How to Make Pastured Turkey Brine
You may have noticed that pastured poultry, both turkey and chicken, tends to be a bit drier than conventionally raised birds unless you cook it exactly right. This is disappointing to some folks until they find out why.
Commercial Poultry Not What it Seems (even if organic)
Did you know that about 30% of the typical, commercially purchased turkey is nothing but salt water (and not healthy salt water at that)? This goes for “natural” and “organic” turkeys too (1).
No, it’s not your imagination that the expensive 18 pound turkey didn’t seem to go very far in feeding your family and holiday guests!
There’s a reason why food producers use injection systems to pump up commercial poultry with a ton of brine solution. This type of processing provides a built-in safety mechanism whereby the consumer can overcook the bird, and it still turns out juicy and tender. Do this with a pastured bird, however, and your goose is literally cooked.
Brine injection also extends shelf life and flavor to birds that are most likely not free ranging, even if organic, and hence would cook up to be rather tasteless without “flavor enhancement”.
Injected Turkey Brine Contains Toxins, Additives and MSG
The problem with injected turkey and chicken from the store is two-fold:
First, you’re paying a high price for the extra weight that the brine water adds. For example, if you are paying $3.99 per pound for an organic turkey from Whole Foods, and the bird you buy weighs in at 18 pounds, approximately $28 of the $72 total cost of the turkey is for nothing more than salt water and flavorings.
Kind of a rip-off, don’t you think?
Secondly, the brine water injected into the poultry is not the type of water you want to be consuming in the first place. It’s likely to contain one or more of the following ingredients (2):
- Fluoridated and/or chlorinated tap water.
- Commercial white salt (the type of sodium you want to avoid).
- Sugar (GMO for nonorganic poultry).
- Rancid vegetable oils (GMO in nonorganic turkey) for lean meats.
- Artificial flavor enhancement (aka, “spices”, “organic spices” and “natural flavors” which are pseudonyms for hiding monosodium glutamate, aka MSG).
- Toxic chemicals and binders such as sodium phosphate (prohibited in organic processing but allowed in “natural” poultry).
Avoid the Commercial Turkey Brine and Make it Yourself
Recently, we were talking to neighbor friends about how to ensure a moist, fall off the bone pastured turkey for Thanksgiving. We shared that we planned to roast it slowly in our outdoor barbecue. One idea they suggested was to make our own turkey brine and soak the bird for 24 hours before roasting.
Of course! Such a traditional thing to do and an amazingly simple idea!
If you buy pastured turkey and eschew store turkey injected with additive-laden brinewater to save money and avoid toxins, here’s how to make a healthy solution yourself. This will help ensure that your pastured turkey investment cooks up tender and juicy every time. You won’t ever long for the red button that pops up on commercial turkeys when cooking is “done” ever again!
Turkey Brine Recipe (how to wet brine a turkey)
Important note: Turkey brine is ideally suited to pastured poultry only! Do not wet brine a frozen or fresh commercial turkey, natural or organic, as these birds have most likely already been injected with brine water. Carefully search the label to ensure nothing has been injected before proceeding. Kosher turkeys that have been dry brined should not also be wet brined.
May I suggest that you try charcoal grilling your turkey after you brine it? If you like the taste of smoked turkey, you will love it!
Remember to make homemade turkey broth with the leftover bones after brining, roasting and feasting!
Traditional Turkey Brine Recipe
Pastured poultry requires a 24 hour soak in turkey brine before cooking to ensure tender, juicy results without the injected brinewater of commercial birds.
- 1 large turkey 12+ pounds, preferably pastured
- 2 gallons filtered water
- 2 cups sea salt
- 1 cup sucanat or organic brown sugar, optional
- 2 onions preferably organic, use only if you won't stuff turkey
- 5-6 cloves garlic preferably organic, use only if you won't stuff turkey
- 2-3 large bay leaf preferably organic, use only if you won't stuff turkey
Remove the giblets from the bird and refrigerate. Chop optional onions and garlic cloves.
Add the two gallons of filtered water to the large stockpot or bucket. Mix in the sea salt and optional sugar until dissolved. Simmer optional onions, garlic, and bay leaves in a small amount of water for a couple of minutes to stimulate the release of flavors. Do not thoroughly cook them. Cool and stir into the brine water.
Place the turkey in the stockpot carefully and ensure that it is fully submerged in the brining liquid. Use a heavy plate or small tray to weigh the bird down and keep it fully submerged if necessary. Placing a small but weighty item into the crevice where the giblets were also works to weigh the turkey down.
Cover and place the container in the refrigerator for at least 18 and up to 24 hours. Flip the turkey once or twice during that time.
After brining is complete, remove the turkey carefully, rinse well and place on a large platter. Discard the brine water.
Pat the turkey dry with cotton towels. If you have time, let the turkey sit uncovered on a rack sitting on a baking sheet for 2-3 hours before roasting. This is because the skin has absorbed the brine as well as the meat. Drying it off before cooking will help it brown and get crispy like a nonbrined turkey.
Making gravy from the drippings of a brined turkey can be very salty if you add additional salt during the gravy making process, so don't do this until you've tasted the gravy first!
If you will not be roasting the turkey within a few hours, place back into the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it.
Use the onions, garlic and bay leaves only if you do not plan to stuff your turkey during roasting.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Since 2002, Sarah has been a Health and Nutrition Educator dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah received a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master of Government Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, her work has been covered by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.