Let’s talk turkey.
Turkey is a great choice for any celebratory feast or large gathering, and I am convinced that the best way to prepare turkey for any big meal is to deep fry it. Maggi and I have fried turkeys for Christmas and the Fourth of July. Many folks take their fryers to go tailgating. Of course most Americans cook turkey only once a year, at Thanksgiving. I have documented the process of frying our bird so I could write about it here. Why? Because every turkey frying article I’ve ever read in a book or on the web left out one part of the process or another, and I’ve always wanted there to be a resource out there that walks you through it from start to finish.
That’s a bit closer to the start than I want to think about!
OK, not that startish. But we’ll take it from the first things you need to consider all the way to the table and beyond.
Let’s start with why you should fry your bird: taste, texture, and time. The skin of a fried turkey is about the yummiest stuff a carnivore can encounter. And the meat retains its natural turkey flavors far better than when roasted. The meat also remains quite moist when frying.
This is not grease; this is the bird’s own succulent juices, bolstered by the brine or internal marinade you use. I’ll explain later why a properly fried bird will have almost no oil in the meat. Cooking time is insanely fast, usually less than 45 minutes. There is prep time for the bird and apparatus, but still much less than for an oven roasting, with a vastly superior result.
There are some ancillary benefits to frying as well. The biggest one being that it is an apparently huge and complex undertaking that usually falls to the male or males of the household to execute.
It is so cool! I get to build easy but impressive looking stuff, and brag about my engineering and culinary brilliance. What more could a guy want?
Meanwhile, I get several hours of extra time for other things. And I still get credit for the delicious bird, since everyone knows he can’t cook his way out of a wet paper bag without my covert supervision….
There are some drawbacks to cooking your bird in the deep fryer. The first one is expense. The rig is not cheap, at least not the rig you will be buying. The good news is that it is a one-time expense; your rig will last for years. The bad news is that the oil is very expensive these days, and you need a lot of it. I’ll discuss ways to reduce this cost later.
But the most serious issue with frying your main course is that your turkey is evil! Yes, when you fry him, your bird will try to kill you in numerous and creative ways. Some are obvious, some are not. I’ll go over as many as I can think of, and how you can forestall his revenge, as we proceed. I’ll be light-hearted about it, but it is a serious subject. Done right, and done carefully, frying your turkey is no more dangerous than driving down the road in your car. But just like driving, if you do it wrong or simply don’t pay enough attention, the consequences for you and others can be severe.
OK, let’s start with the bird. Frying turkeys need to be on the small side—no more than 15 pounds. If you go any larger, you will not get an evenly cooked bird. If this is too small for your needs, that’s not a problem. Simply buy two birds. You will cook them one at a time, but the cooking time is so short that you can put the second bird in while the first is resting. When the second bird comes out, the first will be ready to serve.
Get a plain turkey. You do not want a Butterball or other
self-basting bird. The liquid that infuses a self-basting turkey will just get in the way with our method. If possible, do not get a frozen turkey either. Fresh, unfrozen birds will make the process easier and safer. I buy Bowman and Landes turkeys from my local market, but you should just look for any fresh, unfrozen, unjuiced bird. Be careful not to go to crazy on the unprocessed front. A friend of mine once found that she had to actually de-quill the turkey she bought!
Prepping the bird will start the day before you cook it. You need some supplies to make this easy and safe:
Take a roll of paper towels and set them aside for this task only. Make an X on both ends with a Sharpie so that you can easily see that this is the
turkey towel roll. You will use a lot of towels in your prep. More to the point, you will be touching the bird, then touching the roll as you get more paper towels, and repeating for a while. No matter what you do, this roll of paper towels will be contaminated with bacteria from the turkey. Throw it away when you are done. That roll will never be safe. Salmonella is only one of Snidely’s weapons to use against you, but it’s one of his spiffier ones!
You also would likely benefit from a box of latex or nitrile gloves. Get the powder free. These are cheap and have endless uses in the kitchen down the road. Put on a pair each time you get into handling the bird and the world is a safer place.
