I hope everyone is about to enjoy a very relaxing holiday. I’m right there with you, but there will be one small window where relaxation will be no friend of mine. I’ll be the most focused, alert, and vigilant I’ve been all year when I’m deep frying a turkey for Christmas dinner.
Six years ago, I deep fried my first turkey. Though I’m a son of the South, I had never experienced this brilliant madness before and was curious to try. The rest is history.
It makes for an absolutely glorious, succulent bird, but deep frying turkeys isn’t as popular as you might expect. One of the reasons is risk.
Some Risks of Deep Frying a Turkey
- You, or someone / something you love, could die
- You, or someone / something you love, could be badly burned
- Your house, garage, neighbor’s house, or some other nearby structure could be burned to the ground
- If successful, you will be stuck deep frying turkeys for the rest of your life (this is the least bad of all the listed risks, btw)
Let’s pause here and see what can happen:
With risk, of course, comes the potential of return.
Benefits of Deep Frying a Turkey
- It’s super yummy and far better than an oven turkey
- Staring danger in the face makes you feel more alive
- It enjoys massive operational advantages over oven cooking
- It will make for a much happier holiday
- Let’s face it: it’s kinda manly and cool
I’m not going to lay out instructions on how to deep fry a turkey. It’s an incredibly dangerous process, and I do not recommend anyone ever try it. Ever. Forever and ever. But if you’re curious, this guy does provide some advice.
Risking death and disfigurement for a better turkey seems like a curious bet to take, but it’s an excellent example of an asymmetric risk / return that can make sense – a topic I’d like to dive into more in 2017.
Plus, there is much that I do to lower the risk of my death and dismemberment and swing the odds in my favor.
How I’ve Optimized Deep Frying Turkeys
- Learn from an expert
I deep fried my first turkey with a bunch of facilities engineers on a team I managed (this was a team holiday meal before Thanksgiving). Some of those dudes were serious country, and they had collectively deep fried hundreds of turkeys. One of them served as my sous-chef (yeah, I just combined sous-chef and deep frying turkeys to see if you’re paying attention), and he let me drive. He didn’t do anything, but having him there to advise, especially as I gently lowered the turkey in the oil, was much appreciated and gave me confidence for the next time.
- Team up
I have deep fried turkeys by myself (my wife was nearby for emergencies), but in general I like to do it with my brother. He and I are both anal-retentive safety freaks (sorry brother), so we make a great team for this risky endeavor.
- Completely thaw the turkey by the day before it cooks
This is not a “close enough” area. Fully thawing the turkey is a critical safety measure, so threading the needle to have it thawed just-in-time makes no sense at all.
- Completely dry the turkey
Even a completely thawed turkey could have some water in / on it, and that will pop and could lead to burns, which could lead to lots of other excitement.
- No children or pets are allowed anywhere near the deep fryer
This is kinda obvious.
- Wear appropriate clothes
Long sleeves and jeans – I minimize exposed skin.
- Have appropriate tools
I have two big, thick gloves I use when lowering / raising the turkey. I bought a full frying kit which includes all of the other stuff I need.
- Be prepared
We have two fire extinguishers handy – one outside, one inside. I’m a belt and braces kind of guy.
- Never leave the oil alone while heating / cooking
If it overheats it can ignite.
- Deep fry far from the house (or any other structure) on very level ground
‘Cause I like my house.
- Turn off the fire before you put the bird in the oil
This is a critical step. Without a flame, any spilled oil will have much more trouble igniting. You relight once it’s fully in the pot.
There is one final tip, but it’s more operational excellence than safety-related.
- Cook more than one bird
The first couple of times I deep fried a turkey, I just cooked one. There are a bunch of rednecks (assuming they’re among my readership) laughing at that there. Finally I had a lightbulb moment. The peanut oil costs $30, the turkey costs $10-$15, and since we target a 14-16 pound bird (you can’t safely deep fry much larger than that), much of it is gone after serving 8-10 people. But the peanut oil can be reused multiple times! Now, we eat the first bird, get everyone settled down in the den, and cook another bird for leftovers (the oil is still pretty hot, so it takes very little time). Someday soon I’ll move up to three birds.
