Make the best barbecue turkey with our easy smoked turkey brine recipe. This simple brine solution combines fresh herbs, citrus, and salt to lock in your turkey’s moisture and flavor every time.
Making a brine solution for your barbecue smoked turkey is the best way to enhance its flavors while keeping it deliciously tender and juicy during long cooks.
If you’ve ever had dry turkey, you’ll know the pain. Since turkey has such little fat, its meat is particularly prone to drying out over the course of long cook times. This is especially true with barbecue smoking, where a decent-sized bird might need at least six or seven hours on the smoker.
This simple smoked turkey brine recipe is here to save the day. Its saltwater solution serves as the basic brine, while we use brown sugar to add a touch of caramelization, and fresh herbs to elevate the turkey’s flavor.
From seasoning ingredient ideas to equipment advice, discover how to make the best brine for your smoked turkey today.
What is Brining?
Brining is a meat preparation method used to help enhance the flavor, tenderness, and juiciness of lean meats like turkey and chicken. Using a simple solution made of salt and water, it simply involves immersing the meat in the solution prior to cooking, giving it enough time to allow the salt to draw the meat’s moisture closer to the surface. In turn, this helps keep the meat moist as it cooks while also presenting an opportunity to infuse the meat with added flavor.
Wet Brining vs. Dry Brining
A wet brine is a liquid-based solution made from water and salt. The salt in the solution helps to break down the protein structures in the meat so that it can absorb and retain more water. Wet brining is best used on lean meats as it helps them retain more moisture when cooked so they don’t dry out. It’s also a good way to infuse stronger or additional flavors into lean meats.
A good dry brine is done by just using salt on your chosen meat. The meat is sprinkled with a generous amount of salt and left to sit in the fridge for anywhere from four hours to three days. The salt draws moisture from inside the meat to the surface, and this moisture then mixes with the salt to make its own concentrated liquid brine solution, which then reabsorbs into the meat.
Dry brining is best used on tougher meats as it helps them to retain the moisture they already have. It also helps to enhance the meat’s natural flavors rather than diluting it with added water.
What Does Brining Do to Turkey?
Brining a turkey helps introduce more moisture into the meat so you get a nice, even cook. Turkey is made up of dark meat (the leg) and light meat (the breast), and often people find that by the time the leg meat is cooked through, the light meat has completely dried out.
Brining your turkey before cooking is a way to counteract the lighter meat drying out. It is also a great way to infuse different flavors into your turkey.
Do You Have to Brine a Turkey?
- Keeps it moist: Brining your turkey before cooking or smoking adds more moisture to the meat and helps it retain moisture when cooking.
- Adds flavor: As the salt in the brine breaks down the muscle proteins, it helps to enhance the meat’s natural flavor. Brining also lets other flavors infuse more easily into the meat.
- Space: Brining a full-sized turkey requires a bit of space. You need to have a container that is big enough to hold the bird and the brine, plus space in a refrigerator to let it sit.
- Added salt: Brining any meat will raise its overall salt content. This can sometimes cause issues for people trying to reduce their salt intake or create nutritionally balanced meals.
Turkey Brine Ingredients
A wet brine can have all sorts of extra ingredients added to the basic salt and water mix. What you add usually depends on what you’re serving the turkey with or how it’s being cooked.
We’re big fans of smoking our meat here at TheOnlineGrill, so we’ve come up with the perfect brine for smoked turkey.
- Water: We need a liquid medium in which to dissolve our salt for our brine solution. Water is the obvious choice, but if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try some interesting alternatives.
- Kosher Salt: You want to use kosher salt over table salt because it’s made up of larger crystals, making it less salty tasting. You might consider salt the active ingredient in our brine as it does the hard work of breaking down the protein structures to allow the meat to hold more moisture.
- Seasonings: Seasonings such as garlic, onion, bay leaves, and peppercorns are added to help infuse some extra complimentary flavors into the meat.
- Citrus Zest: Adding orange and/or lemon peel to your brine helps to ‘brighten’ up the taste of your turkey and works well to balance out the smokey taste.
Can I Add Extra Ingredients to the Brine?
There are lots of different additional ingredients you can add to a brine mixture besides your standard seasonings.
- Sugar: Sugar is usually added to a wet brine solution for ‘skin on’ bird recipes. The sugar helps to give a bit of extra flavor while also helping the skin brown better. Honey or molasses are also sometimes used in place of sugar. If you do look to add a sweetener, aim to use about ¼ the amount of sweetener as the amount of salt used.
- Apple Juice: Adding apple juice to a brine solution helps to bring some sweetness which is great for balancing out savory flavors.
- Beer: Beer can be used as an alternative to water in a brine solution. The tannins and alpha acids in beer can work well as a meat tenderizer and also infuses a much richer flavor than the standard water brine mix.
- Brining Bucket: You can buy purpose-made brining buckets or use any suitable size container you have at home. Aim to look for something that has a minimum 5-gallon capacity that should be an adequate size to hold the majority of turkeys. If using a container you already have, make sure it is either plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other types of metal will react with the brine solution and impart a metallic taste to the meat.
- Brining Bag: Using a brining bag or oven-roasting bag is handy when brining to lower any risk of spillages or leaks. It’s a good idea to use a brining bag when using a plastic brining container as it stops the chance of any particularly strong flavors (garlic, onions, certain spices) absorbing into the plastic of the bucket, which could taint the taste of any future recipes.
- Refrigerator or Iced Cooler: Letting your turkey sit in the brine in your refrigerator is the ideal solution but not always the most practical. If you don’t have the room to set your brining container in the fridge, you can use a cooler box filled with ice.
How Long Do You Need to Brine a Turkey for?
Ideally, you’d want to brine a turkey for a minimum of 8 hours in a cool environment (refrigerator or in an ice-filled cooler). After that minimum of 8 hours, it’s generally recommended to brine for an hour per pound of turkey.
Can You Brine a Frozen Turkey?
Surprisingly yes, you can brine a frozen turkey! Or rather, you can brine a turkey whilst it’s thawing. A quick way to thaw frozen meat is by sitting it in a bowl of cool water, by simply replacing the cool water with a brine solution, you can brine and thaw your turkey at the same time.
Can You Over-Brine Turkey?
It is possible to over-brine turkey. If you leave your turkey in a brine solution for too long (two days is the absolute maximum amount of time it should be brining) it can become overly salty and turn the texture of the meat spongy.
Smoked Turkey Brine
- 2 gallons cold water
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 white onion quartered
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp orange zest
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- Add a gallon of water, kosher salt, and brown sugar to a large pot. Bring to boil then reduce heat to simmer. Whisk until sugar and salt dissolve.
- Add the rest of the water to the pot, as well as the white onion, bay leaves, rosemary, crushed garlic, black peppercorns, orange zest, and lemon zest. Combine well and leave the mixture to cool down to room temperature.
- While the brine is cooling, line your brining bucket (or chosen container) with a brining bag
- Once the brine has reached room temperature, place your turkey in the brining bag and carefully pour the brining solution over the top. Seal the brining bag or cover with a lid. Leave the turkey to brine in the solution in the fridge or an iced cool box for 24 hours.
- Place a wire rack over a baking tray. Carefully remove your turkey from the brine solution and sit it on a wire rack to allow any extra juices to drain away. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels (this helps to create a crispy skin when cooked) and refrigerate the turkey until it is time for it to be smoked.