Bourbon Is The Secret To A Bolder Turkey Brine

As the saying goes, at least in some circles, "Everything's better with bourbon." The spirit makes its way into glazes, sauces, salad dressings, desserts, boozy fruit infusions, pecan coatings, brownie bites, meatballs, and practically anything that goes on or in an adult-friendly plate or mouth. Then there's the lesser-known practice of giving turkey brine some bourbon-bold shouting power. 

We're not talking about plopping an entire turkey into a bowl of bourbon, as tempting (and pricey) as that may be. It's more like punching up an existing brine recipe and giving it a spirited presence at the dinner table. With the inherently rich, sweet, and smoky taste of bourbon and its oaky notes of caramel and vanilla, it's pretty much guaranteed that any bourbon brine gets a wide-ranging flavor jump. That's especially true given the strict regulations for a straight Kentucky bourbon, including a minimum of 51% pure corn mash and years of aging in new charred oak barrels. All that goodness from one of America's premier hometown spirits will be making its way into your turkey brine.    

But boozing up a turkey brine does involve several considerations, all subjective to personal palates. A few things to consider include flavor enhancement and how to incorporate bourbon into a typically benign-tasting turkey brine.

Making bourbon brine for the big bird

Brining poultry, especially a big-bird turkey, is nothing new. Around the holidays, recipes for turkey brine crop up with regularity, inspiring home-kitchen chefs to veer from time-worn recipes. Both dry and wet brines have merit, but when adding bourbon to the mix, it's going to be a wet one. You'll get the major benefit of moist, tender turkey meat while bypassing one of the primary complaints about wet brining: That the moisture in the meat is just salty water. A bourbon-infused brine saturates the meat with unmistakably flavorful bourbon notes.

A basic wet brine involves salt and water, with options for spices and herbs such as rosemary, cinnamon, garlic, or citrus zest. For bourbon brine, try compatible flavorings like orange or lemon slices, aromatic bay leaves or thyme, black peppercorns, and even maple syrup. Your penchant for bold flavor largely determines how much bourbon enters the brine, but start with a general guideline of 3/4 cup bourbon per 16 cups of water.

Place all ingredients, including the bourbon and about four cups of water, into a large stovetop pan. Then heat slowly until the salt diffuses, typically 10 minutes or less. Now the bourbon is a central flavoring component of the brine, before adding enough water to cover the turkey in a large container. Let it all cold-soak overnight in salty bourbon glory, then proceed cooking as usual. To complete the flavor profile, consider a bourbon-maple glaze for the grand finale.