visit our Thanksgiving page for everything you need to know on making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
If you ever want to mix it up or reinvent Thanksgiving, try out some of the following variations.
Honey Roasted Whiskey Turkey Brine
If you have a sweet tooth for meats, sugar is just one of many tools at your disposal. Toss in a cup of your favorite whiskey or bourbon along with one-half pound of honey or maple syrup per gallon of water for a more robust sweet flavor. For a classic zest, pair that combination with some fresh garlic, sage, and bay leaves.
Teriyaki Whiskey Turkey Brine
You can also add your favorite fruit juice to sweeten the deal. It might be a sin to put pineapple on pizza, but who says you can’t pair it with turkey? Slice up some peaches, pineapple, fresh ginger, green onions, soy sauce, and rice vinegar for a teriyaki style whiskey turkey brine. Instead of whiskey, you can also try a sweet bourbon or a dark rum.
Note: if you’re going heavy on the soy sauce, be sure to reduce how much salt you mix into the brine.
Sweet and Sour Easy Turkey Brine
Mix in a jar of apricot jam or preserves, some chopped onion, and a touch of honey or mirin for the sweet; plenty of wine, lemon juice, and/or vinegar for the sour. Give it some zest with grated citrus peel and a generous amount of fresh garlic and ginger.
Turn up the heat with your favorite fresh chopped peppers and chiles, but be mindful that the longer it brines, the hotter it gets!
Cooking Brined Turkey on a Pellet Grill
We believe the most special, impressive, and delicious way to cook a turkey is to use a pellet grill. Smoking turkey in a pellet grill not only gives you that wood-fired juicy flavor, but it's also a simple process that will give you more room for side dishes.
If you have a Traeger, you can grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and barbecue all your Thanksgiving favorites right in your backyard. Veggies and other roastables can be placed on the grill around the turkey and on upper grill grates. A Traeger is also a convection oven, so you can bake pies on it too. Everything you make on a Traeger will be infused with incredible smoke flavor.
Cooking Turkey in the Oven
Roasting your Thanksgiving masterpiece in the oven is the most popular and conventional. But chances are, turkey isn’t the only thing you’re cooking for the holidays, and it could use a good smoky flavor more than that sweet potato casserole.
For crispier skin, cover your turkey with foil and bake at 375 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. Then uncover and cook at 450 degrees until the temperature clears about 160 when it’s time to take it out of the oven and let it rest.
Cooking times vary depending on the oven and size of the bird, but you can figure about 15 minutes per pound roasting at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. When you take the temperature, make sure your thermometer is entering a thicker cut of meat, such as the breast.
Cooking Turkey in a Deep Fryer
If you have the right equipment, deep frying a whole turkey is not as hard as it sounds, but it does require some preparation and care. For a 12-pound turkey, you’ll need at least an 18-quart pot.
First, make sure you have a fryer large enough to fit the turkey, and enough oil. (Leave plenty of room for the oil level to rise when you put the turkey in — if you don't, the oil will overflow and potentially burn anything, or anyone, nearby.)
Heat the oil to 400 degrees--this can take some time. Be careful: when the oil gets hot enough it will be boiling.
Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry with a paper towel. Attach a hook to the rear cavity of the bird and prepare to lower it wings-first into the pot. Wear protective arm/clothing gear when handling the turkey in case of popping oil. It helps to have two people — you need to lower the bird very slowly to avoid splattering oil.
Cook for about 3 minutes per pound. Carefully remove your turkey from the pot, and let it hang so excess oil gets drained before setting aside to rest before serving.
All right, back to the turkey.
After splurging on all the spices you’ll need for your brine, you might have forgotten butcher’s twine for the turkey’s legs. That’s okay. You don’t need it. Pellet grills are equipped with fans to circulate heat and ensure your bird gets cooked evenly.
You’ve got plenty of room, precision temperature, no hassle, and best of all, you can focus on the fun variables like which wood pellet flavors will pair best with your brine?
For smoking on a Traeger, Turkey by Rob Cooks suggests putting the turkey on the Traeger at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, 225 degrees for another hour, and then finish at 325 degrees.