When you want an amazing moist bird, using a dry brine for smoking a turkey is the best thing you can do. It is easy and really elevates your turkey to a juicy status like nothing else. For the perfect holiday bird, a dry brine is a turkey flavor boost essential.
In just 3 days and a few easy steps, you will have the moistest and incredibly juicy bird you have ever had. My recipe to dry brine a turkey is simple and easy, and all you need is your turkey, salt, and a bag.
Just remember you do need to plan ahead. That is really the hardest part of a dry brine, remembering to start this a few days before you want to cook your turkey, chicken, or other bird. Salt makes a simple brine with a lot of flavor and impact and I highly recommend you make this a Thanksgiving Turkey Tradition!
What is a Dry Brine?
I am a huge fan of the dry brine method. If you have not heard of what a dry brine is, it simply means "pre-salt". By salting a turkey or any other poultry for several days before cooking, you are allowing the meat to break down like a natural tenderizer. It is an easy and relatively clean process. Not to mention it only takes 2 ingredients; your turkey and salt!
Seriously, no one should NOT be doing this. I recommend this method for turkeys and chickens. I have done this method for several years now and I get so many compliments on how amazing the turkey comes out year after year.
I know many people wet brine which includes a huge bucket of solution that the turkey needs to soak in for days. I have to admit I have never tried it but the fact that almost my entire refrigerator for days will be taken over by this massive concoction is just not something I am ready to commit any time or space for. I mean who has all that extra space in their refrigerator during the holidays?
Dry Brine All The Way!!
Why Dry Brine a Turkey?
The simple answer is to retain moisture and flavor. Plus it results in the most amazing tender meat. But how this exactly works is a bit of food science. I am no Alton Brown but to put it into simple terms, the process of dry brining is a form of osmosis.
The salt draws out the juices and passes it through the bird. As the salt dissolves into the juices, it begins turning into a natural brine without any other liquid needed (no huge bucket of solution). This dry brine is a natural process that is then reabsorbed into the meat and begins breaking down the muscle proteins so they are succulent instead of tough.
How Much Turkey Per Person
Before you start the dry brine, let's make sure you buy the right-sized turkey. To know how much turkey per person, follow the guide below. This will help you know how many pounds of turkey per person so you buy enough. And if you love leftovers, always add a few extra pounds!
The rule of thumb is to make 1- 1 ½ pounds of turkey per person. This is the bird size including the bones so this will yield less meat per person. If you have a few sides with your bird or have big eaters in the group, get 1.5 pounds of turkey per person. If you are having a large buffet or many appetizers, sides, another main course like ham, and desserts (like on Thanksgiving) you may only need 1 pound per person. This is true if your group are light eaters or there are a lot of children to calculate for.
For 1.5# of turkey per person here is what you need to buy. This includes how much turkey to make for larger groups or catering events, such as for 30, 50, or even 100 people. Keep in mind you may need to buy more than one turkey to feed a large group. The average weight of a Thanksgiving turkey is 25 pounds. Hens are smaller at 17 pounds and tom turkeys can average up to 40 pounds.
- 8 people = 12 pounds of turkey
- 10 people = 15 pounds of turkey
- 12 people = 18 pounds of turkey
- 16 people = 24 pounds of turkey
- 20 people = 30 pounds of turkey
- 25 people = 37.5 pounds of turkey
- 30 people = 45 pounds of turkey
- 50 people = 75 pounds of turkey
- 100 people = 150 pounds of turkey * that's a lot of birds
Salt to Turkey Ratios:
The rule of thumb is 1 TB of kosher salt for every 4 pounds of turkey. For this post, I am working with an almost 15# turkey so the amount of salt used is 4 TB which is equal to ¼ cup. I tend to round up, the salt will all get worked in since there is no way to 'over salt" and have too much dry brine.
1 Tablespoon of kosher salt = every 4 pounds of turkey (or chicken)
Salt = Moisture!
1 TB salt = 0-4# bird
2 TB salt = 5-8# bird
3 TB salt = 9-12# bird
4 TB salt = 13-16# bird
5 TB salt = 17-20# bird
6 TB salt = 21-24# bird
How Many Days to Dry Brine a Turkey?
I believe 3 days are ideal but aim for at least 24 hours before you plan to cook your bird. For Thanksgiving, I begin this process typically on Sunday evening. That gives me 3 full days to brine. We typically eat around lunchtime on Thursday, which means the bird goes in the oven pretty early and I want at least 3 full days for my bird to brine.
Steps for Dry Brining a Turkey:
Cut open the packaging to remove the turkey. Next, remove the turkey parts that are packaged within the turkey carcass (typically neck bone, heart, liver, etc). Discard or save for other uses later, like turkey neck soup!
I do NOT rinse my poultry before cooking. There are two sides to this debate and I am on the, do not wash the bird side. HERE IS WHY YOU SHOULD NOT WASH YOUR TURKEY OR CHICKEN!
I pat the skin dry as much as possible. This is so that any moisture does not start to dissolve the salt immediately. The key is to have the salt absorb slowly and work its magic through the skin and into the meat below.
