Friday, November 16, 2012

The Turkey Chronicles: Deep Fried

The practice of deep frying turkeys started in Louisiana near the turn of the century, an off shoot of a food culture used to cooking for large crowds in big pots outdoors. Justin Wilson, the great Cajun culinary philosopher, mentioned attending a turkey fry in a radio interview he did in the 1930’s. It spread all across the Deep South, particularly along the coast, where the practice of frying seafood in huge batches for parties, church get-togethers, political rallies, etc. was well-accepted and the equipment was on-hand. Oddly enough it was Martha Stewart who publicized the practice nationally in her magazine in 1996, and from there, the fried turkey exploded on the national scene.

Deep-frying does produce a moist turkey with lots of flavor, crispy skin, and isn’t the least bit greasy (unless you did something horribly wrong). It is also is the fastest way to cook a turkey. It is, however, quite dangerous if you don’t pay close attention to what you’re doing. Here are some basic safety requirements. Fry the bird outside, not indoors with an electric fryer. Make sure that your fryer is very sturdy and stable and sitting on flat ground, away from any flammable structure. Don’t fry on wood decks or concrete, which can be stained by the oil. Operate with a propane tank with adequate fuel and make sure the connections don’t leak. Have a full fire extinguisher that works within easy reach, and know how to use it; a lid is handy for cutting off air supply to a fire if necessary. Have a pair of long handled tongs and heatproof mitts, gloves or gauntlets handy. Wear long pants and leather shoes when frying. You need a thermometer to measure the temperature of the cooking oil that clips onto the inside of the pot (to constantly monitor the grease temperature), and an instant-read thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the bird. Keep any children, animals, pets, or drunks far away from the fryer set-up, and never leave the fry station unattended while cooking.

To determine the volume of oil required for a given turkey, place the turkey in your frying pot and add water until the water covers the turkey. Measure this amount of water used and that is the volume of oil required (normally between 3 and 4 gallons); it is helpful to also mark where the level of the water was in the pot so you know where the fill level is. The pot used needs to be tall, heavyweight with secure handles, around 30 quarts in volume (26 to 34 qt is standard). The size should match the size of turkey you generally cook, or you’re wasting oil. For safety, the pot should never be more than ¾ full with turkey and oil inside; 6 to 9 inches from the rim at the minimum. Some fryers are rigged with a basket insert that can be raised and lowered, while others use a shelf insert that holds the shoulders of the turkey, with a shaft that goes through the cavity before attaching to a handle. Other systems use a handle designed to hook onto a wire support or cage. Whatever system is utilized, make sure that it can easily support the weight of the turkey without failing, and make sure you know how it is safely operated.

cross section illustration from

Smaller turkeys in the 8 to 10-pound range (or separated turkey parts) are best for frying; 14-pounds is considered the upper limit. If you have to fry a bigger bird, separate the leg quarters and breast and fry them separately. Always make sure they turkey is dry and thawed. Always remove the giblets and neck from the cavity. Remove the wire or plastic truss that holds the legs in place, if it has one, and remove any pop-up timer. Cut off the wing tips up to the first joint, cut off the tail, and trim any loose fat around the neck, so the oil can flow freely through the bird while cooking. Always note the weight of the turkey purchased; it will be used to determine the approximate cooking time. For whole turkeys 12 pounds and under cook 2½ minutes per pound, and over 12 pounds cook 3 minutes per pound; for turkey parts, allow 4 minutes per pound. The turkey goes in breast-first, ankles-up.

Preheat the cooking oil to 360°F (this will take about 20 minutes); let it get too hot and it can burst into flames, or “flash”. Just before lowering the turkey into the oil, turn off the burner; as soon as the turkey is in the pot safely, immediately turn the burner back on. Always lower or raise the turkey very slowly to prevent splattering or splashing of oil. The cooking oil temperature may fluctuate based on the temperature outside and the wind conditions, but you need to maintain the oil’s temperature at 335°F. Always let the oil cool completely before disposal or storage. Never pour used oil down a drain; take it to a nearby restaurant and ask to dispose of it in their fryer grease barrel.

Only oils with high smoke points should be used: rice bran, refined canola, sunflower, corn, peanut (if there are no nut allergies). These oils may be re-used up to four times if properly filtered and stored. To filter, first strain using a fine sieve, and then pass through a triple layer of cheesecloth or through a paper cooking oil filter (obtained at restaurant supply outlets). Oil should be covered and refrigerated to prevent it from becoming rancid. Peanut oil is more perishable than other oils and must always be stored refrigerated or frozen. Always leave a note with the oil so you remember how many times it was used and the last use date.
Many cooks prefer to inject marinades into the turkey before frying. Homemade injector marinade ingredients should be pureed and sieved to prevent needle blockage. Most cooks separate the skin from the meat and inject under the skin, plunging the needle in several directions, and do not puncture the skin. There are commercial bottled marinades (spicy garlic and butter is traditional) available to inject directly, or you may make your own marinade, and the sky is the limit, with many recipes available online; you’ll need one to two cups total. After injection, the turkey is refrigerated anywhere between 4 hours and overnight. The turkey should be allowed to come to room temperature before frying. Most cooks will then rub the turkey liberally with a Cajun or Creole seasoning mix such as Zatarain’s, Paul Prudhomme's Poultry Magic, or Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning before frying.

When it looks cooked raise it out and check the breast temperature; it should read 155°F. Drain it well, and place it on a carving board to rest for 20 minutes, loosely covered with foil. Turn off the heat source under the oil. Residual carry-over cooking from the process will raise the internal temperature to about 165°F.  Enjoy, but be very careful!

Mick Vann ©

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