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To brine or not to brine, and other turkey talk

Need some help here: it is my first Thanksgiving (as in, the first I am hosting), and it is going to be trial by fire. The invite list got away from us--especially since I hate to see someone with nowhere to go for the holiday--and we are holding at about 17 people. In a one-bedroom apartment.

I ordered a turkey AND a ham from these guys:


which I would highly recommend. They were $$$ but also incredibly easy to deal with and lovely people (I had them on the phone trying to figure out how much we would need to feed 17 people). That aside, they recommend "a light hand" in dealing with the turkey. I was planning on brining. First of all, I thought this would make my turkey more fool-proof and less inclined to dry out.

Second of all, what do you think? What are the good recipes for brining?

I have a zillion other questions too...maybe too many for one thread:

What is a good homemade stuffing recipe for the kind of stuffing that comes from a box, as in, how can I make Stoffers stuffing but make a HOMEMADE one?

What are your thoughts on fancy paper plates?

Other than a super-prepared game plan (I am doing much of the prep and all the pies the night before, having friends cook certain dishes at their homes, and having a play by play printed out so nothing gets left behind, what are your turkey day for 17 tricks?

Much obliged!

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  1. Do you have the space?? to the brine the bird? If so, Alton Brown's recipe works well. There is a very recent thread still running re his roast turkey.
    Fanny Farmer CB has good traditional stuffing recipes.
    In lieu of fancy paper plates, why not rent 2 dozen simple white china plates from a party rental store? They should cost no more than 50 cents each and are so much nicer. It is The Holy Grail of foodie American holidays after all. If not in the budget, Smart and Final (ick, I know) has a nice clear hard plastic disposable plate that would do well.

    Sounds like you are well on your way to a good time for all 17 guests. Only other advice is " clean as you go! don't let the dirty stuff get ahead of you"
    I once cooked NY's Eve dinner for 12 in a 400 sq ft apt in NYC. We used the table as a counter for prep and service and ate "picnic style" on the floor! It can be done!
    Good luck.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jdm

      I'm hitting up my Fanny Farmer! I can't believe I didn't think to look there. I have a circa-1980 edition that was my Mom's.

    2. Folks, please keep the responses here focused on the home cooking aspects of the OP's query.

      tmd218 - for discussion about the use of paper plates, please post on the Not About Food board. Good luck with your dinner and, by the way, there are currently a number of recent posts about Thanksgiving dinners, including by first time hosts, that might be of use to you.


      1. I vote don't bother with the brining. It sounds like you got a quality bird.

        1. RELAX! Keep it simple, good and no fuss. This is your first host and you have alot of guests and are aiming high. Trust me, you will be the first person to fall asleep after the meal with the pace you are planning. I know this, I fell asleep standing at midnight services my first overplanned Christmas. It was funny. Good food, shared with good friends, spending the time together is what the holiday is about. Start doing the impress with food at later dates, with fewer people. You will enjoy it more and so will they.

          Listen to your experts! Your turkey folks say go "light handed"; they do know best. Brining a turkey is not easy. It is simple in theory and in practise, it can be a real bumpy road. WHat would you brine it in; as in container? WIll you have room in your refrig for it; will the shelf support the weight?

          Try using a commercial bread stuffing, the dried seasoned cubes of bread (I sorta like the cornbread ones). Make it homemade by adding chopped and sauted carrots, celery, onion, try some apples and raisins. Add a good hit of lime juice, that really brings freshness alive.

          Great idea to have some guests bring food cooked by them. Share the pleasure of cooking!

          Really, the "KISS" method really works best. Enjoy your holiday as well!

          3 Replies
          1. re: Quine

            I agree 100% with Quine.

            Cooking a meal for four at Thanksgiving can be a challenge, let alone 17.

            it all boils down to the gravy.

            Turkey is dry by nature.

            hit it with some good gravy made from sweet butter, flour, home made, rich turkey stock, you got a winner!

            The challenge is securing the turkey bones. Not easy, even for me and I work in the industry.

            Good luck. call the nice people who helped you with the turkey and ask them for bones.

            1. re: Quine

              One important bit of information if you're going to use dried bread cubes for your dressing: It takes A LOT of broth to moisten them sufficiently. My ex-MIL didn't use enough broth the one and only year I had thanksgiving at her house, and the dressing was pretty much over-browned croutons.

              Personally, I prefer to use fresh (not brand-new fresh; I think dressing started out as a way to dispatch stale bread) bread, some white, some wheat, and some corn bread. But my dressing is VERY moist; my rule of thumb is that if you can recognize discrete cubes of bread, it's too dry.