Hang on. I now understand some of the how, but I still don’t get the why. Why? Why! Why do you have to deep fry a turkey?
Imagine that you can take the most difficult, challenging part of a task and make it simply disappear. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
That’s exactly what deep frying a turkey does. I don’t know how hard it is to cook a turkey in an oven, but it seems pretty darn hard. It is the riskiest, most stressful, most time consuming, hardest part of preparing a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal, which itself is a Herculean task and operational nightmare. Perfecting an oven turkey is challenging – you celebrate when it’s just edible – and the time and attention it saps from the rest of the preparation puts all of the other dishes at risk.
When I deep fry a turkey, all of that magically goes away. My wife is left to create wonderfully delightful dishes, drink wine, and visit with family, and her only turkey-related duty is to make sure I haven’t set myself on fire. She’s a great and experienced cook, and my similarly-skilled sister-in-law helps with the menu. Together they put out a spectacular feast which is only missing the signature main dish.
If you’re not in charge of oven turkey duties at your house, go find out who is and ask,
“Hey, how would you like it if I took care of cooking the turkey? Oh and btw, I won’t need any of the kitchen to do so, and I’ll guarantee it’ll be the best turkey you’ve ever had?”
I think you’ll have some interest.
Once the oil is hot, a turkey only takes about 45 minutes to deep fry. I’ve never undercooked or overcooked one. Since the temperature and time can be controlled so precisely, I suspect screwups are only from overly cold birds (which sharply lowers your oil temperature at start, and also shows you dangerously threaded the needle on thawing) or from inattentiveness. Rumor has it, though, that if you overcook a deep fried turkey, the outside may be a bit crunchy, but the meat inside is still juicy.
And of course there’s the taste. Until you’ve actually tasted a deep fried turkey, you really do need to hold off judgment. It is incredibly delicious, and I have never met anyone who’s had it and wants to go back.
What are the drawbacks to deep frying a turkey?
See all of the death and dismemberment comments above. It is risky, and if you want to drink and relax this is not for you. You need your full attention to deep fry something so large.
You could also argue that from heating the oil, to cooking the bird, to cleaning up afterward (properly disposing of the oil is a treat), it’s really not much of a time saver. I’d counter, “For whom?” For my wife it’s a HUGE time saver and puts the most important dish on a totally independent process. In addition, watching a pot of oil heat up isn’t terribly taxing, and I can visit with my brother, whom I’d want to catch up with anyway. Finally, while cleanup sucks, it can be saved for later. Much later, like another day. Try that with kitchen cooking.
Finally, one warning I received has proved true: once you’ve deep fried your first turkey, you’re pretty much committed for life.
Deep Frying Turkeys Makes the World Happy
I remember the magnificent meals my mom made growing up. She was an excellent cook and would work her magic at both Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. But I also remember her never really being carefree and happy. She was so stressed about the meal she couldn’t fully enjoy the holiday and the time with family. She’d collapse as the last guest left and only then truly start to relax and enjoy herself. It never made much sense to me.
My wife was happy to tackle all of the traditions and is an awesome cook herself, but the first few years I always saw her a bit stressed (but thankfully well short of my mom’s level) at the massiveness and complexity of the operation. Deep frying turkeys has stopped that.
So there’s your justification, folks. If you say deep frying a turkey is a dangerous redneck fringe tradition that can be easily dismissed, I’d counter it brings operational excellence to an incredibly challenging meal, makes my wife happier, and ensures everyone can enjoy the holiday. Oh and it also produces the most delicious turkey imaginable.
Merry Christmas everyone!
If you’d like to see a video of deep frying, these guys seem to have a pretty good handle on it (I don’t approve of their attire or their single gloved approach, though).