Frying a Turkey
Variables are a problem with most recipes. Unless you are following instructions that include weights for every ingredient – which is typical only for baking – your ingredients are going to vary from time to time and that’s particularly true when it comes to something like frying a turkey.
Until this Thanksgiving I had never fried a turkey. I do not have the apparatus required and I have containers of used frying oil in various locations in my pantry that I will almost certainly never use but which are technically still viable and thus in a sort of limbo. The idea of having the amount of fat left over after frying a turkey is daunting to a man like me.
But then my friend M.W. (which stands for Matt Wilson) called a week before Thanksgiving asking whether I would be interested in trying to do it with him. He would supply the oil, burner, pot and accoutrement required and I’d supply the turkeys. I said yes and off we went.
This year there was a run on “small” turkeys at various grocers. I found two suitable birds at the Rouse’s downtown, which I chose on the theory that many people who shop there have fairly small kitchens and would thus be more likely to want smaller birds. Whether that logic was correct or not, I picked up two thawed turkeys of around 12 lbs. each the day before Thanksgiving.
In retrospect, I should have taken a gander at the pot before making that purchase, but as it turned out they fit pretty much perfectly. Two pounds larger and we’d have been in trouble, but at least for what I believe to be the standard seafood-boil pot, they just fit.
I decided that seasoning with anything but salt was probably a bad idea, since the relatively long cooking time would likely scorch most herbs and spices. I do not think that’s true, having done it, but I suspect I’d still stick with just salt the next time I do it. I also did not brine the turkey.
That is sacrilege to a lot of people. All I can tell you is that I accept my role as heretic because I don’t like brined poultry. To me the meat ends up with an “off” flavor and too often the meat isn’t so much tender as mushy. I’m sure I’m not doing it properly, but I have followed recipes that specified weights and volumes and in the dozen or so times I’ve attempted to brine a chicken or turkey I’ve only had two I thought benefitted from the process.
Had the turkeys we fried on Thanksgiving not been perfectly cooked, tender and juicy, I might reconsider, but as it happens the turkeys we fried on Thanksgiving were perfectly cooked, tender and juicy so you brine all you want; it’s not for me.
What I did do was to thoroughly dry the first bird we were to cook inside and out then seasoned it with salt, including rubbing some under the skin of the breasts and thighs, around 2 hours before we started. I did the same for the second while we waited for the oil to come to temperature.
And here’s the first bit where my inexperience was problematic – it takes a long, long time for 35 lbs. of oil to reach 350 degrees. I think it was around an hour and a half, and in fact I think we dropped the first bird when the oil was around 320.
Here’s the second bit where my inexperience was problematic – having never done it before, I relied on recipes I found online to determine the temperature and time. Those recipes varied wildly in the temperature suggested (from around 275 to 350) and time per pound.
Fortunately, I know how to cook a bird and I have a probe thermometer. The thermometer was the key, because the bird was fitted onto an upright metal post topped with a triangle that, paired with a long hook, allowed us to lift the bird out of the oil at certain points to find out how deeply the heat was penetrating.
There are guidelines put out by the USDA that detail the temperature to which you should cook just about any meat, and for turkey the internal temperature is 165. There are many people who have written persuasively that the USDA temperatures are too high, as they do not take into account the element of time. At 165 degrees, harmful bacteria are killed almost instantly – those same bacteria are killed within minutes at lower temperatures, and thus you can safely cook poultry at a lower temperature as long as you maintain that temperature for the required number of minutes. If you keep white poultry meat at 165 for very long, you’ll end up with something you need to douse in gravy and/or cranberry sauce to make palatable.
I cooked them at about 330 degrees and let them go to about 155 for two checks before pulling them. It took around 25 minutes per bird, a little less than 2 minutes/lb. After they rested for about 30 minutes, they were perfectly cooked. I’ve successfully roasted turkeys – whole and spatchcocked – in the past, but I think this was the best I’ve done. The only thing I’d do differently is that I’d remove the skin from the breasts before I let them rest, because it wasn’t crispy as things stood.
I can also attest that the leftovers were fantastic in the gumbo my wife always makes 2 days after Thanksgiving. In fact, I think this was her best batch yet despite her heretical addition of tomatoes. That woman can make a roux.
In sum, if you have the gear and the patience, I would heartily recommend frying a turkey the next time you have a big holiday gathering. I would not recommend this technique for anything but a special occasion, as it is a lot of work and in addition to being expensive, that volume of oil is a pain in the neck to deal with after all is said and done.
If you have fried a turkey, or have any other turkey cooking ideas to share, please do so in the comments or by emailing me.