Salty brine with white wine, herbs and spices to add lots of flavor to your Thanksgiving turkey. Plan to brine your turkey overnight, for about 12-18 hours total.
Updated November 2017
Makes enough brine for one turkey up to 20 pounds
7 quarts water
1 1/4 cups coarse salt, or half as much if you are using table salt
6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon dried juniper berries
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
2 medium onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed with skins removed
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 quart dry French vermouth (or white wine, see notes)
1 turkey (any size up to about 20 pounds), giblets removed, rinsed
1. Combine 2 quarts of water with the salt in a large pot, and set on the stove over medium-high heat with the lid askew. Do not let it boil over! When hot, stir as the salt dissolves, then turn the heat to medium.
2. Add the bay leaves, coriander seeds, juniper berries, peppercorns, fennel seeds and mustard seeds to the pot and stir to combine. Double check to ensure all the salt has completely dissolved.
3. Turn off the heat and add the onions, garlic and thyme. Pour the vermouth and one more quart of water into the brining mixture and stir to combine. Allow to cool to room temperature.
4. Use 2 brining bags, one inside the other, for double-thickness (in case of leaks). Line a large kettle or pot, or food-safe plastic container, with the bags, and put the turkey in the bags, breast down, with the flap of skin at the neck cavity pulled back if possible.
5. Carefully pour the brining mixture over the turkey, being sure to get some inside the cavity as well as outside the bird. Add the remaining 4 quarts of water, cold, to the turkey in the bag. (Again, some inside the cavity, some out. You just want to be sure the brine inside the cavity isn't dramatically stronger or weaker than the brine outside the bird). Carefully close the bag, pressing to eliminate as much air as possible so that the turkey is completely submerged and surrounded by liquid.
6. Check to see that all parts of the turkey are submerged. I sometimes put a weight on top of the bird to keep it fully submerged. Put the kettle with the turkey in your refrigerator, or put the turkey in a large cooler. If using a cooler, put bags of ice over the turkey to keep it very cold.
7. Brine the turkey for about 12-18 hours, being careful to keep it cold (33-39 degrees Farenheit) throughout the duration. If, despite your best efforts, you find that parts of the turkey are elevated above the surface of the liquid, turn the bird occasionally so that all portions are evenly exposed to the liquid.
8. When finished brining, discard the liquid, lightly rinse the bird and pat it dry. Your turkey is now ready for roasting!
Adapted from Turkey Brine at marthastewart.com.
Martha's original recipe called for a bottle of dry Riesling instead of dry vermouth, and for the first couple of years I followed her recipe to a T. But when I tasted a bit of the Riesling before pouring it in, it broke my heart to think I was giving all that delicious wine to a raw turkey!
So I gradually started using an old Julia Child trick, substituting dry French vermouth for the wine. It's certainly not the same to drink, but your turkey won't know the difference, and will end up just as delicious. So these days, I get to drink the dry Riesling, which makes me happy. (Have you ever had dry -not sweet- Riesling? It's the perfect thing for Thanksgiving dinner.)
Brining your turkey is actually fairly easy, as long as you have a place to put it for 12-18 hours! We live in northern New Jersey, where we get a nice assist from Mother Nature: it is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside on the night before Thanksgiving just about every year, so we just stash it on the back porch until we're ready for it on the following day. (Even if it is below freezing, which it occasionally is here, your turkey will be fine outdoors.) Put something heavy on the lid to keep curious critters out, and you're good to go.
If it's a tad warm, we put the turkey in a cooler instead of the big red pot you see here, and cover the bird with lots of ice. Then we put the cooler outside 1) to save space indoors and 2) because the cool night air will help the cooler stay cold longer. If you use this approach, be sure to put the ice on top of the turkey rather than underneath it. (Heat rises, which means cold falls - so you have to put the ice on top of your turkey to keep the whole bird cold. Don't you love science?) Again, put something heavy on the lid of the cooler to keep it safe from nocturnal critters.
If you live in a warm climate (hi, Phoenix friends!), you should plan to keep the brining turkey in the fridge. In this case, you can keep other things (carrots, celery, veggies, etc.) in the cooler if you need to make space for the turkey.
I'm including a link to the brining bags I use. They have a ziplock-style top and I've actually never had one leak. I still recommend double-bagging though, just in case. The box shown only comes with 1, so you should buy 2 if you want to double bag like I do.