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Marinating Your Turkey

As the holidays creep in closer do your dreams slowly transform from sweet to sour, full of dry turkeys without flavor that are absolutely the stuff of nightmares? Are you that family member who does everything in their power to avoid cooking a turkey in the first place so that you don’t have to look into the eyes of your relatives as they smile politely while they choke down the sandpaper you’ve served them with a tall glass of water? You’re in luck! Your turkey woes can be mostly solved by either brining or marinating your bird. By mastering the art of a good marinade, you will help your bird become some of the juiciest, most tender meat you’ve ever eaten. Your sleep can be sweet and nightmare free, once again.

Marinating Your Turkey

The first step to marinating your turkey is to figure out what you need for your marinade. If it’s a store-bought marinade, you are all set! You don’t have to worry about what is going to make your marinade work, except for maybe out of curiosity. When making your own marinade however, you will want to keep in mind that a good turkey marinade needs three things:

  1. An acid like vinegar, wine, or citrus.
  2. An oil, such as olive oil or vegetable oil.
  3. Spices and seasonings to enhance the flavor of your meat.

Any marinade recipe can be used and scaled for your specific bird’s size. Some of our favorite marinade recipes include Southwest Turkey Marinade, Chinese Five Spice Turkey Marinade, Creole Turkey Marinade, and Lemon and Rosemary Turkey Marinade.

How Much Marinade Do You Need?

Some people say that you can marinade your bird in parts- meaning you can submerge it partially in liquid and flip the bird from time to time so the whole thing gets covered eventually. For us, we like to make sure the whole bird is covered in the marinade during the entire process of marinating.

The best way to determine how much marinade you will need is to put your turkey in the clean container you plan to use to marinate the bird. Fill the container with water until the bird is completely submerged, and then remove the turkey. Measure how much water is in the bucket and that’s the amount of total liquid you will need for your marinade.

How Long Does It Take?

After some vigorous testing, our test kitchen decided that we can’t taste any difference between a bird that has been marinated for longer than 24 hours, but you can safely marinate a bird for a full 48 hours in a refrigerator. If you only have 5 or so hours, maybe even less, a little time spent marinating is certainly better than zero marinating at all. Still, we prefer to give the bird at least 8-12 hours to fully soak up the marinade and the best flavor.

What Kind of Container Should You Use?

Since refrigerator space is limited, especially during the holidays, you can use a brining bag and a square cooler filled with ice. Use a cooler that is big enough for both the turkey and the marinade to rest on ice. Using a marinating bag is sometimes easiest with this method. Before using your cooler, be sure to clean it out with soap and water, then sanitize it with bleach and water. Let this air dry completely before putting any food in it.

A helpful hint here, especially if you are using a food grade container for your fridge, is to measure the dimensions of your fridge before you purchase a bird and corresponding container for the bird to marinate in. This might seem obvious, but during the chaos of the holiday season it is easy to forget the seemingly easy stuff.

What’s the Difference Between Brining and Marinating?

There are two differences between brining and marinating. The first is the base. For brining, you need a salt base. In some cases, a brine is simply salt and water. For a marinade, you need an acidic base like a vinegar. The second difference is time. Brining takes longer than marinating, as the salt needs more time to work on the meat and get all the way through the bird. Marinating typically only reaches into the first quarter inch of the meat, so it takes less time to effectively marinate the meat. For more information on brining, check out our blog here.


Whether you use a cooler or fridge, be sure that your turkey is kept at a steady 40° Fahrenheit or lower during the marinating process. Cook times and temperatures differ depending on the bird size and your oven, but a low temperature and slow cook time, or “low and slow,” is always the best method for keeping your turkey as moist as possible. Make sure you have plenty of time to cook your bird. A good way to determine if your turkey is warm enough and cooked through is to keep an eye on the thermometer. Insert a thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. When it reaches 165° Fahrenheit, the bird is more than likely done. Cooking your turkey on high heat will get you that internal temperature faster, but it will also dry out the outside of your turkey, negating all that work you did with the marinade!

Choosing the Ideal Turkey for Your Family

When you are looking for the right turkey, consider how many people will be attending your dinner and go from there. Usually it is easy to find turkeys in the 12-20 pound range, and that’s a pretty good range that covers most families’ turkey needs. If you need something a little smaller or even bigger, you may be able to call your local butcher or grocery store and place a special order. Call around. Shopping from local farms and butchers can give you a better selection, and you are less likely to get a bird that has already been preserved and has added salts and flavorings. Plus, you might get lucky and be able to get a fresh bird that has never been frozen!

Now, if you are going for a frozen turkey from your local grocer, make sure you give yourself enough time to thaw the bird according to the package instructions. You want the bird to be completely thawed before you try to marinate it, or else the marinade will be less effective. After the bird has been thawed, marinated, and cooked all the hard work is done! Enjoy your perfectly juicy, tender bird for days to come. After all, the best part of eating a turkey is the leftovers the next day.

Read More

What's the Best Way to Season a Turkey?
Turkey Brining Guide
19 Turkey Brines, Marinades, and Rubs
What to Look for When Choosing a Turkey

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