The last piece of hardware for the kitchen that you need to facilitate Ol’ Tom’s spa experience is a 5-gallon water cooler. These are cheap, just the right size, insulated, and easy to clean. Don’t forget the cleaning part! Use a little bleach. But please, even with the bleach, once you go marinating fowl in it, this cooler should not be used for beverages… ever.
The first step to prep the bird is to brine it. A brine is essentially flavored salt water that you soak the turkey in for a good while. The brine will infuse the bird with a little extra moisture and flavor. A self-basting turkey is generally injected rather than soaked with a brine-like fluid. A brine more thoroughly infuses the bird for frying purposes, and your brine will be made with better stuff! The brine I use is a fusion of two different recipes from Alton Brown. His fry brine is too simple, and his roasting brine is too complex. Goldilocks and I agree that mine is just right.
- 1 pound kosher salt
- 1 pound light brown sugar
- 3/4 gallon water
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
- 1+ gallons ice
Ensure your bird is completely thawed before you begin the brining, or the brine won’t infuse it thoroughly! Combine all ingredients but the ice water in a large stock pot, stir and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let it cool for a bit. Empty the pot into your clean 5-gallon cooler, and add the ice and water to bring it up to about two gallons of very cold brine.
Look inside your bird. Pull out the bag of disgusting innards, and/or the neck. Then look in deeper and pull out that second bag that’s hiding in there. Remember: There are two bags of guts in every bird! (That’s an important instructional audio clipped from these good people.)
Lift the turkey and set it in the brine, winged end first. The brine should just about cover the bird. If the brine is not cold, add some ice or better yet, an ice pack. Did you remember to wear your gloves while you were rooting around inside the carcass? Good. Remove the gloves and screw on the lid of the cooler. Let the bird sit in the brine for 8-16 hours. Overnight will likely do.
You may also have heard of injection marinating your chicken. I don’t think it is necessary, actually. If you’d like to try it, you need one of these:
Well, not really. You’ll need one of these. You also will need to prepare a marinade which you may choose to use as a supplement to, or replacement for, the brine. This Cajun-style marinade is a good example of one that will add a lot of different flavors to your bird. Be careful when injecting the marinade that you don’t create great huge pools of goop inside the bird. Small jabs all around will do the trick.
Frankly, injection marinading is lot of hassle to do right, and unless you want strong flavors from viscous fluids added to your bird, it’s not going to be as effective as brining. And to be honest, it won’t really taste like turkey. Now, years of dry, crumbly, oven-roasted white meat may make you think that “not tasting like turkey” is a good thing….
Try your bird my way. I think you’ll like it.
So, what equipment do we need to cook this bird?
Hey, no problem. I don’t need a specialized rig. We have a really powerful commercial cook-top. We’ll just fry it in the kitchen and save a lot of hassle and money.
No, you won’t.
You will possibly burn down your house, and you will certainly make every room and stick of furniture in the entire building smell like peanut oil for at least… well… forever. Besides, I don’t care how powerful your cook-top, it ain’t up to this job, baby.
I should have said this right at the outset: Manhattanites, u no can haz fryed trkey. Not yours. Ditto for many apartment dwellers. To fry a turkey safely, you must have a goodly amount of open space, away from and not underneath buildings or bushes or trees. There must be no foot traffic. No one can be playing within throwing range. The ground must be flat. Lots of people recommend a grassy area for your cooker, but you should realize that this will result in a dead patch of grass underneath the burner. I use the driveway, and suffer with the cleanup. Block the driveway with a car if you think someone might come over.
Now, how do you contain and heat all this oil? Do not go buy one of those
Turkey Fryer setups. They are getting better, but almost all are still are not durable, or safe, or versatile enough. Buy your components separately.
Let’s start with the pot. You need a tall pot with sturdy riveted handles. You need at least a 30 quart capacity. A 40 quart pot will require more oil, and more time to heat, but will give better temperature stability when you cook. The pot should be made out of either stainless steel or aluminum. Mine’s aluminum; it doesn’t dent and it’s thicker. Besides, once the pot is used the first time, it will never be clean again on the outside. Don’t think cosmetics, think durability. Don’t forget a strong, secure lid.
