Brining, whether a traditional water-based brine or a dry-brine, improves a turkey's ability to retain moisture. Certain muscle proteins are naturally dissolved by the salt in the brine solution. Once these proteins are dissolved, muscle fibers lose some of their ability to contract when cooking. Less contraction leads to less internal moisture being squeezed out, which in turn leads to juicier meat in the cooked bird.
Brining also seasons a bird more deeply than simply salting just before cooking.
Traditional vs. Dry Brine—Which is Better?
I vastly prefer dry-brining. A traditional brine will plump up your turkey with moisture, but that moisture is mainly water, leading to a turkey that tastes watered down. A dry brine, on the other hand, helps a turkey retain its natural moisture without adding any excess liquid, which leads to more intensely flavored end results.
Adding baking powder to a dry brine can also improves your turkey skin. Not only does the baking powder work to break down some skin proteins, causing them crisp and brown more efficiently, but it also combines with turkey juices, forming microscopic bubbles that add surface area and crunch to your skin as it roasts.
How to Dry Brine
Combine half a cup of kosher salt with two tablespoons of baking powder in a bowl. Carefully pat your turkey dry with paper towels. Generously sprinkle it on all surfaces with the salt mixture by picking up the mixture between your thumb and fingers, holding it six to ten inches above the bird and letting the mixture shower down over the surface of the turkey for even coverage. The turkey should be well-coated with salt, though not completely encrusted.
Warning: You will most likely not need all of the salt, in some cases less than half will be ok depending on the size of your bird and your salt preference.
Transfer the turkey to a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 12 to 24 hours. Without rinsing.
Dry-brining for more than 24 hours will produce even more juicy and well-seasoned meat. To brine longer than 24 hours, loosely cover turkey with plastic wrap or cheesecloth before refrigerating to prevent excess moisture loss through evaporation. Let rest for up to 3 days.
How to Make a Traditional Brine
Not convinced by the dry-brining argument? No problem. Here's how you do a traditional brine.
To brine a turkey using the standard method, start by clearing out a space big enough to fit a container large enough to hold your turkey in the fridge. Alternatively, fill a few empty 2-liter soda bottles 3/4 of the way with water and freeze them with the lid off. Seal the bottles with their lids once completely frozen. Next, fill a large cooler or plastic basin with the prescribed amount of tap water. Add the salt and stir until dissolved. Submerge your fully defrosted turkey in the brine solution and refrigerate for 12 to 18 hours. Alternatively, place the brining basin in a cool spot in your home and add the frozen soda bottles, replacing them every few hours to keep the water below 40°F.
After 12 to 18 hours, remove the turkey, dry carefully with paper towels.
For crisper skin, brine a couple days in advance and let your turkey air-dry at least overnight and up to two nights uncovered in the refrigerator on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet.
When constructing a brine, what really matters is the amount of salt compared to the amount of water, not the amount of salt compared to the size of a turkey. So long as your brine solution is around 6% salt by weight (that's about 1 1/4 cups of kosher salt per gallon) and your turkey is submerged, you'll do just fine.
Here are some approximate measures for the minimum amount of water and salt you'll need for a range of turkey sizes:
Standard Turkey Brine Formulas
Turkey SizeWaterSalt (Kosher)
8 to 12 pounds (3.6 to 5.4 kg)2 gallons (7.6 liters)2 1/2 cups (450 grams)
13 to 17 pounds (5.9 to 7.7 kg)2 1/2 gallons (9.5 liters)3 1/4 cups (570 grams)
18 to 22 pounds (8.2 to 10 kg)3 gallons (11.4 liters)3 3/4 cups (675 grams)
Should I Brine a Kosher, Enhanced, or Self-Basting Turkey?
All of these types of turkeys have already been treated with salt and do not need to be brined again.
Should I Use Aromatics in My Brine?
There's no need.
Many brining recipes call for bringing a number of aromatics—carrots, celery, onions, spices, herbs, etc—to a boil in your brine before letting it cool completely. While this does a great job of making your brine smell great, it doesn't affect the flavor of the turkey or chicken much beyond the skin. The problem is that because a brine is packed with salt and because salt is much more likely to enter your turkey's cells (due both to its size and its magnetic charge), most of those larger flavorful compounds don't actually make it into the meat.
For the time and effort it takes to make a flavored brine, heat it up, and let it cool completely, you're much better off making an flavorful rub or herb butter. You'll get just as much (if not more) flavor into the bird, use fewer ingredients, and save yourself some time in the process.