Turkey makes an appealing main course, but it can always benefit from a little bit of seasoning. Brining the bird is one way to provide a flavor boost, but is it possible to overdo it? Let’s find out if you can brine a turkey too long—and if so, what you can do about it.
Can You Brine a Turkey Too Long?
Yes. In addition to making the meat taste too salty, over-brining may also give the turkey an unpleasant sponge-like texture. The key is to use the correct ratio of salt to liquid and take the turkey out of the brine within 18 hours.
Brining helps the meat’s natural fibers retain moisture, which should make the finished product nice and juicy. Because the brine contains a great deal of salt, it contributes a savory flavor as well.
Turkey meat is fairly lean, so brining can be a great way to keep it from drying out as it cooks. It’s especially beneficial to the breast meat, which can sometimes overcook before the dark meat of the legs and thighs has had a chance to cook through.
Brining will increase the amount of time you spend on preparation. However, most of that time is inactive—the bird will be sitting in the refrigerator, letting the brine do its work.
Note that you should never brine turkeys that have been pre-seasoned. If the labeling contains words like “kosher,” “marinated,” or “basted,” either steer clear of that product or save the brining experiment for another time.
Basic Brine Ingredients
Salt and water are standard, but there’s no reason to keep the recipe that simple. Aromatic vegetables, such as onions, celery, and carrots, can improve the flavor. A few sprigs of herbs—parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, or sage—are welcome additions as well.
If you want to get even more creative with the flavors, consider adding some halved citrus fruit to the brine. A few slices of fresh ginger and garlic will complement these flavors nicely. You can also add apple juice or other fruit juice, but try not to overdo it on acidic ingredients, or the meat will turn out mushy.
How much salt you use in the mixture depends on how long you plan to brine the turkey. If you’re planning on brining a few smaller pieces of poultry, use 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of liquid. Leave the meat in the brine for 4 to 6 hours before removing it and rinsing it well.
We recommend leaving whole turkeys in brine for a longer period (see How Long To Brine Turkey, below). In this case, you should cut back on the amount of salt that you use in the recipe. 1/2 cup of kosher salt per gallon of liquid should work nicely.
How Long To Brine Turkey
You can brine a whole turkey over a period of 6 to 18 hours. Brining it overnight can be an excellent use of time. If your 18 hours is up and you’re still not ready to cook the turkey, rinse it well and pat it dry inside and out, then put it back in the refrigerator. In this case, make sure to cook it off within 2 days.
Before adding the turkey to the brine, make sure the salt has had a chance to fully dissolve. One way to do this is to heat the mixture and let it simmer gently for several minutes. You’ll need to wait until the brine has cooled at least to room temperature before adding the turkey. Otherwise, the warm brine could cause bacteria to grow.
How To Make Cider-Brined Grill-Roasted Turkey
For the Brine
- 1 gallon cold water
- 2 quarts apple cider
- 3/4 cup kosher salt
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 sprigs fresh sage
- 6 sprigs fresh parsley
- 2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
For The Turkey
- 1 whole turkey, 10-14 pounds (either defrosted or fresh)
- 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and divided
For The Roasting Pan
- 6 cups chicken stock, preferably low-sodium
- 1 large onion, halved
- 2 large carrots, halved crosswise
- 2 celery stalks
- 4-6 cloves fresh garlic
1. In a stock pot, combine all the ingredients for the brine. Stir until the salt has completely dissolved.
2. Prepare the turkey for the grill by removing the neck and giblets from the body cavity. Pat the bird dry inside and out with paper towels.
3. Carefully set the turkey in a bucket large enough to hold both it and the brine mixture. Pour the brine over the turkey. You may need to add a bit more cold water to fully submerge the bird. Cover the bucket and set it in the refrigerator for 18 hours.
If your refrigerator isn’t large enough to hold a bucket, use the cooler method. Fill a large cooler about 1/3 full with ice cubes. Place a large zip-top plastic bag on top of the cubes.
Carefully place the turkey in the bag with the breast side facing down, then pour the brine into the bag. Seal the bag, making sure to press all the air out of it beforehand. Close the cooler and set it in a safe place for 18 hours.
4. Prepare a medium-low fire in a charcoal grill or set a gas grill to low. For a pellet grill, set the temperature to 275-300 degrees Fahrenheit.
5. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it well under cold running water. Pat it dry with paper towels and set it on a large platter. Discard the brine.
6. Rub the turkey all over with half of the olive oil and melted butter.
7. Pour the stock into an aluminum roasting pan. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Place the turkey in the pan with the breast side facing down.
8. Set the pan in the middle of the cooking grate. Close the lid and cook over indirect or low heat, depending on the type of grill you’re using, for 1 hour.
9. Turn the bird over so that it’s breast side up. If necessary, add more charcoal to the fire (and wood chips, if you’re using them). Close the lid and cook the turkey over indirect or low heat for another hour.
10. Baste the turkey with the rest of the olive oil and butter. Check the skin for burned patches and cover any parts with foil if it looks like they’re darkening too quickly.
11. Continue to cook, covered, until the internal temperature registers at least 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the bird’s thigh. The total cooking time may range from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the grill temperature and the weight of the bird.
12. When the turkey is done, transfer it to a platter and tent it with foil to let it rest for 30-45 minutes. While it’s resting, you can use the pan drippings to make a gravy. Be careful not to add too much salt to the gravy, as the brining process has already seasoned both the turkey and the drippings.
The Bottom Line
Can you brine a turkey too long? Absolutely. Although brining contributes both flavor and moisture to the meat, it can backfire if you overdo it. Consider setting a timer to remind you when to take the bird out of the brine. You can always set it aside if you need more time, as long as you cook it within 2 days.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!