You will also need a lifting device. Baskets are handy, and are useful if you want to fry things like shrimp at other times, but turkeys stick to them. Find a stick lifter that had a cross- or round-shaped base with a long metal pole in the middle with a hook on the top. This will stick up through the cavity of the bird and hold it securely, with little or nothing to stick to the yummy parts. Most fry lifter racks look like this guy, but I think this construction is a little flimsy feeling. If you look at mine in the picture, you’ll see I choose one with a much sturdier, welded construction. You can find lifters like this, and other top line (cost and quality) equipment here at Tejassmokers. The lifter is model TKFRY1.
Your gas burner needs to be stable, sturdy, and studly. Stable and sturdy are safety concerns. To keep Snidely away, carefully examine any cooker you buy first. There shall be no rivets or screws. There shall be no stamped or sheet metal used in a structural role. The burner assembly shall be low and wide. It should be made out of heavy, thick steel or iron, forged into shape and welded together. If you kick it and it tumps over (or your foot simply doesn’t hurt like hell for that matter) don’t buy it. It’s operation should be bog-simple. Just light the burner with a long-handled lighter. Make sure it has a decently long hose with a modern regulator. These hoses are sturdy, but it is not a bad idea to wrap the end near the fryer in aluminum foil, just deflect spatter. Make sure the burner is powerful! If it doesn’t sound like a jet engine idling, it may not be powerful enough.
Finally, you need an oil or cooking thermometer with a long shaft and a clip to attach to the side of the pot that reads up to at least 400°F.
A setup like this will last you years. By itself, it’s an excellent camp stove and can be used for lots of outdoor cooking projects. But for deep frying turkeys, you need some more. Let’s get to that funky engineering I talked about.
The single most dangerous moment during the frying of a turkey is getting the bird into the oil. Our aim is to keep all humans as far away from this process as is possible. Many turkey lifter sets for frying have what is essentially a super heavy-duty coat hanger that you hold by the long side and grab the lifter with the hook.
Do not ever use one of these, or allow anyone else to do so. You have to physically lean over a vat of boiling oil to use this device. Keep reading to see why this is the stupidest act imaginable on a fine Thanksgiving afternoon.
When I first started frying turkeys, I used a hook attached to the center of a long broom handle, and had two friends hold the ends. This got us all several feet from the oil, but it is an unstable arrangement with lots of opportunity for slips and miscommunication, and everyone is still too close.
Plus, you have to share your turkey with two additional adult males!
Some of us like our family and friends….
I’m just sayin’….
Anyway, there are not always sufficient random adult males lounging about when frying a turkey. I got the idea for my current solution from culinary god Alton Brown, on his show Good Eats. My device is an improved version of the one on his show. (By the way, as I said, Alton’s a god, and you should watch his show whenever possible. But a lot of what he says about the actual frying process for turkeys is problematical at best. If you follow him exactly, you won’t be as safe as you could be, and your bird will not be nearly as good as it could be! That said, this next section rips him off terribly, not only in content but in schtick.)
It’s a ladder.
Well, yeah. And quite handy for putting up lights and cleaning gutters, I might add. But with the addition of a few bucks worth of stuff, it leaps from the phone booth as… a Turkey Derrick! (cue dramatic music again) You need an articulated aluminum ladder, the kind that doesn’t have a strap running between the legs. It should probably be at least eight feet tall when set up as an inverted V. Hopefully you already have a ladder that will work. To this, you will need to add the following components: 2 small pulleys, 1/4″ cotton or polyester rope, a carabiner or other secure device to attach a pulley to your lifter, a bit of sturdy wire or zip ties, and something small but heavy. (I use an old UPS with a dead battery)
It all runs about ten bucks to trick out your ladder, assuming you already have the something heavy.
