Allowing your Thanksgiving sides to overshadow your turkey is a holiday tradition no home cook wants to start—and if you haven't yet found a foolproof method for turning out a juicy, flavorful showpiece bird, adding a brine bag and brining to your prep work may be the answer.
Using a brine to marinate a turkey is a simple technique—it relies on submerging a turkey in a seasoned liquid for about 18 hours in a brine bag, which improves the finished product in several key ways. "The main benefit to brining a turkey is to infuse flavor and moisture into the meat and also tenderize the meat," says Chef Garnett Livingston, owner of La Maison Dining. Though brine recipes vary from chef to chef, they include sweeteners—like sugar, honey, or maple syrup—water, salt, and aromatic herbs and spices such as ginger, thyme, or parsley.
The Benefit of a Brine Bag
Using a large stockpot covered with plastic wrap is a common method for brining a turkey, but using a bag offers at least one improvement: "Brining in a bag enables you to ensure the turkey is fully submerged and that the brine reaches every part of the turkey," says chef Waldy Malouf, senior director of food and beverage operations at The Culinary Institute of America. A bag also makes it easier to keep your turkey fully covered in brine during its soaking time, he says: "Halfway through the brining process, roll the turkey over in the bag to mix up the liquid a bit and make sure it's fully submerged."
Choosing a Brine Bag
Opt for a bag that's specifically designed for brining. "Most stores carry brine bags during the holiday season, and depending on the size of your turkey, they should work fine," says Livingston. Check the size of your turkey before you buy, though, to guarantee your bird will fit. "It's important to ensure that the brine bag or oven bag is large enough and strong enough to fully submerge the turkey," says Malouf, who recommends using an oven roasting bag if you can't find a brine bag. "Remember to leave yourself enough slack for squeezing out any air and cinching the bag with kitchen twine or string." Though some home cooks suggest that a garbage bag could also work in a pinch, the chefs warn against choosing any bag that's not food-grade, since those could be lined with unsafe dyes, scents, or chemicals.
Tips for Using a Brine Bag
Livingston recommends layering two bags in a large stockpot or bowl; Malouf reminds first-timers to open the bag in a bowl or pot before adding the bird and the brine and to keep the whole solution in the container while brining to avoid unwelcome spills. "Don't carry the bag on its own, as it can split and spill the turkey-laced brine everywhere," says Malouf.