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Brined Christmas turkey

Mon, 1 December, 2014

To brine or not to brine? I say yes, drown the turkey for 36 hours and the result will be worth every minute. Juicy meat, crispy skin and merry Christmas!

roast turkey

How to (not) cook the turkey?

Apparently most turkeys cooked at Christmas end up vastly overcooked. That’s actually understandable – you’ve got this huge bird, struggle to even fit it in the oven, so you figure ‘that will take ages to cook’. Also most of us will sooner err on the side of over- rather than underdone, given all the food safety scares, more or less justified.

Turkey meat is actually quite bland, unless you’re lucky to secure a posh breed. So a lot of us end up with crumbly dry meat requiring pints of gravy sloshed over it to make it tasty.

best brined turkey

Brine the bird!

Brining is the remedy. It’s an awful lot of hassle – and I mean AN AWFUL LOT. You need a huge stockpot to boil the brine solution it. You need a bucket to drown the bird in. And a spare empty fridge won’t go amiss either to store the beast for 36 hours.

How and where to brine it?

My turkey usually tends to be smallish – about 4kg – so I empty and clean a fridge drawer and it just about fits. If you have a disused baby bath tub - great. Or a vat that homebrew beer is made.

roast turkey

Someone once suggested filling the washing machine with brine and stick the turkey in but I wouldn't recommend THAT, even if that would solve the cooking too: just set it on cotton cycle. That's a joke, but seriously: first identify a suitable vessel before you decide to soak the beast.

What is the benefit of brining?

The trade-off is considerable – the meat is really moist and succulent even if it is cooked a little longer than prescribed because people are late or you forgot to prepare the potatoes.

how to cook perfect turkey

Some points worth bearing in mind

  • Don’t cover it. It will steam instead of roasting. But by all means pour some liquid into the tray so it cooks in slightly moist environment.
  • Cook it upside down first half of the time. The juices will run down to the breast and it won’t dry out. Turn it over gently with meat forks or claws.
  • Don’t slather it with butter. A good quality turkey should have a layer of fat under the skin so no need for too much butter. And you won’t need to spoon it off forever in order to make the gravy.
  • Rest, rest, rest – it won’t go cold. You need to vacate the oven for a good while for the potatoes and roast veg anyway, don’t you? Unless you’re one of those who have two ovens. Or indeed two kitchens.
  • brined christmas turkey

The brining method comes from the River Cottage guys.

Brined Christmas turkey

Servings: 6-8Time: 3 hours depending on size, plus brining


  • 1 free range turkey, 4.5 – 5.5kg to serve 6 (10 - 12 pounds)
  • butter for basting
  • black pepper
  • For the brine:
  • 12 litres (10 quarts) water
  • 1.25kg (3 pounds) sea salt
  • 250g (1 heaping cup) demerara sugar
  • 30g (2 tbsp.) black peppercorns, cracked
  • 1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • a bunch of tarragon (with stalks)
  • a bunch of parsley (with stalks)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 lemons, halved
  • 50cl (4 tbsp.) dry vermouth or gin (optional)
  • For the gravy:
  • 1 tsp flour mixed with a little cold water
  • 1 tsp redcurrant jelly or cranberry sauce
  • 1 cup of beef stock or the water the potatoes were boiling in


1. Prepare the brine about 60 hours ahead of the cooking time, so aiming for Christmas dinner, get it ready on the night of the 22nd December. Place all the brine ingredients in a large stockpot (if you haven’t got a large enough pan, use less water in a smaller pan and dilute it later) and bring to the boil. Cover and leave overnight.

2. Put the turkey breast side down in a tub, plastic bucket or an empty fridge drawer and pour over the brine. Keep it as submerged as you can by weighing it down with a plate or something similar placed on top of it. Place in the fridge or at least somewhere as cool as possible. Brine for 24-36 hours.

turkey in brine

3. Remove the turkey from the brine the night before cooking (so on the night of the 24th), rinse very well under cold water, pat dry and keep in the fridge overnight.
Remove the turkey from the fridge on the morning of the 25th and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.

4. Truss the bird with a butcher’s string – it will ensure more even cooking – by making a loop around the legs in the front and tying it up around the wings at the back.

turkey buttered

5. Brush the turkey all over with softened butter and season with black pepper. Place it on the breast side in a large roasting tin. Pour at least a cup of water into the tin.

Roasting times*:

  • 6 to 8 pounds (2.7 – 3.6kg) 2-1/2 to 3 hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds (3.6 – 5.4kg) 3 to 4 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds (5.4 – 7.2kg) 4 to 5 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds (7.2 – 9kg) 5 to 5-1/2 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds (9 – 10.8kg) 5-1/2 to 6 hours
  • *if you order a really good quality turkey it should come with the roasting times instruction. Birds with more intramuscular fat, like Kelly Bronze or Norfolk Black in the UK, will require shorter cooking so check with your butcher or supplier.

6. Turn the bird over to its back at least halfway through the cooking time, season the breast with black pepper again and brush with a little more butter.  Continue roasting through the recommended time, until the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh or breast reaches 65C/150F. If you don’t have a meat probe just insert a skewer in the thickest part and check if the juices are clear.

7. Remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour. Don't cover it if you want to retain crisp skin.

8. In the meantime prepare the gravy: spoon most of the fat off the tray. If your roasting tray isn't too enormous, place it on the hob on low heat (if it is, scrape all the juices and bits off the tray into a small saucepan).

9. When it starts bubbling, add the flour and mix well with a sauce whisk. Add the jelly or cranberry sauce, bring to the boil, pour in the stock and bubble until reduced to thicker than required consistency – the resting juices poured in will dilute it further.

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Hello! I'm Anna Gaze, the Cuisine Fiend. Welcome to my recipe collection.

I have lots of recipes for you to choose from: healthy or indulgent, easy or more challenging, quick or involved - but always tasty.


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