Want to make that golden, crisp-skinned Thanksgiving turkey of your dreams? Here's how to dry brine a turkey. It's almost too easy, just follow my tutorial. I've been dry-bringing turkey for years. All it takes is salt, citrus zest, herbs and garlic plus a large heavy brining bag. The skin comes out browned and crisp and the flavor of the meat is delicious and moist.
How to Dry Brine a Turkey
I've been dry brining my Thanksgiving turkey for more than 10 years thanks to an article in the L.A Times by famed food writer Russ Parsons. No more wet brining and dealing with heavy buckets of water and the huge space they take up in the refrigerator or the risk of soggy skin. Once I discovered dry brining I never looked back. When I first used this technique I was skeptical because it was so simple. When I pulled that first glorious golden bird from the oven I was amazed and my family was oo-ing and ah-ing.
Steps to Dry Brine Your Turkey
To dry brine, unwrap the bird from the original plastic wrap and remove the bag of turkey parts from the cavity. Do this over a rimmed baking sheet or in the sink to catch any raw juices (and remember to sanitize your sink afterwards). I also trim off excess hanging skin at the tail. Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Next, rub the turkey with a seasoned salt blend, place it in a heavy brining bag, refrigerate it, and let it rest for 2-3 days. It should look well seasoned but not overly salted. Give the turkey a quick massage once a day to work in the seasonings. I start Sunday or Monday.
On Wednesday afternoon, remove the turkey from the bag and discard the bag. Brush off any excess salt and blot with paper towels. Place the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack. Place the bird on the rack and put it back in the refrigerator uncovered to dry for 8-12 hours. You might have to adjust your shelves. The drying gives you a crisp skin when roasting. On Thanksgiving, remove the bird from the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 2 and you're ready for roasting.
What You Need to Dry Brine a Turkey
- 2-3 tablespoons of Kosher sea salt or fine pink sea salt (depending on weight of turkey)
- The zest of 1 large orange and 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon each fresh chopped rosemary and thyme
- 2 large garlic cloves chopped fine
- A large heavy closable brining bag
- A fresh 10-15 pound fresh turkey
- A rimmed baking sheet and wire rack (smaller bird on quarter sheet and larger on half sheet)
Create Your Rub
Combing the salt, zests, herbs and garlic creates your rub. Blend them well in a small bowl or grind together in a mortar and pestle. The amount of salt is based on the weight of the turkey. Use 1 tablespoon of salt for every 5 pounds. Because of the different textures of salt the weight might vary but it's close. If you don't have a digital scale don't worry about it (but it's an inexpensive tool worth buying). Two tablespoons of the Kosher sea salt weighs 1.4 ounces or 41 grams. For the fine pink sea salt it was 1.3 ounces and 37 grams for 2 tablespoons.
How Much Turkey to Buy
If you like leftover turkey for soup, tacos, stews or casseroles order 1 ½-2 pounds per person. This year I ordered a fresh 10 pound organic turkey. Previous years I've used a 12-14 pound bird. For a 10 pounder I started with 2 tablespoons of salt. For the 12-14 I used 2 ½ to 3 tablespoons of salt. I recommend purchasing no more than a 14-15 pound turkey. That serves 8-10 people at 1/1 2 pounds per person. They are easier to handle and roast than bigger turkey's over that weight range.
Fresh Versus Frozen Turkey
What about fresh versus frozen? I always order fresh (no thawing) but it depends in what is available at your market. If you buy frozen turkey it will take 1 day for every 4-5 pounds to safely thaw in the refrigerator. Proper refrigerator temperature is between 35-40 degrees. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), once thawed, the turkey will be safe in the refrigerator for 1-2 days, cutting short your brining time. My advice is to get a fresh bird. You might have to drive farther or pay a little more but it's worth it.
Other methods of thawing such as the cold water method or the microwave method (no thanks) require cooking the turkey immediately after thawing, eliminating the ability to brine.
How to Roast After Dry Brining
On Thanksgiving morning remove your turkey from the refrigerator 1-2 hours before roasting. This gets the chill off and the turkey will roast better. Soften ½ stick of unsalted butter and mix in finely chopped fresh garlic, fresh thyme, and citrus zest to make a compound butter. Smear it under the skin of the turkey breast and over the top and legs.
For more flavor I stuff the cavity loosely with chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic and more herbs, then tie the legs. Roast turkey in a roasting pan on a turkey rack to lift the bird off the bottom of the pan. I put more veggies in the bottom and eventually add turkey broth to the pan and use those juices plus more broth for flavorful gravy. Last note, I roast at 325°F and do not turn the bird. Always comes out gorgeous! If you have any questions please ask. I'm here to help.
How to Get Organized for Thanksgiving
For tips on getting organized for a smooth Thanksgiving, read this post on my Thanksgiving Game Plan. Here is the link to the original dry brining article but unfortunately you can't read it unless you are an L.A Times subscriber or want to create an account. Last note, for ideas on what to serve with you beautiful bird here are side dish options.
- Brining bag
- 2 ½ tablespoons Kosher sea salt or pink sea salt
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh chopped thyme leaves
- 1 large orange, zested
- 1 large lemon, zested
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 12 pound fresh turkey
- ½ stick unsalted butter
Make the Dry Brine
- Add the salt, rosemary, thyme, citrus zests and garlic to a mortar. Using the pestle, grind the mixture together to create the rub. See post photo for example if needed. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, you can use a small clean coffee/spice grinder or mash all of the ingredients together in a small bowl until well mixed and fine, or use a mini food processor.
Dry Brine the Turkey
- Remove the turkey from the plastic covering over a sink or on a rimmed baking sheet to cartch any raw juices. Rinse the turkey under cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Place the turkey in a large heavy plastic brining bag. Reach in with your hand and sprinkle the rub over the turkey concentrating on the breast and legs, then sprinkle a little inside the cavity. The turkey should look well seasoned but not overly salted. Seal the bag well. Place on a clean rimmed baking sheet and place in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, massaging the rub into the turkey once a day.
- The day before roasting (Wednesday for Thankgiving) remove the turkey from the bag and discard. Brush off the salt rub and pat dry with paper towels. Place the brined turkey on a wire rack positined on a rimmed baking sheet and dry the bird uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. The day of roaasting, remove the turkey from the refrigerator 1-2 hours before roasting to get the chill off then proceed with roasting. For a compound butter idea please see the post.