              1. re: revsharkie

                Can't second this enough - buy or make way more broth than you think you need. It keeps for other purposes, or you can make more gravy. A too-dry dressing is quite unpleasant...I'm with revsharkie on the moist dressing.

                OP, you can make your own dried bread cubes easily enough, and in advance. They tend not to be as hard and thirsty as those in packages in the supermarket, so you might not be using more broth than the Middle East has oil. Just cube up the bread of choice and spread on baking sheets in a low slow oven - I do mine at 200 degrees and check regularly, then turn the oven off when dry and let cool. I also season with the herbs I want in the stuffing. Through the whole mess in a paper bag and close up until you make the stuffing (I do mine a day or two in advance).

            2. I agree -- being prepared is good (and not forgetting anything) but don't stress too much!
              I do a simple stuffing with dried bread cubes (homemade or "plain" packaged); onion, celery, and carrots sauteed in a little butter; and chicken or turkey broth. I never add eggs or cream. I do use plenty of fresh herbs -- it makes all the difference -- think Simon and Garfunkel (dating myself, I know) -- parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. You can cook the veggies the night before, but I like to mix it fresh in the morning -- just until moist, not drenched.

              If you're baking the stuffing separately in a casserole, butter the inside well and add a little extra broth before you bake it.

              Also, for prepping, make plenty of extra turkey stock the day/night before with the gizzards, neck, and an extra package of turkey parts (wings, legs, etc.). I learned the hard way one year how easy it is to come up short on stock for gravy!

              Relax, enjoy, and share the fun -- the cooking and the cleanup! It's all more fun with friends and family to pitch in.

              1. For the dressing, you can just go ahead and use ST and doctor it up a bit. Add some sausage or oysters or chestnuts. Saute some veggies for it as well. Use turkey stock in it as well. Should be great.
                If you can brine, brine. The best turkey's I've had were brined. If you don't have room/vessel/time/whatever don't worry about it. If you do it right, it will be just fine without it.
                Some other tips are, don't stuff. Make the dressing in a casserole. Don't bother basting. Basically, the skin is water proof and no matter what you dump on it, it'll run off. All you're doing is constantly opening the oven door and adding cooking time.
                I've been experimenting with cooking the critter upside (Brest side) down. That way, the juices will pool up in the breast meat.

                Check out Alton Brown's "Romancing the Bird" episode. It was on last night and I'm sure it'll rerun again before the big day.
                Search by episode. You can even get the transcript.

                Good luck and don't sweat it too much.


                1. Here's a link to the turkey brine that we used--at least twice--last year. In my opinion, it was our all-time best turkey to date. And the gravy. . .sublime!


                  1. There is significant difference of opinion concerning brining. I have done it and (before we were married) so has my husband. We both think it makes the meat salty - no matter how much rinsing you do - and gives it a kind of processed-meat texture. Yes, it's juicy. But if you don't overcook your quality bird, put some butter underneath the skin, and use an injector, the meat won't be dry anyway. Also, no way could we get gravy out of the brined birds. DH thinks brining simply gives you more room for error when cooking the turkey. That's what thermometers are for! Not everyone has this experience and a lot of very knowledgeable foodies swear by brining. Sounds like something you may not need to try for your first Thanksgiving crowd...Oh, one more thing: Check out Cook's Illustrated make-ahead gravy. Really, really good, but be aware that the browning of the vegetables takes about twice as long as the recipe indicates.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: rexsreine

                      You bring up a good point Rex. Perhaps for the first try, don't brine.
                      Try a roast chicken some time and brine it. Get an idea of what you're getting yourself into.

                      I, on the other hand, haven't found the bird overly salty. In fact, I'm not a salt person and had no problem with mine.
                      I also haven't noticed any odd textural issues.

                      I agree that it's not crucial but if I have time, I do it.


                      1. re: rexsreine

                        rexreine, I agree on the issue of butter under the skin. I can't speak to brining, as I've never done it (always a 22-24 lb bird and nooooo room), but I've never had a dry bird with the buttering. We load the heck out of the bird with butter the night before - the trick, of course, is seperating the skin from the meat without tearing it, getting into even the thighs and legs - and then insert fresh sage leaves under the skin and over the butter. It's a comical wrestling match, but the bird is moist and juicy, and the gravy perfect.

                        1. re: cayjohan

                          You can also do that with bacon.

                          mmmmmmmmm bacon aaaaauuuuuuugggghhhhhh!!!


