How to Brine and Roast a Turkey and Make Perfect Gravy

It's November--turkey month!  Turkey has become the traditional main course for Thanksgiving dinner in America. We all have our favorite must-have side dishes, but there's a good chance you'll be serving turkey to your family and guests.  Whether you're making it for a few people or a large gathering, you want your turkey to turn out perfect, both in appearance and in taste. If you'd like your turkey to turn out juicy and flavorful, you may want to consider brining it. I've been eating turkey for Thanksgiving all my life.  I always thought it's ok, a little dry and not real flavorful.  I never knew how really delectable turkey could be until I started brining.  I began brining my turkeys a few years ago, and now it's the only way I'll roast one.

Brining - What It Is

If you've never brined a turkey or don't know what brining is, let me share briefly my limited understanding of it.  Brining is a centuries-old practice of soaking food in salt to cure or preserve it.  With our modern day conveniences for refrigerating and freezing foods, brining went by the wayside.  It is becoming popular again, however, as chefs and food processors, and even the average cook in the kitchen has found that brining enhances the flavor and moisture in roasted poultry.

How it Works

When you soak a turkey for a long period of time in a solution high in salt, the protein in the meat tissue is broken down and water is absorbed.  When cooking, the protein usually contracts and squeezes out the moisture, but since it has already been broken down and the tissue contains additional moisture, the meat does not dry out while it is roasted.  When I first heard of brining a turkey in a solution of water and salt, I was concerned that the turkey would taste too salty.  It doesn't.  It tastes more flavorful, but not too salty.  If you stuff the turkey, you may want to cut down on the salt in the stuffing as it will hold some of the salt.  Also, if you use the meat's juices to make gravy, you probably won't need to add salt there either.  A word of caution:  Brining a turkey will increase the amount of sodium in your meal, so you may want to reconsider the decision to brine if you or any of your guests have heart disease, high blood pressure, or any other condition that calls for a low sodium diet.

How to Brine a Turkey

1 gallon water
1 cup course Kosher salt
1 cup sugar

You will mix up enough of this solution to completely cover the turkey. For a 20+ lb. turkey, I use 3x this solution.

You should choose a turkey that is not Kosher or self-basting as they already have added salt.  If you have a frozen turkey, you will need to defrost it in the refrigerator for a few days prior to brining.

I usually make the brine a day ahead of time and then refrigerate it.  I use 3 clean gallon jugs. I fill a gallon half-full with very warm to hot water and then, using a funnel, I add the salt and sugar. I shake it to dissolve the salt and sugar and then add more water to fill it. Then I refrigerate the brine until I'm ready to use it.

Remove the neck and giblets from the thawed turkey and set them aside for making broth for gravy.  (Put them in a disposable plastic bag until ready to use and keep refrigerated.) Wash and clean the turkey thoroughly.  You will need a plastic or stainless steel container large enough for soaking the turkey in water.  (Don't use an aluminum container as the salt will corrode it.) Most of us don't have room in our refrigerator for a pot large enough to hold a large turkey.  I have used a clean, large cooler.  I have a thing about not wanting to put raw poultry in my plastic cooler, so I put the turkey inside a large roasting bag.  (Don't use a garbage bag; they are not food grade.)

Put the turkey in the pot or in a poultry bag inside a cooler, fill it with the brine until the turkey is completely immersed in water. (If you want, you can add herbs or flavoring to the solution: rosemary, thyme, peppercorns. If you do, use them generously.  I like to just use the salt and sugar.)  If using the poultry bag, wrap a rubber band tightly around the open end to keep it closed.  (Note: I once had a roasting bag tear, so I started doubling them.)  Refrigerate in the brine for one hour per pound of turkey.  If you're using the cooler, fill it with ice to surround the bagged turkey to keep it cold. (I have also brined whole chickens or chicken breasts for roasting. They are delicious!  Just follow the recommendation of 1 hour of brining time for each pound of poultry.)

Roasting a Turkey

When you're ready to roast the turkey, remove it from the brine, rinse it thoroughly, and pat dry with paper towels.  Have some softened butter ready and mix it with some black pepper or any herbs you'd like to add.  Loosen the skin of the turkey and rub the butter and pepper on the flesh under the skin.  Then rub more butter on the outside of the skin.  It is not recommended to stuff a brined turkey as the stuffing may absorb some salt that is released while the turkey is cooking.  I have stuffed a brined turkey, however, and was not disappointed.

Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and bake uncovered in the oven at 325 degrees F. Place some water in the bottom of the pan so that the drippings don't burn.  Check the turkey about every hour and baste with the water and drippings, adding water as needed.  (Some people say to roast the turkey breast side down so that the juices flow into the breasts.  I like to roast it breast side up so that the skin browns nicely.

Ahhh . . . the smell of turkey roasting on Thanksgiving Day!

When the skin turns a rich golden brown, cover the turkey loosely with foil.  Roast until the internal temperature of the breast meat reaches 170 degrees F. and the thigh 180 degrees F. on a meat thermometer.  (I always buy a turkey with a pop-up thermometer.)  There is no substitute for a meat thermometer in determining the doneness of a turkey.  To give you a rough estimate, though, an unstuffed 12 lb. turkey would take roughly 3 1/2 - 4 hours and a 22 lb. unstuffed turkey about 5 - 5 1/2 hours roasting time. Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer it to a cutting board with a groove to catch the meat drippings. Let it set for 20 minutes before carving so that the juices lock in.

Making Perfect Turkey Gravy

Photo courtesy of the Geeky Gourmet
I start making gravy the day before Thanksgiving.  Yep! You heard me right. When I remove the neck and giblets from the raw turkey, I rinse them off and set them aside.  If you're like me, I got grossed out the first time I handled and cooked the innards, but the flavor these give your gravy is unbeatable.  You'll get used to the idea.  You're going to use the neck, the heart, and the gizzards, but not the liver.  The liver will add a bitter flavor to the gravy.  I don't want to gross you out, but if you're going to make the broth, you have to know which is the liver.  So, here's a picture.  The neck is on the left.  On the right, from the top down, is the heart, the gizzards, and the liver. Don't use the liver.

Place the neck and giblets in a large sauce pan and cover them with water.  Add an onion cut in quarters and a few chunks of celery. (The celery tops have a lot of flavor.)  Cover and bring water to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 2 hours.  Strain the broth and let it cool down.  Store it in jars in the refrigerator.  You can eat the cooked neck and giblets, feed them to your animals, or throw them away.

Turkey Gravy Recipe

I usually have a big crowd for Thanksgiving dinner and make 8 cups of gravy, so I 4x this recipe.
For each 2 cups of gravy:

2 C. broth
3 T. fat
3 T. flour

When you remove the turkey from the oven, pour the juices into a bowl and let it sit until the fat rise to the surface. Skim off and reserve the fat and greases. 

Photo by Lavendar Lynn
Place the pan you roasted the turkey in over two burners on the stove on medium heat.  Add a little bit of water to the pan to "deglaze" it. Stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen the the browned bits. (Always make the gravy in the pan you roasted the turkey in for maximum flavor.)  Pour off the liquid, adding it to your broth.

Measure the amount of fat you need and add it to the pan.   If you don't have enough turkey fat, add butter. Whisk in the flour and cook gently, stirring constantly until the flour loses its "raw" smell and the mixture becomes golden in color.

Measure out the amount of broth you need and add it to the pan.  Use the turkey broth and the broth from the neck and giblets.  If you need more liquid, add some water that you cooked potatoes or vegetables in, or add plain water if need be.  Whisk the broth into the flour mixture and simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently for 5-10 minutes until thickened.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  (If you brined your turkey, you may not need to add salt.)

Pour the gravy into warmed gravy boats. (You can strain it if you desire.)  The gravy will continue to thicken after it is removed from the heat. My brother has told me that my gravy is so good it should be its own food group!  I'm so thankful to have such a nice brother!

Enjoy your brined turkey and perfect gravy.  You'll be so proud to serve it to your family and guests.  You'll love hearing them compliment you on the best turkey dinner ever!  Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and God bless you richly!

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  1. I wish that I had this post printed out for all of those times I forgot a step in the turkey day trials. Your advice is clear, and reassuringly calm.

    We've had a few encounters of the disaster kind over the last few years...oven blowing up, power outages, turkeys that just won't defrost after a week in the fridge.

    Maybe I will tackle brining next Thanksgiving, because we have already had ours.


    1. It seems like so many things can go wrong, doesn't it? I hope you'll try this out next year and really like it! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very informative post and great photos ~ very creative and looks delicious! ~ carol, xxx

  3. Mmmmm, LOVE turkey, I look forward to it as soon as there is a chill in the air! Thank you for coming by to share on Rurality Blog Hop #40!

  4. Great timing and good info♫♪

  5. LOVE turkey, I look forward to it as soon as there is a chill in the air!