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Whole Turkey - Basic Brine

Originally posted: 11/01/2001
Last updated: 02/21/2014

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Summary
  • Buy a regular (non-enhanced), 12-14 pound turkey. Don't use a self-basted turkey when brining.
  • Brine in a salt and brown sugar solution for 8 hours.
  • Smoke at 325-350°F until 160-165°F in the breast, 170-175°F in the thigh, approximately 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
  • Let rest for 20 minutes before carving.
  • Collect the pan drippings for making gravy.
Brined turkey with Creole rub
Brined turkey with Creole rub
Close-up of sliced turkey breast
Close-up of sliced turkey breast

Let's be honest...a natural turkey can be very dry and bland, especially the white meat. Traditionally we've used gravy to address this problem, but recently people have been turning to flavor brining to add moisture and flavor to whole turkey. You can learn more about flavor brining and the science behind it in the All About Brining topic.

The brine I've used here couldn't be simpler—just water, kosher salt, and brown sugar. The mixture adds flavor and moisture to the meat, but does not make the meat taste overly salty or sweet.

After brining, I applied a Creole seasoning, but you can use your favorite barbecue rub. Just don't go overboard on the salt in the rub, since the turkey has already been seasoned by the brine.

I originally posted this topic based on a turkey I cooked on March 18, 2001, but I've revised the topic based on a more recent attempt on December 7, 2002.

As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.


Selecting And Preparing The Turkey

Regular, non-enhanced turkey ready for brining
Photo 1
       

This is a 12.17 pound Albertsons Natural Turkey, just your basic, frozen supermarket turkey that has not been enhanced with a flavor solution.

When buying a turkey for brining, choose a regular turkey, not a self-basted bird that's been injected with a solution of salt and other flavorings. Read the fine print on the label—you do not want a turkey that says, "Contains up to X% of a solution to enhance juiciness and tenderness..." See Turkey Selection & Preparation for more details.

Holiday turkey barbecue TipsChoose a 12-14 pound turkey and thaw according to the package directions. Remove and discard any leg restraint, then remove the giblets from the neck cavity and the neck from the body cavity. Trim away large areas of fat or excess skin around the body cavity, and cut off the tail (if attached). Rinse thoroughly inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels.

The turkey is now ready for brining.

Brining The Turkey

Turkey in flavor brine solution
Photo 2
Turkey brining in refrigerator
Photo 3
     

There are three things you need to do in preparation for brining:

  • Find a non-reactive container large enough to hold the turkey.
  • Making sure the container will fit in your refrigerator.
  • Determine how much brine you must prepare to completely submerge the turkey in the container.

See All About Brining and Food Grade Plastic Containers For Brining for information about selecting an appropriate container, including alternatives like ice chests or turkey roasting bags inside non-food safe containers. These pictures show a 4-gallon plastic barbecue sauce bucket that I got for free from a local barbecue joint.

Remember that the bigger the container, the more brine you'll have to make, so try to match the size of the container to the turkey.

To determine how much brine to prepare, place the turkey into the container and cover with cool water. Remove the turkey from the container and measure the water—that's the amount of brine you'll need. For a 12-14 pound turkey, 2-3 gallons of brine should be sufficient.

Two gallons of brine were required for this turkey. Here's the recipe I used. As I said before, it couldn't be simpler.

Basic Turkey Brine
1 gallon cold water
1 cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
Mix in a non-reactive container until dissolved. Makes 1 gallon of brine. Substitute 3/4 cup Morton Kosher Salt or 1/2 cup table salt for Diamond Crystal.

Notice in Picture 1 that I included about 4 cups of ice cubes as part of the 2 gallons of water used to make the brine. This is an optional step that helps cool the brine.

Put the turkey in the brine breast side down. Place a heavy plate or bowl on top to keep the bird submerged, if necessary. Brine for 8 hours.

Since brining does not preserve meat, the turkey and the brine solution must be kept below 40°F throughout the entire brining process.

Applying The Rub

Turkey with Creole rub applied
Photo 4
       

About an hour before you plan to start cooking, remove the turkey from the brine. Rinse the bird under cool running water and pat dry with paper towels. This removes sugar from the skin and prevent burning during cooking.

Tuck the wings under the body to keep them out of the way during cooking. For a neat appearance, pin the neck skin down to the back using toothpicks or skewers, and tie the legs together using kitchen twine.

Apply a light coat of canola oil or other vegetable oil to the turkey, then sprinkle with your favorite rub inside and out. Remember, go light on the salt in the rub.

I used a Creole seasoning inspired by one I saw on the deep-fried turkey episode of Martha Stewart Living.