Run the end of your rope through both pulleys, then tie it to a high rung on the ladder. A bowline would probably be best, but since I was a crummy Boy Scout, I use several half-hitches. A strip of duct tape to keep it from moving along the rung is not a bad idea. Attach the second pulley to the same level rung on the opposite side of the ladder using a couple of zip ties or some heavy wire, leaving the first pulley dangling down between. Attach the carabiner to the middle pulley. Position the ladder over your pot and burner, and voila: A Turkey Derrick! (cue music that is no longer dramatic but now simply annoying)
You will also need a set of long, heavy gauntlets, the kind that reach well up your arms and will slip off swiftly in case of emergency, a digital meat thermometer, and a long lighter. Be sure to check your gas bottle to ensure it is at least half full. You do not want to run out of gas mid-fry….
We have one last piece of equipment to go over before we start to cook: The oil.
The oil? That’s not equipment!
Oil is an ingredient.
No ma’am, it is most emphatically not an ingredient. The oil is the device in which we cook the bird, the pot is just a bracket to hold our cooking equipment. When we cook this bird correctly, there will be virtually no oil in the meat at all after cooking. If the oil becomes an ingredient, we have screwed up somewhere.
We will need peanut oil, and lots of it. For a 40 quart pot, you’ll need about 40 pounds. That’s 5-plus gallons if you find it packaged by volume. Use peanut oil if you aren’t allergic because it has a very high smoke point and is very stable. We need a high smoke point because we will be frying the bird at a very high temperature. This is important to ensuring the oil doesn’t become an ingredient.
The turkey’s flesh is moist to begin with, and our brine makes it moister. As long as our oil stays above 350° Fahrenheit, with an ideal operating temp of 365°, that moisture will vigorously turn into steam as the bird cooks. The outward pressure of this steam will prevent the oil from moving into the meat, like a crowded subway car emptying out onto the platform in front of you. If your bird dries out, or the oil temp drops too low, the pressure will stop being enough, and oil will start to soak in. And that, as Egon says, would be bad.
Now this is an gigantic, expensive amount of oil. You can reduce the effective cost several ways. First, cook more than one turkey. Use the leftovers to make chili, or other freezable food. Maybe you could offer to cook your neighbors’ birds for them and restore the goodwill you lost in after last year’s Christmas lighting blackout fiasco. (I’m actually serious about this. One rig and batch of oil can cook half a neighborhood’s worth of bird on a nice Thanksgiving afternoon) Second, with the stability of peanut oil, you can siphon and strain most of it out, and freeze it for later uses. It won’t last forever, as each time you heat oil, it loses stability and it’s smoke point gets lower. This eventually makes the oil unable to reach the temperatures you need.
Disposing of the oil is no big deal, although it will feel like a daunting task. It can be recycled into bio-diesel in your own home. If you don’t have a diesel vehicle of your own, you can drive your car across town to donate your oil to a center… you know… to save the environment. (Perhaps you could just leave it sitting around, and someone will steal it for you…)
I pour mine out on the compost pile. It’s completely bio-degradable and won’t stink up the area for more than a few hours.
So, we are ready to go back inside and finish prepping the turkey. Remove it from the brine (glove up for safety!), and set it in place it on your lifter, with the lifter in a disposable aluminum foil roasting pan. If you drip any juices here, or at any time, clean them up right away while you know where they are.
The first thing we need to do is determine exactly how much oil you will actually need in your pot. Let Archimedes be your guide here. Set your turkey in the empty fry pot. Then start to fill the pot with clean water until all but the top half inch or so is exposed. Now lift the turkey out of the water and let it drain thoroughly. Note the exact level of the water in the pot. Empty the water out and fill the pot with peanut oil to that same level. Ta Da! The ancient Greeks were fiendishly clever, weren’t they? But not as fiendish as Sindely: Be careful not to splash turkey juice all over the counter while pouring out the water. In fact, you should consider dumping the water outside.
Now set the bird back in the disposable aluminum foil baking pan. Your first mission is to get it as dry as you possibly can. Once the oil has reached full temp, water is your enemy. Snidely says,
someone gonna get a hurt real bad.
Take those paper towels and pat down the turkey carefully and repeatedly, inside and out. Get all the nooks and crannies too. Then do it again. Keep the trash can handy while you do this for all the paper towels you will use. Clean the area thoroughly when you are done prepping.
