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Southern-fried turkey?

Those who’ve tried it say it’s finger-lickin’ good

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Move over, Colonel Sanders. Some folks are deep-frying their turkey this Thanksgiving.

We're not talking about little pieces cooked in a frying pan on your stove; we're talking about submerging a whole turkey in a vat of boiling oil in your back yard.

This method, once known mainly in the South, gained even more of a following after TV chef Emeril Lagasse and "Living" expert Martha Stewart featured it on their programs.

"Now it's popular all over, since people are realizing how good it is," said Bob Johnson, a Kaysville real-estate agent.

Johnson enjoyed plenty of fried turkey growing up in Hartsville, S.C., but never paid much attention as to how it was done. Years after moving away, he got the urge for the moist, flavorful turkey of his youth and called his older brothers for cooking directions.

They gave him their secret recipe for the seasoning rub that goes on the turkey skin, but made him promise not to share it outside the family.

"They told me, 'If we every hear of anyone else cooking with it, you're dead,' " Johnson said. (To avoid such dire consequences, we settled for a list of some of Johnson's ingredients, without the proportions, for this story. Readers will have to tinker with it and add other spices to suit their tastebuds.)

Johnson perfected his turkey-frying skills and built a reputation in his neighborhood and at work. When co-workers or clients at Wardley Real Estate in Layton hear he's cooking turkey, they ask him to fry one for them, too.

Meanwhile, the process is attracting new fans around Utah. Jerry Nash of Tooele got great reviews when he served two deep-fried turkeys at his high school class reunion last summer.

"We first saw it on Martha (Stewart) on TV, and thought it looked pretty interesting," Nash said. "Then, one day I was in a store and saw the pots for sale, and thought it might make a good family Christmas gift."

He didn't get a chance to try it out until the day of his class reunion. But, he decided to wing it, so to speak. "I was a little worried because it was the first time I'd tried it, but it turned out to be pretty easy and fun," he said.

Except, of course, for the few minutes of panic when he saw how dark brown the turkey was as it came out of the oil. "It looked burned, and I thought it was ruined, and I had all these people coming. But then I pulled off the skin and laid it out on the platter, and it was so nice and tender. I've done it a couple more times since then. The cleanup is a little more of a pain, but it's mainly just pouring all the oil back into the bottles."

Travis Sagers of Rush Valley deep-fried his first turkey last year at Utah State University in Logan, while helping his cousin cook Thanksgiving dinner for her LDS college ward.

"She did a turkey in the oven, and I deep-fried the other one," Sagers said. "It took all day to do it in the oven, and the deep-fried turkey took about an hour, and it was a lot more juicy. Plus that, it frees up your oven so you can cook the rest of your Thanksgiving dinner."

Also, the process gives your party more back yard-barbecue atmosphere, he said. "It tends to draw more of a crowd because it's a novelty, and people tend to watch and gab while it's cooking. You don't get that effect when you're cooking in the kitchen."

To get started, you'll need a large pot (about 30 or 40 quarts) with a fryer basket (it has a handle and holes for the oil to drain out) and a propane burner. Some kits, such as the one Nash bought, have a rod that the turkey is skewered through, with a hanger to pull it out. (Locally, some deep-fryer kits are being advertised for $69.95).

You'll also need a long-stemmed meat thermometer, to check the oil's temperature, and a safe outdoor area to cook — level dirt or a grassy area is good because the oil can stain concrete. Avoid cooking on a wooden deck or in a garage, which could catch fire if the oil spills.

You'll also need about 5 gallons of oil. Johnson chooses peanut oil because of its high flash point.

"When you have to cook something at such a high temperature for this length of time, a regular oil will burn, and the food will taste burned," Johnson said.

But, he cautions, be sure to let your guests know about the peanut oil because it can be harmful — even fatal — to guests with peanut allergies. Peanut oil can also get expensive. He's found 35-pound canisters of peanut oil at Sam's Club for $20.

To figure out how much oil he'll need for the cooking, Johnson places the uncooked turkey — still in its bag — in the cooking pot. He adds water until the turkey is completely covered. Then he removes the turkey and marks the water level before pouring out the water and drying the pan.

"When you're dealing with hot oil, you don't want to be guessing once that turkey's in the pot," he said.

Too much oil could bubble over and cause a fire. Adding more oil during the cooking lowers the heat.

"Another safety thing that people don't always realize is that every time you handle the turkey, you've got to wash your hands," he said. "I wash my hands 30 or 40 times just cooking one turkey."

The night before, Johnson's wife, Marie, sprinkles the seasoning so the whole turkey is completely covered with it on the outside and in the body cavity. Some of Johnson's "secret" ingredients are garlic powder, salt, pepper, chili powder, Accent and crushed red peppers. Several recipes call for only Creole seasoning or Cajun spice mix, both sold in supermarkets.

Johnson doesn't use marinades, although many cooks do. Most deep-fryer kits come with an injection needle and marinade recipes. Nash said that he injects a teriyaki-marinade mix in the turkey's legs, breast and thighs. Sagers said he marinated a turkey overnight before cooking it, but it wasn't as flavorful as those he spice-rubbed.

