Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Deep-fried turkey: Fry, turkey, fry

How about a bobbing gobbler this Thanksgiving?
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Column: Table Talk
in Madison Magazine
November 2000

When I first heard about deep-fried whole turkey, it sounded like a joke. Outrageous. You’d need an enormous pot! You’d need gallons of oil! Really hot oil--it would be dangerous! But, I was told, I’d never eat a juicier, more perfectly cooked turkey, and the skin would be out-of-this-world crispy good.

So I had to try it.

It was all true, including the danger. First, you have to do it outdoors--the risks from splashing oil are too great. You have to observe safety precautions, like wearing closed-toed shoes and keeping the area clear of children and pets.

Our turkey frying kit cost about a hundred bucks at Gander Mountain. It included a propane burner on a stand, a thermometer, a six gallon pot and lid, a strainer basket insert, and a sturdy hook for getting the basket in and out.

You can use other kinds of vegetable oil, but we sprang for the preferred peanut ($23 for a 4 1/2 gallon jug at Woodman’s), with its high flash point and good reusability.

How to do?
  • Heat three gallons of oil to 400° F.
  • Gently lower in a 12-17 pound turkey--thawed, rinsed, and patted dry.
  • Cook at 350° F for 3 1/2 minutes per pound.
  • Gently remove turkey.

That’s it.

Frying day was warm, but we wore long sleeves and pants for safety’s sake. The heat of the propane flame pressed a fresh, sweet, peanut smell into the air. The oil gradually expanded, rising inches higher in the pot. It looked thin and light, like it could float away. Heat made the surface gently ripple--without water, oil won’t roil.

An unfortunate little bug fell in with a round, liquid sizzle.

The turkey was next.

For the first few minutes, the bird was invisible beneath the frothing surface. Then I could see it: drumsticks up, a fountain of oil foaming white and golden brown from the cavity. Narrow jets bubbled from the points where I’d injected a marinade (about which I’ll only say that I’m not using it again--it masks the bird’s natural flavor, and fried turkey is plenty juicy). Our twelve-pound bird was done in only 42 minutes.

And it was hideous. It looked ruined: skin drum-taut, mahogany brown to near-black. I thought wildly of Rameses’ mummy. The cavity gaped, crooked. Inside, oil still bubbled darkly against the bird’s rib cage.

But it was great! Juicy and perfectly done. Not dry like roasted turkey can get, and not greasy either. The hot oil had sealed the surface; it hadn’t soaked in. The turkey had cooked quickly and thoroughly, with little moisture lost.

A week later, we fried again: a chicken, without marinade or seasoning. Whole chicken fries at nine minutes per pound, so the cooking time worked out to the same as the turkey’s. The second time around, it all seemed easy, not like the tentative drama of the week before.

Our chicken was gorgeous--as beautiful as the turkey was appalling. The skin cooked to a golden, puffy, crisp crust. It looked like a pastry sculpture of a chicken. Why the difference? I don’t know. Based on my readings, I’d expected a scary-looking turkey. The handsome chicken was the surprise.

As soon as we sliced open the skin, the chicken began to fall apart. Just a little twist took the thigh-drumstick assembly clean off. Even the breast was tender and juicy. The only possible improvement (both taste- and karma-wise) would have been using a free-range bird.

So, what do you get when you cross poultry with several gallons of boiling hot peanut oil? A tender, juicy bird so perfectly cooked, with skin so crisp and tasty, you might never roast again.