Once Tom is good and dry, cut off the tips of the wings. They will burn if you leave them on and flavor the oil nastily. Now take some vegetable oil and give good him a nice massage, just the way your spouse likes it.
Um, not quite the way they… that is to say… forget it.
Rub the oil in good. This will keep the skin from cracking. Now set the turkey back on the lifting hook and let it sit. Is it cool to the touch? Yes? It’s not ready.
Lots of you may know what happens if you put an even partially frozen turkey into the oil. If you don’t, or if you just want some quality entertainment, let’s let the Cobb County Georgia Fire Department (who obviously have a sense of humor) show you:
I have two words for you.
Now you didn’t buy a frozen turkey, did you? And if you did have to buy one, you let it completely thaw before brining, right? Good. But you still need to get the bird as close to room temperature as possible. There are several reasons for this, all important. Cold flesh will take longer to cook, and will cook unevenly. And a cold bird will also rob the oil of more heat when you put it in, which will mean a longer time with the oil below the best temperature, trying to become an ingredient. Let the bird come up in temp until it doesn’t feel cold.
Now, we are ready to go with the oil. Make sure the derrick is in correct position. Make sure that the gas line is nowhere where you will be tempted to walk. Tripping over the line could literally be fatal. Set yourself up a chair about 3-4 yards from the rig, with a table next to it. Put a good book or video game and a delicious glass of sweet tea on the table. Once we light the burner under the oil, someone responsible must be with the rig until the turkey is done and the fire is out. No exceptions. Chairs for spectators, especially little ones, should be even further away. Light the burner and run it up full blast. Put the lid on, leaving space for the thermometer. Our target frying temperature is about 365°. When you put the bird in, the oil will lose around 40 degrees in just seconds, so you should consider getting the oil temp up to around 380 before inserting the bird. Don’t go much higher than this, you’ll smoke the oil, or worse.
You forgot something.
I did not! Um, what did I forget?
Your fire extinguisher. It needs to be standing by from the moment you turn on the gas to heat the oil, to end of the entire process.
Of course, all your readers already have a good, non-expired fire extinguisher (rated for grease fires) in their kitchen already.
Dear, several of them just got in their cars and headed for Wal-Mart. Why do you suppose that is?
I think you’ve made your point. Thanks Maggi.
I have another non-negotiable point here, which is going to seem odd, considering this is a cocktail blog and all: The chief operator shall not drink booze until the bird is cooked, and the rig is secure!
Oh come on!
You cannot be serious! I’m not staying dry for half of Thanksgiving.
Yes, you are. Or you should. The whole process that follows is simple and safe, as long as you are careful, clear-headed, and coordinated. Get going on the Millers or the Manhattans, and you may not be. Don’t drink until the bird is done!
Inserting the bird needs to be a deliberate process. Do it carefully, and it’s safe as houses. Get careless and you are in trouble. Have the bird standing by, on its lifter, as the oil reaches temp.
- Remove the thermometer from the oil, and put the lid on the pot.
- Set the bird and lifter, still in the pan, on top of the lid.
- Attach the carabiner to the hook of the lifter.
- Step away from the derrick and pull the rope so that the turkey is suspended over the pot.
- Put the heavy object on the rope to secure it. You could also tie the rope to something.
Alton Brown makes the mistake of attaching a cleat to the derrick ladder itself, but I don’t think this is a good idea. First, it is a minor trip hazard when using the ladder in the future. Second, you are too close to the oil when tying and untying the rope. Wherever you secure the rope, it should be at least 6-8 feet from the derrick. This is where you will stand to lower the bird into the oil, and distance is your friend.
Remove the lid and turn off the gas. I cannot believe how many people don’t do this simple step. If there is a splash or spill and the burner is on, you get a fire or explosion.
A splash or spill is dangerous enough, don’t give Snidely an ignition source too!
- Step well away from the derrick, take hold of the rope, and slowly lower the bird into the oil. If the oil starts to bubble up hard, stop lowering for a moment to let the water you were supposed to have removed from the bird steam off before resuming the immersion.
