Learning how to dry brine a turkey will change the entire way you approach Thanksgiving. Put away any fears about a dry, burnt, or rubbery bird that tastes more like turkey jerky. If up to this point, you’ve been a fan of wet brining the holiday protein, it’s time to embrace a new approach.
People brine their birds to make them moist and succulent, but the truth is dunking your bird in saltwater or buttermilk does it a disservice. Oh sure, the meat does get moist, but it’s watered-down moisture. The final product is apt to taste bland and watery rather than flavorful. Even though dry brining turkey depends on dry ingredients—salt, namely—you won’t believe the way it helps the meat hold onto all its natural juices and flavors.
Just make sure that you bank on a big bird this year because your guests will be eager for seconds—or thirds.
You can find a good reference on wet vs. dry brining by reading my article Dry Brining vs Wet Brining – Which To Use, When, And Why.
In this Grilling Life turkey dry brining guide, I’ll be letting you in on the secret to serving the juiciest Thanksgiving bird you’ve ever served.
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
Get Started Dry Brining Early
Any cooks who want to try dry brining turkeys this year have to begin by making a schedule. Time management is essential because the salting process needs to take place at least a day before Thanksgiving. Start three days ahead of schedule, and you’re in even better shape.
Turkey prep is mostly the same whether you’re doing a traditional brine or a dry one. Get your hand up inside the bird so you can yank out the giblets and get rid of anything else that needs to go. Next, dry the turkey thoroughly with paper towels. Pat it gently outside as well as inside. Obviously, wetness doesn’t matter for birds that are about to be baptized in salt water or milk but it matters a whole lot for dry brining.
The first thing you learn when figuring out how to dry brine a turkey is that salt dissolves in anything damp. And we don’t want the salt to dissolve right away. The salt cannot disappear. It’s the star of the brining show. At the moment, the salt is even more critical than the poultry, so get the turkey ready for its rubdown.
How to Dry Brine a Turkey With Just Salt
The reason salt is the main ingredient in a dry brine is actually scientific, even if it seems magical. Through the process of osmosis, salt draws out the moisture in the turkey while simultaneously penetrating the skin enough to season the meat.
As the salt pulls out all those tasty juices, they dissolve the salt crystals, which ultimately creates a more traditional brine—you just don’t add liquid yourself, plus the turkey then reabsorbs the salty juices straight back into the meat.
At that point, the proteins in the meat begin to break down thanks to the salt. There’s an internal tenderizing process going on during this stage. That’s why the salt brining process needs to take place so far in advance. The salt needs time to do its magic, and the meat needs time to reabsorb the seasoned juices.
Most dry brining turkey recipes give more or less the same advice: use a lot of salt. Kosher is ideal and what I recommend. Generally, you need ½ a teaspoon to one full teaspoon of salt for each pound of meat.
Depending on the type of salt you use, however, you might not need as much. For example, Morton’s brand of kosher salt is concentrated, so you only need around 2/3 of a teaspoon per pound of turkey.
The Storage Secret, How to Store a Turkey While Brining
Forewarning: this tip does not seem sanitary, but it’s a necessary step. After giving your turkey a good salt rub down, it goes into the fridge. Put it in the roasting dish you intend to use or place it on a drying rack and set the rack in a baking pan, then slide everything into the refrigerator—uncovered.
The turkey needs to brine for an hour per pound, but you can leave it up to three days. Any longer than three days and you start flirting with serious foodborne bacteria issues so don’t be tempted to push the limits.
You might think it’s a bit gross to have an uncovered turkey parked in your fridge for three days. You might have a spare ice box, or maybe you don’t care, but those who simply cannot abide by this don’t have to. Another option is to cover the bird loosely with plastic wrap. Just cover it, though; don’t tuck it.
Make sure that, at least six hours before the bird goes in the oven, you take off the covering, so the air dries out the skin. That’s the only way to guarantee crispy, delicious skin.
Here is a great video demonstrating dry brining a Thanksgiving turkey from the folks at FineCooking that will give you a nice visual of the process:
Stay Away From Water
If you learn nothing else about how to dry brine a turkey, remember this: water is the enemy. By this point, you’ve covered the turkey in salt, at least, and it’s spent the right amount of time in the fridge. It’s also been uncovered for at least six hours, and you’re ready to get ‘er done.
Imagine spoiling all of that hard work because you feel the need to rinse the turkey first.
Do not do that.
Let me repeat, as tempting as it is, do not rinse the turkey before cooking!
You shouldn’t see any traces of salt left on the turkey’s skin, not even the faintest residue. All of the salt has been safely and scrumptiously reabsorbed into the bird. There’s not anything to wash off anyway.
Resist the temptation. To get the bird wet at this late stage is to ruin the promise of crispy, crackling skin. The least little bit of moisture can leave the skin limp, slimy, and fatty. No one wants to eat that. No one wants even to see that.
Turkey Cooking Prep
Your turkey is yours to cook as you wish. There’s definitely something to be said about a dry-brined smoked turkey though. The flavors are rich, and the smoke does delectable things to the turkey meat.
Once you know how to brine a turkey, you might want to throw it on the smoker for something new. Here is a fantastic recipe I have used many times: Traeger Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe. I know it says Traeger smoked, but this recipe will work for any cooking method, and it always gets rave reviews. The best part is it won’t dry out—that’s the magic of the dry brine.
Sous-vide is a popular cooking trend at the moment. Of course, nothing beats a traditional oven-roasted turkey, either.
If you want to try smoking your bird this year on a pellet grill, here is a helpful guide: Traeger Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey – Taking It To A Whole New Level
Lastly, add some water or stock to the bottom of the roasting pan first with the turkey above it on your rack. You don’t need a lot. Your main objective is to make sure the drippings don’t scorch or burn. You don’t want to miss out on the gravy, do you?
Dry Brine Add-in Options
Although salt is the most essential ingredient to use in a dry brine, you can easily find or make up your own dry brining turkey recipe that includes additional herbs, spices, and flavors. Salt is the only thing that deeply flavors the meat, but various aromatics will still add to the taste. A bit of lemon zest creates a surprising zing. You can include anything you want in the dry rub and toss herb bundles into the carcass, as well.
Final Thoughts on Our How to Dry Brine a Turkey Guide
This super easy, less messy brining method will help you serve up an amazing bird this Thanksgiving. It’s not just for Thanksgiving either. You can use the methods for all of your holiday meals. In fact, any large or dense piece of meat benefits from dry brining, including steaks, beef roasts, ribs, and whole chickens. It’s something to experiment with, even if you just practice with Sunday dinner.
Now that you know how to dry brine a turkey, do you think you’ll try it?
Again, just make sure to keep water and other liquids away from the bird so that you don’t disrupt that osmosis magic or mess up the chance to enjoy the juiciest bird you have ever eaten!
Let us know if you have an awesome dry brining recipe to share. Also, if this was helpful to you, please consider sharing with your friends or on social media. Sharing is caring my friends!
Disclosure – At The Grilling Life, I am committed to researching and writing thoughtful, informative and editorially independent reviews of the best products for your outdoor cooking needs. If you like what I do, you can support me through my chosen links, which earn me a commission. This allows me to continue sharing with you my love for all things barbecue. Your support is truly appreciated.
A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!