It’s always preferable to start with a defrosted turkey when you’re ready to make the brine solution. But can you brine a partially frozen turkey or do you have to wait until the meat is completely thawed? Let’s take a look.
Can You Brine a Partially Frozen Turkey?
It’s permissible to brine a turkey that’s still frozen through in spots, but the brine won’t do its work as effectively if the bird is frozen solid. This is true of dry brining as well as wet brining. It’s better if the meat is at least partially defrosted when you add it to the salt solution.
When you brine a turkey, you’re submerging it in a saltwater solution for a period of 8 to 24 hours. You’ve probably heard of the method, even if you don’t understand the point of the exercise.
The exposure to salt causes the muscle fibers that are present in the meat to plump up and retain more moisture. All meat loses moisture as it cooks, but brining ensures that it remains juicy and moist, even during long cooking periods.
Brining the meat will give it a tender texture as well. We’ve found that even a short brining period can tenderize smaller cuts like pork chops.
Salt is also a natural flavor enhancer, so brining will result in a tastier product. In order to boost the flavor even more, you can add other ingredients to the brine. Apple juice, fresh herbs, brown sugar, and aromatic vegetables are all popular additions.
How To Defrost a Turkey
If you want the saltwater solution to penetrate the meat, it’s best to start with a defrosted turkey. That means you’ll need to plan ahead.
When kept in the refrigerator at temperatures between 32 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit, whole turkeys should thaw at a rate of 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat. That means a 16-pound turkey will need to spend about 4 days in the fridge.
After thawing, the turkey should keep for another 1 or 2 days before it starts to go downhill in terms of freshness. If your plans change at any point during the thawing process, put the turkey back in the freezer as soon as possible to preserve it.
If you’re pressed for time, you can defrost the turkey in a cold water bath. Swap out the water every 30 minutes, and allow half an hour for every pound of turkey. The same 16-pound bird that will take 4 days to thaw in the fridge can be ready in 8 hours.
Be aware, though, that when you thaw a turkey in cold water, you’ll need to cook it as soon as it’s thawed. That will put a damper on your plans to brine the bird.
Fortunately, you can brine a turkey when it’s still frozen in certain spots, which is what we’re here to discuss. In fact, it’s fine to put it on the smoker before it’s finished thawing—you’ll just have to cook it longer.
Can You Defrost a Turkey in the Microwave?
Whole turkeys are too big to thaw in the microwave. It’s nearly impossible to ensure even defrosting when you use this technique for large cuts.
When the flesh of the turkey warms to above 40 degrees, food-borne bacteria begin to multiply. This occurs until the bird is cooked to 140 degrees. If it spends too long thawing in the microwave, you run the risk of contracting salmonella poisoning.
This is why you should never attempt to thaw meat at room temperature. When meat stays in this “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 2 hours, it’s no longer safe to eat.
If your microwave has a good defrost setting, you can attempt to thaw the turkey this way. Use the setting in 6-minute intervals, and rotate the turkey after each interval so that it has a better chance of thawing evenly.
Can You Brine a Partially Frozen Turkey?
You shouldn’t attempt to brine a turkey when it’s still frozen all the way through. The meat will be thawing in the water instead of reaping the benefit that the salt solution provides.
That said, you can go ahead and brine the bird if it’s only partially frozen. The meat will finish thawing in the brine, but the muscle fibers will still absorb the salt solution.
The key to successful brining is to use the correct ratio of salt to water and avoid leaving the meat in the solution too long. We’ve provided tips on how to do this in How To Brine a Turkey, below.
Can You Dry Brine a Partially Frozen Turkey?
Dry brining differs from wet brining in that you apply the salt directly to the flesh. In addition to being quicker, dry brining takes up less room in the fridge. These advantages make the process more appealing, especially to beginners.
You can dry brine a frozen turkey if you’d like, but be aware that it won’t be as effective. The salt will do its work better when the flesh is thawed and soft to the touch.
How To Brine a Turkey
Assuming you have room in your fridge to hold the container, brining is a simple process. Remember that you can’t brine turkey at room temperature. If you don’t have room in your fridge, consider dry brining as an alternative.
You’ll need 1 cup of coarse salt for every gallon of liquid you use. The larger your bird, the more liquid you’ll need to submerge it. If you use table salt instead of kosher or sea salt, reduce the amount to 1/2 cup per gallon.
Feel free to swap out some of the water for apple juice or cider, beer, bourbon, or any other liquid you prefer. You can also add brown or white sugar, aromatic vegetables such as onions and garlic, or handfuls of fresh herbs to the brine.
Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the salt is dissolved. Let the brine cool by putting it in the fridge, uncovered. When the mixture has cooled to below 40 degrees, you’re ready to add the turkey.
Set the turkey in the brine, making sure that it’s fully submerged. If the bird isn’t covered by the liquid, you’ll need to rotate it during the brining process.
Brine the bird for 8 to 24 hours, depending on size. In general, you should brine turkey for about 1 hour per pound, and never longer than 24 hours. If the turkey sits in the brine too long, it will have a spongy texture when it’s cooked.
When you’re ready to take the turkey out of the brine, make sure that all the liquid has a chance to drain out of the cavity. Dry the bird inside and out with paper towels.
When seasoning a brined turkey, remember to go easy on the salt. The meat should have absorbed enough salt flavor as it is.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve thawed your turkey in the fridge and the meat is still frozen in patches, go ahead and add it to the brine anyway. Once the brine has done its work, you shouldn’t even notice a difference.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!