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Can you brine a turkey without using salt?

Quick Answer

Yes, it is possible to brine a turkey without using salt. While salt is a key ingredient in many brines, there are salt-free brining alternatives that can help keep the turkey moist and infuse it with flavor. Some options for salt-free brines include using broths, juices, sodas, teas, and herbs.

What is Brining?

Brining is the process of soaking meat or poultry in a saltwater solution (also known as a brine) before cooking. The brine is made by dissolving salt and sometimes sugar in water or another liquid.

The main purposes of brining are:

  • To increase moisture – The salt in the brine helps the meat retain more moisture during cooking, resulting in a juicier finished product.
  • To enhance flavor – Brines can infuse new flavors into the meat from added herbs, spices, juices or other ingredients.
  • To improve texture – Brining can make the meat more tender and plump.

Brining works by osmosis – the salt in the brine dissolves muscle proteins on the surface of the meat, allowing it to absorb the surrounding liquid. This absorption of fluid causes the cells to expand and retain more moisture when cooked.

Why People Brine Turkey

Brining is commonly used for turkeys because it helps prevent the meat from drying out when roasted. Turkeys have a large frame and take a long time to cook. The extended cooking often leads to moisture loss.

Brining a turkey before roasting helps:

  • Keep the meat juicy, moist and tender
  • Add flavor from the brine ingredients
  • Allow for a nice browned exterior while the interior stays juicy
  • Increase the turkey’s weight through retained moisture
  • Make the breast meat more tender and flavorful

The salt and water get absorbed deep into the turkey meat, helping it retain moisture and seasonings even after hours in the oven.

Concerns with Traditional Salt Brines

While brining with a salt solution does help keep turkey moist, there are some drawbacks:

  • The high salt content can result in an overly salty flavor.
  • It can dry out the exterior of the meat.
  • The skin may not crisp up properly.
  • The texture can become too dense from absorbing too much liquid.

For people looking to reduce their sodium intake, a salt brine may not be the best option. This has led to interest in creating salt-free brines.

Alternative Salt-Free Brining Solutions

There are a number of liquid ingredients that can be used to brine a turkey without salt. Anything containing water can help infuse moisture. And other strong flavors can impart new tastes.

Some salt-free brine options include:


Chicken, turkey, beef or vegetable broth make excellent salt-free brines. Opt for low-sodium varieties to keep the salt content down. The meat will soak up the moisture and become infused with the broth’s savory flavors.

Fruit Juices

Fruit juices like apple cider, orange juice, or other citrus juices can provide bright, fresh flavors. Their acidity helps tenderize the meat as well.

Wine or Vinegars

The acidic components in wines and vinegars similarly help break down tough proteins. And they impart delicious flavor notes. Red wine, white wine, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar all have potential in salt-free brines.


For an aromatic brine, try using brewed tea. Black tea, green tea, herbal tea and fruit tea can each contribute unique flavors. Chai tea makes an especially warming brine.


Surprisingly, sugary sodas like ginger ale, root beer and cola can all make tasty salt-free brines. They add sweetness while their carbonation helps the liquid penetrate. Choose sugar-free sodas to avoid excessive sweetness.


Milk has a high water content that can keep turkey moist. Opt for nut milks like almond or coconut for a dairy-free brine. The milk sugars and proteins will caramelize during roasting too.

Herbs, Spices and Seasonings

For flavor, dried or fresh herbs, spices, garlic, citrus zest, peppercorns and aromatics can be added to any salt-free brine. Common choices are rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, lemon zest, pepper and onion.

Salt Replacers

In addition to the salt-free liquids mentioned above, there are also salt replacement seasonings that can be added to brines. These include:

  • Kelp or seaweed powder
  • Vegetable or mushroom broth powders
  • Onion powder or onion flakes
  • Garlic powder
  • Old Bay seasoning
  • Lemon pepper
  • Poultry seasoning

A blend of these can help mimic salt’s savory flavor. But use them sparingly, as they are very potent.

Steps for Salt-Free Brining

Brining a turkey without salt follows most of the same steps as a traditional brine:

  1. Choose your salt-free brine ingredients and combine in water.
  2. Submerge the raw turkey in the brine. Use a container big enough that the brine covers the entire turkey.
  3. Refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Brining too long can make the meat too waterlogged.
  4. Remove turkey and pat dry. Discard used brine.
  5. Roast the turkey as desired, being careful not overcook the moister meat.
  6. Let rest before carving and serving.

Key tips:

  • Keep everything chilled at 40°F or below to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Use a ratio of 1 cup brine ingredients to 1 quart water.
  • Weigh down the turkey to keep submerged in the brine, if needed.
  • Rinse the turkey after brining and pat dry to improve crisping.

Brining Without Submerging

If you don’t have a container big enough to submerge the turkey, you can “brine” using a rubbing method:

  1. Mix the brine ingredients together.
  2. Thoroughly coat the turkey inside and out with the mixture.
  3. Place turkey in a tray and refrigerate 12-24 hours so the flavors penetrate.
  4. Discard excess brine mixture.
  5. Cook turkey as desired.

This allows the brine to penetrate into the meat similar to submerging. Just be sure to coat all the crevices thoroughly.

Sample Salt-Free Brine Recipes

Apple Brine

  • 1 gallon apple cider
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

Combine all ingredients in a pot and heat until steaming. Cool completely before using to brine turkey. The apple flavors complement poultry beautifully.

Wine and Herb Brine

  • 1 bottle dry white wine like Pinot Grigio
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Simmer wine and broth with herbs and spices for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cool and use to brine turkey. Provides a wonderful integration of flavors.

Chai Brine

  • 1 gallon water
  • 12 chai tea bags
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise

Brew the tea bags in the water. Add remaining ingredients and let sit for 1 hour. Remove tea bags and let cool completely before using as a brine. Provides warmth and spice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does brining without salt work?

Yes, brining without salt can still help keep turkey or other meats moist. The liquid is absorbed into the meat, ensuring it stays juicy. Flavors from other brine ingredients also get infused.

Is brining really necessary for turkey?

Brining is not mandatory, but it helps prevent overcooking and drying out the turkey, especially for novice cooks. If properly monitored, an unbrined turkey can roast up nicely too. Brining provides some insurance against drying out.

Can I brine a frozen turkey?

It is best to thaw the turkey before brining. Frozen meat absorbs liquid much slower. For a frozen turkey, rub the brine mixture over the surface rather than fully submerging.

What liquids make the best salt-free brines?

The best salt-free brines use liquids that have lots of moisture and some acidity to help flavor and tenderize the meat. Good choices are broths, juices, vinegars, wines, teas, and citrus sodas. Water alone does not add any flavor.


While brining with salt provides distinct benefits for keeping turkey juicy, there are many possibilities for salt-free brining. Using flavorful, aromatic liquids allows you to reap the moisture-retaining effects of brining while imparting delicious new tastes into the meat. With some creative salt-free brine options like fruit juices, teas, broths and wines, you can still end up with a succulent, intensely flavored turkey without excess salt.