As an American Tevye might say, “Tradition! That’s why we serve roast turkey at Thanksgiving!” Tradition is the stuff of family memories, no question about it, but occasionally it’s good to shake up tradition a little. For Thanksgiving, modern gastronomes suggest, a good place to start the shake-up is by setting aside the requisite roast turkey and trying out a whole turkey deep-fried.
“Once you try deep-fried turkey, you won’t want to go back to roasted,” claims self-taught chef Edward Brailsford of Columbia, who began frying turkey about 10 years ago. “Frying a turkey seals in the moisture like nothing else and gives you a tender, tasty bird that makes for no leftovers. That’s the only down side — no leftover meat for late-night turkey sandwiches!”
Americans have been frying whole turkeys since the early years of the 20th century, beginning at Southern family reunions and church suppers and taking wing from there. Edward’s friends have discovered he evinces exceptional flair for cooking this deep-fried delicacy. Here’s how he takes it from freezer to table.
Edward Brailsford’s Whole Turkey Deep-Fried
1. Select a turkey up to 15 pounds. (A turkey deep fryer, including hook and handle for lowering into propane cooker, may be purchased at various local stores for about $100.) Two days prior to cooking, defrost turkey completely, clean it and remove giblets, neck and pop-button timer. If desired, save giblets and neck for frying with turkey.
2. Inject entire turkey with Creole butter (Edward leans to Tony Chachere’s brand, available at local grocery stores), allow to marinate overnight and sprinkle inside and outside with a little seasoning salt. Before cooking, make sure turkey is at room temperature. The turkey and turkey fryer should be completely dry to prevent popping oil.
3. In an outdoor setting away from buildings, place newspapers below turkey fryer and heat peanut oil to 375 degrees (critical for best results) prior to lowering turkey into oil. Place turkey into fryer’s basket insert.
4. Using long padded gloves, slowly and carefully lower basket insert with turkey into oil-filled cooker. This procedure prevents injuries from splashing hot oil. Oil should rise no higher than several inches below top of fryer. Allow turkey to cook for 3 to 4 minutes per pound of weight. Do not leave turkey unattended while frying.
5. Halfway through cooking, lift insert basket and use crossed strings previously tied to turkey legs to flip turkey. Return turkey to oil. Once bird is completely cooked, turn cooker off, check with meat thermometer for doneness and lift from oil, holding turkey over oil to drain a bit. Sprinkle Cajun Shake on turkey and allow to cool on a paper-towel-lined pan 10 to 15 minutes before carving. A properly fried bird will have crispy skin and will not be greasy.
The Trend is Contagious
Partial to fried turkey for some years now, West Columbians Tricia and Jimmy Way own two propane turkey cookers: one a deep fryer, and the other a newer greaseless one. Chef Jimmy runs them at the same time when cooking for Way family gatherings, and taste tester Tricia declares she can’t see or taste the difference between turkeys prepared in these two cookers. Jimmy’s top-of-the-list favorite seasoning remains Cracker Boy brand, which Tricia buys in the large size at Columbia’s Palmetto Sportsmen’s Classic every spring. Like Edward, Jimmy also favors Creole butter, but his first choice is Cajun Injector brand.
Tricia recalls a red-letter day several years ago when fried turkey figured large in her family history. She says, “When our son told us he was coming home from a tour of military duty in Afghanistan, we asked him if there was any special meal he wanted us to have ready for him when he arrived. He asked for just one thing: ‘Fried turkey! They don’t have fried turkey over here, and you don’t know how I’ve missed it!’ We had it ready, and he couldn’t wait to get at it.”
That’s how addictively delectable fried turkey can be, as co-workers David Wylie of Columbia and Bruce Mackay of Lexington have learned. For two decades, these two chefs have devoted the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to cooking up a joint holiday gift — freshly fried turkey — for co-workers and friends.
“We started out in the early 1990s,” says David, “and now we fry more than 30 turkeys annually in my backyard. We set up a schedule for people to come and bring their family turkeys, and we spend all day frying them. On a picnic table, we set out something from the grill, fried turkey and side dishes brought by guests, all for munching while they wait to collect their birds. It’s just a good time of fellowship and food, and we enjoy providing it. We keep two propane deep fryers and a 55-gallon drum smoker going the whole time.”
David adds that he cooks a whole bird for the usual three minutes per pound, plus five minutes, or until it floats. During his many years of holiday turkey-fry hosting, he has observed that the two seasonings most people choose for their turkeys are Tony Chachere’s and Zatarain’s, both Creole-style brands.
Once a family has decided to indulge in fried turkey, what kind of turkey fryer is needed? Joe Matthews, a manager at Lowe’s on Garners Ferry Road in Columbia and a fryer of turkeys himself, explains that turkey fryers come in two types, deep fryers and greaseless fryers. Both types may be powered by either propane or electricity. Lowe’s carries the Bayou Classic deep fryer but Joe says that they are happy to order whatever model a customer prefers.
“Some fryers have a basket for lowering the turkey into the oil in a horizontal position,” Joe notes, “whereas others feature a perforated turkey rack with a skewer that holds the turkey in a vertical position.”
Joe, who comes from a restaurant background, has created his own Italian blend for seasoning his turkeys, and he adds to that just a sprinkle of cayenne. After rubbing it into the turkey skin before cooking, he also injects Italian dressing, using his own recipe, into the turkey and allows the bird to marinate overnight before frying.
A word to those who relish wild turkey: Captain Harvin Brock of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says he doesn’t fry a wild turkey whole because the legs and wings are too tough and lack sufficient meat. Instead, he cuts the wild turkey breast into strips, which he soaks overnight in buttermilk and Texas Pete, then he fries the strips. The wild bird has been running and fighting for his life and not standing in a poultry yard being fed, so the flavors are slightly different.
“To use my recipe for soaking or injecting any turkey,” says Harvin, “add Texas Pete to buttermilk until it turns light pink, remembering that a new bottle of Texas Pete is hotter than an old one.”
Harvin also suggests brining as a first-class way to season a turkey before deep-frying. Dissolve one cup of kosher salt per gallon of cold water and soak the bird in the solution for six hours. Drain, dry and fry as usual.
“No other seasoning is needed — the brine makes the bird really moist,” promises Harvin.
And that, as Edward Brailsford might say, is the point of frying turkey — producing a lusciously succulent bird that makes the family forget they ever loved this traditional Thanksgiving centerpiece roasted.
Assign at least two people to handle turkey-frying duties.
Hard-and-fast rule: No children, pets or alcohol anywhere near the cooker.
When injecting turkey with marinade, take care not to tear the skin. Marinade escaping through tears into hot cooking oil can cause popping.
Choose peanut oil (expensive) or another oil with a high flash point to reduce fire hazard. If guests are allergic to peanuts, definitely go with another oil.
Turkey may be fried at 350 degrees if preferred. At this lower temperature, turning the turkey may not be necessary to ensure even cooking. In any case, always check for doneness with a meat thermometer.
Some chefs prefer to turn off the cooker just before lowering the turkey into the oil. They turn the heat back on once the turkey is in cooker.
If bird boils up when you lower it into oil, lift turkey up for a few moments and try again.
Wash anything that comes in contact with raw turkey.