The 1-Ingredient Upgrade For A Better Turkey Brine (It’s Probably In Your Fridge)

Buttermilk-Brined Turkey - Southern Living
PHOTO: ALISON MIKSCH; FOOD STYLIST: KAREN RANKIN; PROP STYLIST: JOSH HOGGLE

Brining turkey stirs up a lot of strong opinions. Some people believe brining is a waste of time—sprinkle a rub on the skin and be done with it, they say. Others wouldn’t dare roast a turkey without hours (even days) of marinating in the seasoning liquid. Wet brines are too messy; dry brines are too sticky. It adds no flavor; it’s the only way to add flavor. The battles go on and on.

But if you’re open to others’ opinions or are already a brining believer, then there’s one thing you should know: Buttermilk is the secret ingredient for the best turkey brine ever.

Why Buttermilk Is Good in a Brine

You don’t have to tell a Southerner how magical buttermilk is. There are few recipes that aren’t made better with buttermilk, especially biscuits and pie—and bread and coleslaw, and especially this glazed donut cake.

In those recipes, however, buttermilk isn’t a brine; it’s used for flavor and tender textures in baked goods. We’re here to discuss why buttermilk is good as a marinade or brine for meat, and especially turkey.

Brining can impart flavor, tenderize the meat, and make the final bird especially juicy and moist. For a traditional turkey brine, buttermilk can be combined with salt, and lots of it, for these results.

These two ingredients do the bulk of the work in brining. The salt draws out the moisture of the turkey, and the buttermilk breaks down the protein walls in the meat. Then, moisture floods back into the meat’s cells, leaving the turkey tender, seasoned, and primed for a long roast in the oven or smoking on the grill.

Our recipe for Buttermilk-Brined Turkey takes the brining one step further with the addition of herbs and spices. This way, the brine liquid is infused with extra flavor, and when the turkey absorbs moisture from the brining liquid, those flavors go with it. You don’t have to go through the work of adding another spice rub before roasting the turkey. The brine has done all the important work.

Case in Point: Fried Chicken

You don’t have to look too deep into Southern cookbooks to see more evidence of the magic of a buttermilk brine on poultry. Fried chicken is frequently marinated in buttermilk that has usually been seasoned with hot sauce, garlic powder, black pepper, and other ingredients. Not only does the buttermilk marinade tenderize the chicken, it imparts extra flavor in the meat, flavor you can’t add from frying alone.

How Long Should You Brine Turkey in Buttermilk?

Brining (and then cooking) a turkey is a bit of a commitment, we admit. With brining in particular, if you don’t do it long enough, it’s not going to have time to work. You’ll just be wasting ingredients. But if you do it too long, the meat could become a bit mushy and stringy.

The sweet spot for brining a turkey is 24 to 48 hours. This will give the turkey plenty of time to expel liquids, tenderize, and then reabsorb all that moisture and flavor.

brining turkey in stockpot
ALISON MIKSCH; FOOD STYLIST: KAREN RANKIN; PROP STYLIST: JOSH HOGGLE

How To Use Buttermilk in a Turkey Brine

If we’ve convinced you that buttermilk is what your turkey needs this Thanksgiving, you’re in luck. Our Test Kitchen developed a wonderful recipe for brining a turkey in buttermilk and then roasting it to true golden-brown perfection. You can follow those steps for the perfect holiday centerpiece.

If you want to make your own buttermilk brine for turkey, keep these required elements in mind:

  • Don’t skimp on the buttermilk. You want to make sure the turkey stays covered with buttermilk brine. If needed, place a plate or skillet on top of the turkey to keep it pressed down in the stockpot. Three quarts of buttermilk should be enough to cover a 12- to 16-pound turkey that has been spatchcocked. You may need more for a whole turkey in a larger stockpot.
  • Add seasonings. It’s true that a brine does not technically need seasonings. Buttermilk and salt are all that’s chemically required for the work of a brine. But for more flavor, add spices. Fennel seeds, coriander seeds, yellow mustard seeds, smashed garlic cloves, and bay leaves make a great combination. A mixture of black peppercorns, sage sprigs, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and garlic would be nice also.
  • Don’t rinse. After the brining time is over, lift the turkey out of the brine, and let drip. Gently brush off any spices or herbs, but do not wash the turkey. You’ll lose all that great seasoning and buttermilk on the surface of the turkey.