My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017

There will come a time in every family Thanksgiving timeline when somebody suggests a little tweak to time-honored tradition — “Why don’t we fry the turkey this year?”

This homegrown technique seems perfect for adventurous cooks along the Gulf Coast. After all, it sprouted from our crawfish boil and fish-fry traditions, and yields a perfectly cooked bird — moist white meat and tender dark meat with crackle-crisp skin all around.

But executing a perfectly fried bird is a good deal more complicated than the traditional “bake and baste” technique. The simple fact that you’re dealing with gallons of hot oil, a high-pressure open flame and unwieldy poultry means fried turkey is a very different ball game. (For proof, do a Google search for “turkey frying accidents” and you’ll see a cavalcade of greasy infernos, house-scorching fireballs and first-timers setting their carports aflame while their neighbors film the whole thing.)

Master of the Flame(s)

Chef Nathan Richard

When it comes to deep-fried turkeys, you want to avoid potentially life-threatening rookie mistakes, so it helps to learn from a trained professional. And for this we enlisted the help of the most qualified person we know, Chef Nathan Richard of Cavan Restaurant in New Orleans.

In addition to being a chef, Richard is also a 15-year veteran of the volunteer fire department in his hometown of Thibodaux.
As a teenager, Chef Nathan joined the department and studied Fire Science at Delgado Community College with the goal of becoming a firefighter and arson investigator. In the course of his studies, he got inspired by a part-time job at Commander’s Palace and instead pursued a life in the restaurant kitchen.

In the years since, Richard has remained an active volunteer firefighter — and so has extensive experience with flames, both controlled and uncontrolled. This combination of skills and experience makes him the perfect guide to teach you how to properly (and safely) fry a turkey at home.

The Key: Take Your Time

One of the most-mentioned advantages to a deep-fried turkey is its cooking speed (approximately 3-4 minutes per pound rather than the 15-20 minutes per pound required for roasting). But the frying technique also requires a fair amount of time-intensive prep work to assure home safety and a tasty final product.

To this point, Chef Nathan suggests that first-time cooks think about the fry as a 3-day process — with little bits of homework that have to be completed before you spark the burner on Thanksgiving Thursday morning.

“I always make sure the bird thaws for at least 3 days in the fridge. Ice crystals deep in the bird can cause a grease fire, so give it plenty of time to unfreeze.”

A long thaw time prevents potentially explosive water/grease contact — a critical theme that we’ll see echoed often during the prep and frying process.

Stage 1: Monday Night

Buy the right bird. If you’re accustomed to a Norman Rockwell-style, 20-pound roasted turkey on the table, you’ll need to adjust your expectations for the fried variety. “For frying, the smaller the bird, the better,” Chef Nathan says. “Look for something in the 8-10 pound range, because you want it to fit in that fryer with room to spare. Give it room to move, because you don’t want the wings to get caught on the edge of the basket.”

Start the thaw. Begin the long, slow thaw by putting the unwrapped frozen turkey(s) in a deep baking pan in the refrigerator. Over time, the turkey will go from rock-hard to pleasantly pliable; it’ll just take time. Remember: Patience is key.

Stage 2: Tuesday

Check your equipment. The standard outdoor cooking tools for turkey frying might look a lot like your uncle’s crawfish boiling rig, but the differences are just pronounced enough to require special attention.

Take a few minutes and read the instructions for your fryer, and follow all manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

The “gas and burner” situation is usually identical to the crawfish boiling rig; so in this venture, too, you must make sure there’s plenty of gas in the tank, and that the flexible hose is just the right length (too short and it could pull the pot, too long and someone could trip and tip the whole rig over).

“Also make sure you’ve got a couple of different thermometers (one for oil temperature and a digital probe to test meat doneness),” he says, “And get your safety equipment: a set of fireproof welder’s gloves and a multipurpose (ABC rated) fire extinguisher. It’s better to think about safety before you get started.”

Scout your fryer site. Make sure that the spot where you’re placing your rig is FAR AWAY from anything that can possibly go up in flames including (but not limited to) houses, garages, trees, fences, overhead power lines, wooden decks, carports.

“The rule is, 15 feet away from any structure,” he says. “Make sure your surface is solid. I’ve seen my share of fryer fires, and you don’t want that.”

Change your oil. Since you’ll be frying at 325-350 degrees, you’ll want an oil with a high “smoke point” rating that won’t break down and get unstable once it’s on high heat.

“I like peanut oil, but these days a lot of people are more sensitive to it, so if you’re worried about allergies, go with sunflower oil.”

Stage 3: Wednesday

Trim/prep the bird. By now, your bird should be mostly thawed and ready for basic preparation. Pour out the raw juice that’s collected in the thawing pan and wash the bird thoroughly. Take out the turkey neck and paper sack of giblets (gizzards and livers) that are either in the bird’s body cavity or in the neck hollow. You’ll often feel chunks of ice stuck to them or the inside ribs — take those out now so they don’t cause potential problems later.

Also, take a sharp knife and cut away any excessive skin flaps. Remove the little plastic pop-up “doneness timer.”

Check your oil level (with water). This might be the most important part of your pre-fry homework assignments: making sure you have enough oil to fry, but not so much as to cause a dangerous overflow. Unlike an over-bubbly crawfish pot, which just makes clouds of steam, an overfull turkey fryer can splash oil onto the burner flame and trigger the large, fast-moving fireballs and unstable grease fires you may have seen on YouTube. The goal is to have just enough oil to cover your biggest turkey while staying away from the lip of the fryer pot.