At this point, I measure out my salt and start with the breast side up. On this side, I tend to use about ⅔ of the salt. I sprinkle it all over the skin facing up and concentrate on the breasts and thighs the most. This is because these areas are not only a very meaty section but can be the first part to dry out when cooking. Therefore, the more dry brine in that area, the better. For the underside, the wings and bottom of the thighs are where I concentrate the salt.
Once the entire bird is coated and the salt is patted on evenly to stick, it is ready for the refrigerator. With the assistance of my husband, we get the bird into a large bag. I use a large 13-gallon trash bag (UNSCENTED is key). I then twist the tie so it is closed. The bagged turkey goes on a baking sheet into my refrigerator. This is where it will stay until Thursday morning.
However, every day I will rotate the bird each morning and each evening so it can be breast up at times and breast down at times. Each time I rotate, I will also "massage" the bird through the bag and work that salt in.
When it is time to cook your bird, simply remove it from the sealed bag. Pat it dry. There is no reason to rinse it, the bird will not be "salty". Then season your bird for smoking on your smoker.
This dry brine is versatile and is great also if you are oven roasting, deep-frying, or BBQ the turkey. This year we will be frying ours at a friend's house. He has mastered this and will be teaching Ian how best to do it and to stay safe. I cannot wait!
How Long to Smoke a Turkey
Cook time on a turkey when smoking is all about two things; how big your bird is and the temperature at which you will be smoking it. Here is the ultimate Turkey Smoking Time Chart when smoking it is between 225° and 250° and the bird is 100% defrosted.
Making sure you have the best smoker for turkeys is key. It needs to be big enough for what size bird you want or the number you will be cooking.
Smoked Turkey Cook Times, 30 minutes per pound:
When smoking a turkey between 225° - 250°, the rule of thumb is to cook it for about 30 minutes per pound. This is for an unstuffed bird that has been brined on a smoker where the temperature is holding steady. Any fluctuation higher or lower and the bird will be done either earlier or later. Make sure you are using a good-quality instant-ready meat thermometer to ensure the turkey is cooked to the right internal temperature.
8 - 10 pounds = 4-5 hours
12 pounds = 6 hours
15 pounds = 7-7.5 hours
18 pounds = 8.5-9 hours
20 pounds = 10-11 hours
** if your smoker runs hot, turkey takes about 15 minutes per pound **
Make sure your turkey has reached an internal temperature of 165° to be sure it is done. Check either the middle of the breast or the innermost part of the thigh. When it is done, move the smoked turkey to a rimmed baking pan and tent it with foil.
DO NOT cut into the turkey right away. Let the bird rest for about 30-60 minutes (depending on the size of your bird) before cutting into it. This ensures the turkey meat stays moist and all the juices do not run out of it by cutting it immediately.
There is no better way to prepare your holiday turkey. You will wonder why you have not been doing this all these years. Prepare to get so many compliments and for people to ask you how you did it. Let them know it is so easy and share the step-by-step guide here. Happy Holidays!
Product Recommendations for this Recipe:
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Dry Brine for Smoking a Turkey
- baking sheet
- 13-gallon unscented trash bag
- 1 TB kosher salt PER 4# OF TURKEY (or chicken)
- Whole Turkey or chicken
- Cut open the packaging to remove the turkey. Next, remove the turkey parts that are packaged within the turkey carcass (typically neck bone, heart, liver, etc). Discard or save for other uses later, like turkey neck soup!
- I pat the skin dry as much as possible. This is so that any moisture does not start to dissolve the salt immediately. The key is to have the salt absorb slowly and work its magic through the skin and into the meat below.
- At this point, I measure out my salt and start with the breast side up. On this side, I tend to use about ⅔ of the salt. I sprinkle it all over the skin facing up and concentrate on the breasts and thighs the most. This is because these areas are not only a very meaty section but can be the first part to dry out when cooking. Therefore, the more dry brine in that area, the better. For the underside, the wings and bottom of the thighs are where I concentrate the salt.
- Once the entire bird is coated and the salt is patted on evenly to stick, it is ready for the refrigerator. With the assistance of my husband, we get the bird into a large bag. I use a large 13-gallon trash bag (UNSCENTED is key). I then twist tie it closed. The bagged turkey goes on a baking sheet into my refrigerator.
- Every day I will rotate the bird each morning and each evening so it can be breast up at times and breast down at times. Each time I rotate, I will also “massage” the bird through the bag and work that salt in.
- When it is time to cook your bird, simply remove it from the sealed bag. Pat it dry. There is no reason to rinse it, the bird will not be “salty”. Then season, dressing, roast, smoke, fry, or whatever next steps you do.
- How long to cook a turkey times are listed above. Enjoy!
WHAT TO SERVE WITH TURKEY:
Whether you are serving turkey on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any special family meal, here are the best side dishes to serve with turkey. I have shared my favorites including keto-friendly, healthy, decadent, and kid-approved recipes. So enjoy one of these potatoes, vegetables, or holiday favorites with your turkey.