- When the bird reaches the bottom, pull back a bit to put tension in the rope, and secure it again.
- Now move with deliberate haste, you have already lost a ton of heat. Wearing the long gauntlets to protect your arms from the oil that will be lightly spitting out of the pot, relight the burner, and give that sucker the spurs!
It will take a while for the oil temp to get back up to 365°. You will need to constantly monitor the oil temperature from this point forward. I mean constantly. The temperature will go up in spurts as changes take place in the cooking bird. When it reaches your target temp, back off the gas. It will take you several fryings before you get a feel for your particular burner. The first time you do it, it will yo-yo up and down about ten to fifteen degrees above and below 365. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.
OK, how long will it take? Most every place you read, they will say it will average 3 minutes a pound. My experience says less. I do the first check at about 2 minutes per pound. The recommended final temperature for turkey is 161°, but you do not want to cook the bird to this point! Once the bird comes out, the internal temp of the meat will
carry over about 10 degrees. Therefore, you are looking for the bird to be reading about 151°. To check, lift the bird completely free of the oil and fix the line. Check the breast and legs. If it is not ready, lower the bird back in to cook further. (You did remember to kill the flame before lifting the bird out, right?)
If the internal temp checks out, put the lid on the pot, and lower your bird into a new, clean pan that you set on the lid. (Snidely wants you to rinse off the old pan and use it again. Snidely is evil! Aluminum foil pans are cheap. Food poisoning-driven visits to the Emergency Room on Thanksgiving night are expensive and take you away from the football games.)
Once the turkey is sitting securely in the fresh pan, detach the carabiner. Send the yumminess into the house. If you are cooking more than one bird, have the lifter removed from the first bird and the subsequent turkey set onto it, in the old, raw bird pan. Make sure the oil temp doesn’t go wild on you while this is happening. Repeat the whole frying process, taking no shortcuts just because everything went smoothly the first time. You don’t need to clean the lifter between birds, and you only need the two roasting pans. Just make sure the raw birds go in the raw pan, etc.
When all birds have had their spa experience, check your rig. Is the gas off, or better yet detached? Is the lid on the pot? Is the area secure? If all these answers are yes, you can safely go inside yourself.
Congratulations! You have fried your first (but I guarantee you, not your last) turkey! And no one died, so you can tell skeptical Aunt Myrtle to shove it…. Meanwhile, mix yourself a Pegu. You deserve it!
Be sure you let the bird rest and drain for at least twenty to thirty minutes before you carve it. I recommend snacking liberally on the shrapnel from this process as you carve! The skin is especially tasty. Since it will have a lot of oil in it, unlike the meat, you should preserve everyone else’s health by falling on this grenade yourself. In this case, selflessness is its own reward.
However, you are not finished. Yes, you can watch football, but you are not finished. Once the oil has cooled (this is usually a next morning thing for me), you need to either recycle it or dispose of it. (See the discussion above.) Disassemble your rig and put it away. Check the level of gas in your bottle again to make sure you have a reasonable amount left before you reattach it to your grill. The last thing to do is clean the concrete. I minimize the spatter as much as is humanly possible, and this is still what the driveway looks like after the bird is removed:
Please also note that this is why you bought those long gauntlets. This oil that spattered on the driveway could have been landing on your hands and forearms! Sometimes Snidely tortures instead of kills.
You will want this stuff off your driveway. With a good concrete cleaner, a hose, and a little elbow grease, you can make short work of this mess. Go inside and reward yourself with a turkey sandwich when you are well and truly done.
That’s it. I made it as detailed as possible, and tried to cover as many safety bases as I could think of. I certainly didn’t cover every possible circumstance, and you need to exercise your own care and judgment at all times. The length of this post may make the process seem laborious, but it is not. Much of the work can be done in advance of whatever feast you are preparing, leaving everyone more time to enjoy themselves on the day. Frying turkeys is pretty easy, especially with practice. The equipment will last a very long time. And the results are amazing.
(This is an update of a previous post on this subject; revised, extended, and now wit 63% fewer embarrassing spelling errors!. I intend to update and repost it here each year, about American Thanksgiving time)