Johnson heats the oil to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (some recipes call for a 350-degree temperature). Then he carefully lowers the basket into the oil, which immediately begins sizzling and bubbling. Within a few minutes, the aroma is wafting through the neighborhood.

Now it's a matter of waiting, about 4 1/2 minutes per pound. A 12-pound turkey will take 52-54 minutes — a lot less time than the three or four hours it takes to roast in the oven. Of course, setting up the equipment, heating the oil and the cleanup takes some time.

"But the difference in the turkey is worth the effort," he said.

When the time is up, he carefully takes out the turkey and checks for doneness where the turkey leg joins the thigh. "That's the hardest part to get cooked," he said. "if it's the least bit of red, I put it back in. I never turn off the heat until I've checked."

If it's done, he carefully drains off the oil and gets the turkey out of the basket, using oven mitts and a large fork. After it sits five or 10 minutes, it's time to slice and serve.

Johnson's favorite part of the bird is the wing — "That's where the most spices are."

Then it's time to clean up. The peanut oil is strained and used later on for cooking trout. The leftover seasonings in the oil give the fish a great flavor, Johnson said.

Marie Johnson also saves the turkey carcass. The secret seasoning adds a special zip to the usual day-after-Thanksgiving turkey soup.


Although Bob Johnson of Kaysville doesn't divulge his family's secret recipe for Deep-Fried Turkey, we found other recipes for rubs and marinades you can try.


DEEP-FRIED TURKEY

This recipe was a finalist in the 1999 North Carolina Turkey Federation's Cooking Contest.

1/2 cup kosher salt

3 tablespoons onion powder

3 tablespoons black pepper

3 tablespoons white pepper

2 tablespoons sweet basil

2 teaspoons ground bay leaf

1 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons file powder

3 tablespoons garlic powder

1 1/2 tablespoons paprika

1 whole turkey (10-12 pounds)

4-5 gallons peanut oil

Stir salt, herbs and peppers together. Mix until well blended. Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup for a 10-12 pound turkey. May be stored for several months in an airtight covered jar. Place turkey in large pan and rub the interior and exterior of the bird with seasoning mix. To allow for good oil circulation throughout the cavity, do not truss or tie legs together. Cover pan and place in refrigerator overnight. Deep-fry the next day in peanut oil, at 300 degrees. Fry about 3-4 minutes per pound, or about 35-42 minutes for a 10-12 pound turkey. When cooked to 170 degrees in the breast or 180 degrees in the thigh, carefully remove the turkey from the hot oil. Allow the turkey to drain for a few minutes. For safety, allow the oil to cool completely before storing or disposing.

Nutritional analysis is based on a 5.9 ounce serving: 383 calories; 45 grams protein, 21 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 1,116 mg sodium, 129 mg cholesterol. Recipe from Janet Trent, Sanford, N.C.


DEEP-FRIED TURKEY

1 whole wild turkey (12-16 pounds)

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup dry sherry (may substitute apple juice)

6 teaspoon garlic powder

5 teaspoon lemon pepper

5 teaspoon onion powder

2-3 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon basil

5 gallons peanut oil

Blend all the ingredients well and let stand 2 hours. Strain marinade and place in an injection needle. Inject the marinade into all parts of the bird. Place the bird in a large plastic bag and allow the marinade to disperse throughout the bird for at least 2 hours. Turn the bag and massage the bird occasionally. Preheat the cooking oil to 350-375 degrees in a kettle large enough to hold the entire bird. Tie the legs of the bird together with wire. (It helps to hold the bird together and provides a way to lift it in and out of the oil.) Carefully place the bird into the oil and fry 3 1/2-to-4 minutes per pound. Recipe from Gary Clayton, RiverRatt.Com.


DEEP-FRIED TURKEY

3 gallons peanut oil

1 12-pound turkey

1 (3.8 ounce) jar Creole-style seasoning

1 white onion

Fill a 26-quart aluminum pot (including drain basket) partway with oil. Place on outdoor propane cooker and heat to 350 degrees.

Remove neck and giblets from turkey, rinse and pat dry. Sprinkle Creole seasonings over turkey inside and out. Gently rub in seasonings.

Place the whole onion and turkey in drain basket. Slowly lower basket into hot oil to completely cover turkey. (Halfway through cooking, the onion will float to the top of the oil to prevent oil from scorching).

Maintain a temperature of 350 degrees and cook turkey for 3 1/2 minutes per pound, about 45 minutes.

Carefully remove basket and drain turkey. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh to insure a temperature above 180 degrees.

Place in a food safe paper bag to finish the draining process before carving. From AllRecipes.com.


CINNAMON-CHILI RUB

1/2 cup cinnamon

1/2 cup paisley or other red chili powder

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup kosher salt

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Coat the outside of the turkey with this rub before deep-frying. From Texas Monthly.


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com