You can avoid overflow with an off-the-burner “dip and mark” routine.

“I use water displacement to calculate my oil level,” says Chef Nathan. “Fill the pot halfway, then put your thawed turkey in the pot. If the water doesn’t cover the bird completely, add enough water to do that.”

“Take the bird out and after the water settles, mark the pot at the waterline with a marker. When it comes time to fill the pot with oil, hit that line and you’re good.”

(Make sure to dry off the pot and turkey well after this “dip and mark” process.)

Check the weather/develop Plan B. Check the weather forecast, and if there’s any chance of rain Thanksgiving Day, make sure you have a solid Turkey Day Plan B. Again, it’s the cold water/hot oil combination that could cause a problem. If you’re running an outdoor deep fryer and rain hits, the resulting grease fire can get out of control quickly. Better to have a solid alternative for the sake of the family feast.

The first choice could be the standard roasting technique: Pop it in the oven and baste away, just like Maw Maw used to do. But if you want to maintain a sense of adventure, you can always break out the crawfish pot and gently boil the birds in crab boil and spices. (The resulting bird is more poached than roasted, and has distinctive flavor, but none of the crispy skin and caramelized goodness of a typical Thanksgiving bird.) If you’ve got a smoker, go the barbecue-joint route and shoot up your birds with beer instead of pepper sauce for “drunken bird” flavor.

Stage 4: Thanksgiving Thursday

And now it’s time for the Big Show, the time when all your careful prep will pay off with savory success. At long last, it’s finally time to do things that look like cooking.

Double-check the turkey. “Make sure that everything’s dry on that bird, inside and out,” says Chef Nathan. “Blot every square inch dry with paper towels, and make sure that there aren’t any bits of hidden ice at the center of the turkey.”

Season your bird. A few hours before frying, deep-season the turkey with injectable marinade (Rouses carries several versions of this, along with the oversized syringe needed to pump liquid spices into the large muscles (breast, thighs, drumsticks) before cooking. Let things settle for an hour or so for the marinade to distribute, then re-dry the bird to remove any runoff.

Pre-cook routine. Double check your gloves, thermometers, extinguisher and surroundings. Put any pets away while the fire is burning. Fill the oil to the level you marked on Wednesday and fire up the burner. Level off the fire when the oil temperature reaches 325-335 degrees.

Bread ’em up. Meantime, dry the turkeys one last time and roll them in a mix of 2 parts flour/1 part cornstarch to crisp up the skin during frying.

THE BIG FRY: Triple-dip it. Once you’ve affixed the flour-dusted bird to the frying basket or vertical poultry-holding platform, you’re ready for action. Turn off the flame and get ready to fry.

As you slowly lower the bird into the hot oil, watch for a quick cloud of potentially scalding steam rising out of the pot. You can minimize this by lowering the turkey gradually: dipping it in a quarter of the way, letting the water evaporate, lifting it out for a 5-second rest. Repeat this at the half- and three-quarters marks before leaving the bird in its final frying position. (This method also helps you avoid the common “drop and run” method that often leads to dangerous overflow situations, sometimes resulting in sudden fireballs.)

With your bird safe in the oil and gently burbling away, relight the burner and maintain an oil temperature of 325-350 degrees.

Time and test. At this point, you’re literally cooking. Use 3-4 minutes a pound of frying as a baseline, and after that, use an instant-read digital thermometer to carefully test for meat doneness (when breast meat reaches 165).

“You’ll want to stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast for a reading (of 160); that will allow for 5 degrees of carryover cooking as the meat rests.”

Turn off the flame again, carefully lift the bird from the oil, and let it drain on paper towel-lined cardboard (10-15 minutes or until cool).

Your bird — crispy on the outside, tender on the inside — is ready for the feast. Whether it’s a new standard or a one-time experiment, you’ll have expanded your family’s Thanksgiving, hopefully without starring in a viral YouTube video.

The safety procedure may seem like a lot for civilians and home cooks, but Nathan Richard has seen more than his share of holiday disasters.

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “There’s nothing worse on Thanksgiving than people showing up for dinner and your house is burned down.”

Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department

Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department

The Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department — one of the oldest all-volunteer fire departments in Louisiana — traces its storied 174-year history to the year 1843 when, as Assistant Chief Benton Foret describes it, “a loosely organized group of concerned citizens bought some leather buckets and a ladder” for community protection.

In the years since, the city has grown significantly, and the all-volunteer firefighting force — now the Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department — has as well. Its 480 members are organized into eight different companies (among them, Thibodaux Fire Company No. 1, Protector Fire Company No. 2, and Vigilant, Chemical, and Hose Fire Company) that reflect a proud tradition of one of the state’s oldest citizen-run safety organizations.

The Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department draws much of its support and strength from the community at large, most notably during the Firemen’s Fair, an event held the first weekend in May every year. The four-day celebration started as the town’s gift to its firefighters — a single day off when they could rest up — and has turned into a citywide festival that includes a Firemen’s Parade, fundraising auction, carnival midway and, of course, friendly competitions among the various companies. Donny Rouse was Grand Marshal of the 2015 Thibodaux Firemen’s Fair & Parade. His father, Donald, was Grand Marshal in 1986.