Creole Turkey Rub
2 Tablespoons Konriko Creole Seasoning
2 teaspoons granulated garlic powder
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
4-5 bay leaves, medium size
Grind the thyme, oregano and bay leaves in a spice grinder. Combine with other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Let the turkey stand at room temperature while you light the cooker.

Stoking The Cooker

Hot coals with apple wood applied
Photo 5
       

Light the cooker using the Standard Method described on the Firing Up Your Weber Bullet page. Two chimneys of charcoal should be sufficient for three hours of cooking in the 325-350°F range under normal weather conditions.

I began by dumping a Weber chimney full of hot Kingsford charcoal briquettes into the charcoal chamber, then spreading another full chimney of unlit briquettes over the lit coals.

When the coals were good and hot, I placed three medium-sized chunks of dry apple wood on the fire and assembled the cooker. Choose a mild smoke wood that will compliment the mild flavor of turkey.

I put the empty, foil-lined water pan in place and set all the bottom vents at 50% open. I set the top vent 100% open and left it that way throughout the entire cook.

After assembling the cooker, I immediately put the turkey on the top cooking grate, breast side up, then inserted a Polder probe thermometer vertically into the deepest part of the breast, parallel to the breast bone.

Details Of The Cook

Turkey goes into the Weber Bullet
Photo 6
       

Roast the turkey at 325-350°F until it reaches 160-165°F in the breast and 170-175°F in the thigh, about 2-1/2 to 3 hours for a 12-14 pound turkey. Remember that a brined turkey tends to cook a little faster than an unbrined one, so keep a close eye on the internal meat temperature. This is where a probe thermometer like the Polder comes in handy.

The cooker was well over 350° when I put the turkey on, but it dropped to 337°F within 10 minutes. I did not baste or turn the turkey during cooking.

If you take a close look at this photo, you'll notice that I placed the turkey in a smoking bag, sort of a stretchy cheesecloth bag used for smoking hams and turkeys. This was an experiment to see if the bag would moderate the browning of the skin. It did, to some extent, but a layer of regular cheesecloth would work just as well. Frankly, I can't recommend that you try this. Your turkey will look just fine without using cheesecloth or foil to control skin color.

Here's how the cooker and meat temperatures went during the three hour cook:

Time Lid Temp Meat Temp Vent 1 % Vent 2 % Vent 3 %
9:55am - 42 50 50 50
10:05am 337 44 50 50 50
10:15am 344 48 50 50 50
10:30am 341 64 50 50 50
10:45am 348 75 50 50 50
11:00am 357 87 50 50 50
11:15am 354 100 50 50 50
11:30am 356 109 50 50 50
11:45am 357 120 50 50 50
12:00pm 350 131 50 50 50
12:15pm 348 140 50 50 50
12:30pm 344 149 50 50 50
12:45pm 339 158 50 50 50
1:00pm 327 165 50 50 50

C'est Si Bon!

Finished turkey
Photo 7
Sliced breast meat
Photo 8
     

At 1:00pm, the thermometer registered 165°F in the breast. I placed the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet and allowed it to rest for 20 minutes before carving. The internal temp rose 7°F to 172°F during this time. Do not cover with foil, as this will cause the skin to go soft.

Picture 1 shows the result. Right out of the cooker, the skin looked a little dry, but was nice and moist after the rest.

I carved the turkey following the steps outlined on the Turkey Selection & Preparation page. Using an electric knife, I cut the breast meat into perfect 1/4" slices, as shown in Picture 2.

The meat was very moist, tender, and flavorful throughout, especially the breast meat. The Creole spices provided just a little bit of heat, and the skin was nice to eat thanks to the high cooking temperature.

Collecting Pan Drippings For Gravy

Drippings in foil-lined water pan
Photo 9
Drippings from a 12-14 pound self-basting turkey
Photo 10
     

There are three common ways to collect pan drippings when smoking a turkey:

  • Cook the turkey in a shallow, disposable foil pan.

  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Place an empty foil pan on the bottom grate to catch the drippings.

  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Line the water pan with wide, heavy duty aluminum foil, but suspend the foil 1-1/2" above the bottom of the pan so it does not touch (Photo 9). This prevents the drippings from burning.

Assuming you don't over smoke the turkey, the drippings will be perfect for making gravy—in fact, they're already seasoned by any rub applied to the turkey.

As you remove the turkey from the cooker, pour any accumulated juices inside the body cavity into the pan. You can also use the juices left in the bottom of a rimmed baking pan after letting the turkey rest before carving.

It's not uncommon to end up with about 1-1/2 cups of drippings (Photo 10).

If you don't have any drippings, make the delicious turkey giblet gravy described on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board using the giblets, aromatic vegetables, chicken stock, white wine, and seasonings.

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