                          1. re: cayjohan

                            That sounds like a good idea. I am starting to lean towards a no-brine Thanksgiving. I have fresh sage growing on the porch and I bet a few leaves will look pretty under the skin--I've done that with rosemary & a chicken.

                        2. I learned this trick many years ago and it saves a ton of trouble on the day.

                          This weekend, get some turkey wings and drumsticks from the supermarket. Put them in a roasting pan with some onion, carrots and celery and brown them well in the oven, then use them to make stock. (make sure you get all the bits in the roasting pan into the stock.) Strain it, cool in in the fridge, then freeze it until the day before. Thaw it and use it in your dressing and gravy. You can make the gravy the night before, with a butter and flour roux and your wonderful stock, and you have that chore out of the way.

                          Have a wonderful time! Some of my favorite holidays were those where I had lots of people and not much in the way of space, time, or equipment.

                          1. Have you tried this thread? Quite a lot of responses and fairly recent.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: itryalot

                              I have a new oven this year that has the convection oven feature. One of the options is convection roast. Has anyone tried cooking the bird (I have a 15 pound bird in the freezer) in the convection oven? The San Francisco paper has an article about cooking the turkey in a convection oven with good results. I'd like to hear from someone who actually has had success.

                              1. re: Jane917

                                I've used convection for many things, including turkey. If you have the cookbook that came with your oven, chances are high it will include a recipe for roast turkey. Convection ovens reduce the cooking time. For some recipes (but not required for roasting) you reduce the cooking temperature by 25 degrees in a convection oven. Some ovens do this automatically, but have an option switch to turn this feature off.

                                The thing I like about convection roasting is that it browns evenly, and because of the reduced cooking time, the birds seem to be juicier, at least to me. Others may disagree.

                                If you no longer have your convection cookbook handy, many manufacturers make them available on line. Figure out ahead of time how fast the cooking time is projected to be in your particular convenction oven, then use a meat thermometer too.

                                Good luck and have fun. If it turns out to be a disaster and you have to send someone to McDonald's for hamburgers, hey, it will be the most memorable Thanksgiving in everyone's memory! But I'm sure you'll do just fine without McD's. As a cook, given a choice, I'll choose convection over the old fashioned thermal method any day.

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  One more thing... With a fifteen pound bird, start checking the temperature before you expect it to be done. My experience is that smaller birds cook much faster than expected.

                            2. If you feel like dealing with another step, then brining is great. We always brine our bird as it definitely makes for a juicer bird, but if you skip that step, it won't be a big deal.

                              What we usually do is use a very large stockpot that we fill with a brine and ice and then dump the bird in there for a couple of hours. That way the bird will stay nice and cold while brining and it won't take up any space in the fridge. Here is a more detailed encounter of our brining experience: http://www.theculinaryreview.com/food...
                              Good luck hosting 17 guests!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: quelle4

                                I usually brine in a cooler - I keep the probe thermometer in the liquid and set it to go off if it gets above 35F. (Alton Brown's idea, not mine).

                              2. A really easy dressing it to make up a batch (for your numbers, probably two) batches of cornbread. Crumble and leave out at least a day, maybe twoto dry a little bit. Sautee two to threegiant sweet onions with about a whole head of celery in a good amount of butter. Sautee one lb. of breakfast sausage (the kind in a tube, not patties). Mix the crumbs with the cooked vegs, add a whole bunch of finely diced fresh parsley and a couple TBS poultry seasoning, salt and pepper to taste.
                                Moisten with chicken broth (I use the tetra packs from Trader Joe's). It's got to be moist.
                                The sausage adds moisture and flavor, it's a never fail and not a whole heck of a lot of work. If you like, you can lighten the cornbread mixture with Pepperidge Farm dressing/croutons. We've worked from half and half to about 1/14 to 3/4 of cornbread over the years.

                                Props to you for the meal. We'll be interested to know how it turns out!

                                BTW, I've introduced mashed rutabagas that are now a staple...cook just like spuds. Adds a nice bitter, bracing balance to all the richness..

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: berkleybabe

                                  Mashed rutabagas are one of my favorites. We had them all the time when I was a kid and I rediscovered them only recently.

                                2. I made Thanksgiving dinner for the first time last year, and brined my turkey (using Alton Brown's recipe). The turkey was very moist and delicious - my husband said it was the best turkey he had ever eaten (and he has a lot of great cooks in his family!). I think for your first turkey, I would encourage you to brine it - it gives you a little more room for error. I probably left the turkey in the oven a little longer than it needed, but it was still incredibly moist. I'm glad I brined for my first attempt and I will continue to brine my turkeys from now on. I just used a 5 pound cleaning bucket and lined it with several trash bags.