Thawing a turkey in brine?

Joined Nov 8, 2017
Hello folks! I did a search and although I found many threads about brining, I did not find one with this exact subject.

Due to a payroll error at work, we were not paid the paycheck right before Thanksgiving and so I could not go out and buy the fixings for the meal until after the holiday. But, we are going to do up the whole thing as soon as we get the missing paycheck. In the meantime, I've never brined a turkey and was doing some research. I came across this article:

In this article, Alton says that if you find yourself running short of time you can thaw your turkey in the brine outside of the refrigerator using a cooler and a probe thermometer with an alarm to tell you if the temperature goes too high. OK, that actually sounds great since my refrigerator is too small to be able to keep a 20-pound turkey in there for several days.

But what concerns me is thawing in the brining liquid. Everything I've read says that you have to keep track of how many hours you brine your turkey for fear of oversalting it. Well, if you thaw your turkey in your brine you're going to have it in there more than 18- or 20-hours (for an 18 or 20 pound turkey at 1 hour per pound as I've read). Alton didn't include any reference or link to a recipe for making a brine that you could keep your turkey in for a few days.

As a home cook, I don't know anything about this. I've never brined a turkey. My best method for keeping it moist is to rub a compound butter under the skin before I put it in the oven. And even if I do that it can dry out. So, for brining, is there a recipe I should follow that would keep the brine weak enough to leave the turkey to thaw in? Or do I not have to worry about that while the turkey is frozen?

Also, I'm not sure I could get a cooler clean enough to feel OK putting food directly into it. Can I use a brining bag and surround it with ice inside the cooler? Or would using ice keep the cooler too cold for the turkey to thaw? Some brines use apple cider and I really don't want to have to fill an entire cooler with apple cider, which can be expensive if you buy the good stuff. I'm hoping for a nice, flavorful brine.

Anything you folks can do to point me in the right direction would be appreciated. Thanks and happy holidays!
Joined Apr 25, 2014
Most frozen turkeys are already brined. If the label says retains up to 6% water or something like that and it is 8-9% sodium per serving it is already brined.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
I wouldn't thaw in a brine. Just wait and thaw it properly and brine it then if you want. There's no reason to rush your meal. Treat the ingredients properly and make the meal the best you can.


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Staff member
Joined Oct 5, 2001
I am with Phatch on this one. Part of the brining process is it opens up the meat via the salt content. When you start in a frozen state the brine can't really do it's magic. It sounds like it is not really worth the effort and would be hard to control the outcome.
Joined Nov 8, 2017
Thanks folks! You know, Alton Brown is considered by laypeople like me to be a pretty smart guy who gives good advice. I obviously don't know what professionals outside of Food Network think of him. But if thawing in brine is a bad idea, I wonder why he endorses it. I haven't done my turkey dinner yet. I need to check the label. It's not a Butterball. I got it during one of those "free turkey with $50 purchase" sales. I don't know the brand. But I've had Butterball before. If it's already brined, why does it still sometimes come out dry? I thought brining was to prevent that.
Joined Oct 31, 2012
Thawing in a brine isn't a "bad idea" really, just a bit unnecessary. I agree with Phatch and Nicko. I wouldn't bother. Thaw, then brine. I would guess that Alton got an article out of the idea, nothing more.
I'll take this opportunity to address some other concerns you didn't necessarily ask a direct question about but perhaps should be clarified.
Brining a turkey will not over salt it automatically. There are two measures to be aware of. The percentage of salt in the brine and the percentage of brine in an injected turkey. Both measured by weight but not the same thing.
The brine percentage label on a Butterball or any other injected turkey will first state how much of the weight of the turkey is brine, then the percent of the solution. If you buy a turkey with no brine, you can decide how salty a brine to use.
A home made brine is usually no more than 5% salt by weight. So a gallon of water weighs eight pounds. 1.4 ounces of salt is 5% of that. A little less salt would make it a 3% or 4% brine.
Salty water wants to achieve equilibrium with non salty water. So when you brine the turkey, the salty brine exchanges with the water in the turkey until all the water is the same saltiness. Once that's done, it's as salty as it's ever going to get.
The other issue is temperature. Above 40 degrees is the "danger zone", when bacteria start to thrive. Thawing a turkey on the counter allows the exterior of the turkey to be exposed to air borne bacteria while the interior is still thawing, increasing the risk of spoilage. Alton's brining method uses the anti-bacterial properties of a brine to keep any airborne bacteria away from the turkey as it thaws, keeping the exterior safe while the interior thaws. As Alton points out, the turkey is basically a huge ice cube. So the cooler helps keep the temp down while it thaws.
In effect, the salt transfer happens at the same time as the thawing. When the turkey is thawed, it is also brined.
Temperature also affects the rate of brining. Heat speeds things up, cold slows things down. So brining would take less time in a warm environment but this also increases the growth of bacteria. So Alton's method allows for that as well.
Lastly, a brined turkey has a better chance of being moist and tender but it isn't foolproof. Overcooking will dry out any turkey. So however you thaw and/or brine, keep an eye on the bird as it cooks. Because the legs and breasts are typically done at different times, if you aren't presenting the bird at table, you can cut the legs off and braise them in some water with mirepoix and spices while roasting the breasts in the usual way. When the breasts are done, take them out and let the legs finish.
Hope this helps.
Joined Jun 27, 2012
....because brining is the action by which a fluid with a high % of salt moves in and out of the cell membrane until both sides of said cell membrane have an equal amt of the fluid.
That is why there is so much salt in the brining recipes.
The Butterball people just inject and then freeze.
When it is finally ready to roast most of that "brine" has leaked out of the tissue.

I am going to get a ton of crap for my statement but here goes... a generic bird is just as good as a big brand bird when it comes down to brining.

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