Thanksgiving Turkey Brine

Thanksgiving Turkey Brine

Recipe by Liz Sempervive, Executive Chef of the Millstone Café

Oil painting of a young girl holding a live turkey
Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle (1876 - 1936), Thanksgiving Turkey (detail), ca. 1925, oil on illustration board, 12 1/2 × 8 1/2 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Willis Lawrence (artist's daughter), 1972

It’s about that time of year when we all decide how to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. There are a few different ways to infuse the bird with the most flavor possible, one of which is called brining.

A brine is water seasoned with salt, sugar and other spices. The bird needs to be completely submerged in the brine for the flavor to infuse properly, so you will need a large kitchen-safe container or bringing bag, depending the size of your turkey. You will eventually discard the brine, but you will taste the flavors in each bite at the dinner table. 


  • 1 turkey about 20 pounds, completely thawed
  • 1 brining bag or waterproof container, large enough to fit the entire turkey
  • 3 cups apple juice or cider
  • 2 gallons water
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 5 cloves of garlic, smashed to release flavor
  • 1 ½ cup kosher salt
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons peppercorns, whole
  • 5 bay leaves, whole
  • 3 oranges, peels only (use a potato peeler to harvest the orange skin)


Pro Tips Before You Begin: It is best to use a fresh turkey for this method. Frozen turkeys sold in stores often have an injection of preservation solution and can sometimes come out salty. Have a large enough waterproof container for the entire bird to fit in. You can find large kitchen-safe storage bins with lids in many sizes, or you may consider a brining bag for this method (use the roasting pan to house the bagged turkey in the fridge to avoid unnecessary spills). This recipe should be sufficient to completely cover a 20-pound turkey, but it is easy to mix up a little extra brine if you need more. Brine either the morning or night before you plan to roast the turkey to avoid it becoming too salty.

Combine all the brining ingredients in a large sauce pot and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar, salt, and infuse the spices into the liquid. Allow the brine to cool completely before adding it to the brining container with the bird.

Add the turkey to the bucket or brining bag. Pour the cold liquid into the container. Seal the container and store in the refrigerator for 16-24 hours. You’ll want to do this the night before you roast or the morning before. If you leave it in too long, it will become too salty.

On the day you are planning to cook dinner, remove the turkey from the brine and place it into the roasting dish with a rack under the bird. Discard the brine (it is OK to pour it down the sink drain). Let the bird sit in the refrigerator uncovered for 1-2 hours. The skin will form a pellicle—a skin or coating of proteins on the surface of the meat—and become a little tacky, which will produce a very crispy turkey. 

About one hour before cooking, remove the roasting dish with the bird and set on the counter to allow your bird to come up to room temperature. This will ensure the bird cooks faster and more evenly. 

Roast the turkey at 350°F for about 2.5 hours to an internal temperature of 165°F (be sure to take the internal temperature at the thigh joint). Remove the bird from the oven and be sure to let it rest before you start carving. Every bite will be perfectly salty, sweet, and savory because we gave the turkey enough time for the flavor to infuse into the meat. Enjoy! 

Liz Sempervive is the Executive Chef of the Millstone Café and Catering at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. She hopes to bring nourishment to everyone through her scratch cooking, classic dishes and rustic cuisine. Chef Liz is passionate about food accessibility and supporting our local food systems. She believes that collective healing begins with sharing a meal between friends. Her accomplishments include being awarded "Best New Chef, 2019" in Main Line Todaymagazine and participating as a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped.