Thanksgiving dinner became a lot easier for many with the rising popularity of frying the turkey. Not only is the cooking time far less than it is to roast or smoke, you don’t have to baste the bird or worry about it while it is cooking.
Yet in the annals of Thanksgiving Day meal disasters, fried turkey nightmares have formed a unique category. Stories abound about fires, oil sprays and other catastrophes that could have been easily avoided. That is, if people had paid attention to a few rules.
To learn to fry a turkey the best and simplest way, we talked with Roland Treviño of Los Barrios and La Hacienda de los Barrios, who has been in charge of frying the big birds for his family for about nine years now.
The process has changed over the years. In the early days, Treviño merely cleaned the bird, which should weigh about 10-15 pounds, and then fried it. Nowadays, a host of flavor injections exist to enliven the bird and keep it moist.
That’s where Treviño begins these days. One day before frying, insert the turkey stand that comes with the fryer and place the bird in the empty frying pot. Cover it with water and then remove the bird, he said. Then mark the spot, because the level of water left is the amount of peanut oil you will need to use.
“I learned that from watching Emeril Legasse,” Treviño says.
It proved especially handy with Treviño’s first fry pot, which did not have markings denoting how many gallons of oil the pot could contain.
The first thing to do is remove the giblets and neck. This is a step many forget, and the plastic wrap could melt when the turkey is fried.
Rinse and dry the bird off, insert the turkey stand and set it in a garbage bag, Treviño says. Then add your marinade or inject the bird with whatever flavor you choose, he says. He likes a Cajun marinade to give the bird some spice, while the kids like a sweeter flavor. Since he fries a number of birds each year, everyone gets the flavor he or she wants.
Once the bird is flavored, Treviño likes to tie the wings to the breast to prevent oil from splattering.
The following day, set up your fryer away from the house. This is important, and it’s one rule people seem to forget. “Keep it away from the house,” Treviño says. If the oil overflows, you could stain your floor or concrete or set a wooden deck on fire.
Preheat the oil to 350 degrees.
While it is heating, dry the bird completely. One drop of water could cause oil to spatter, Treviño says. “The last thing you want to do is put wet turkey in hot oil,” because that can cause burns, he says.
Before you lower the bird into the oil, make sure the temperature is hot enough. Oil that has reached 350 degrees is hot enough to sear the outside of the turkey, allowing the meat to cook without losing the juices inside. If prepared properly, the bird will be extremely moist but not greasy. If the oil is not hot enough, the turkey will become like a sponge and absorb the oil.
Once you’ve checked the temperature, carefully lower the bird into the oil. You can do this with a hook, but if you’re wary of the weight, you may want to make this a two-person job. Treviño often inserts a broomstick into the metal hook that links into the turkey stand before he and one of his sons lower it into the bubbling vat.
Cover the pot to prevent spattering, and make sure the temperature rises again to 350 degrees while it cooks. It takes about 3 1/2 to 4 minutes per pound to fry the turkey, or just under 40 minutes for a 10-pound bird.
You should watch the fryer during this time to prevent any other unavoidable disasters. For some, this is the time to grab a beer and relax. Just don’t drink too much. You have to remove the turkey as carefully as it was lowered. You may also want to have a fire extinguisher on hand in case an accident happens.
The skin will get dark brown and incredibly crispy while it cooks.
When the turkey is done, some say when the bird floats to the top of the oil, remove it with the same diligence as you lowered it into the oil.
One other aspect to bear in mind is how you store the oil before frying, Treviño says. Don’t let it get too cold before you start to heat the pot. If the oil has been left outside on a frosty night, it will take hours to heat in the pot. To prevent that from happening, Treviño keeps the oil in the house before pouring it into the pot.
Cleanup after frying a turkey is easy, he says. The turkey stand gets cleaned and the pot, but not until the day after its use and the heat has dropped. He filters the peanut oil and uses it again at Christmas time. (You can use any vegetable oil in place of peanut oil, but peanut oil is the only one suggested for re-use.)
Treviño has his own horror story, of sorts, to share.
The first time he fried a turkey, the skin came out black. It wasn’t inedible. It was simply unappetizing to the eye. So, he decided to play a trick on his family, in keeping with a family tradition for practical jokes. He served up the bird and apologized for burning it. Everyone was horrified – at least until they tasted the moist meat inside.
After that, a fried turkey has been a part of every Treviño Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.
Photos by Nicholas Mistry.