Fried & True

Today, frying a turkey for the holiday meal is as much a part of the fabric of the season as canned cranberries and football.

But how did the deep-fried turkey get its start? The Cajun chef and culinary personality Justin Wilson — noted as much for his accent and quintessential sayings as his cooking show — was the first person to publicly declare that he once saw someone deep-fry a turkey back in the 1930s.

The process basically involves lowering a turkey with a hanger-type apparatus into a sizeable vat of oil heated with propane gas for, according to most recipes, four to five minutes per pound. In Wilson’s heyday in the 1970s, he was one of the only chefs to make this crispy version, and did so in something similar to the crawfish boiler most people use today.

Deep-frying a turkey has become more and more popular in recent years. This method turns out an irresistibly tender and delicious turkey, and is a great alternative to traditional cooking methods. It is especially important, however, to follow instructions carefully and take precautions. While the oil is heating, the turkey is prepared with any seasonings, marinades or the now-popular injected (more on this later) flavor of choice.

Most recipes call for using peanut, canola or cottonseed oil, and nearly every set of cooking instructions or YouTube videos — some appropriately titled “How to Deep-Fry a Turkey Without Burning the House Down” — include safety tips for successful frying. Nearly all recommend heating the oil to 350-400 degrees, then turning the burner off before slowly lowering the turkey into the boiling oil until the bird is totally submerged.

A fun party tip for the holidays: Invite over some friends, each bringing a turkey prepared for frying. Once the initial turkey is fried, the assembled guests share in enjoying the delicious results, along with other small bites, appetizers and beverages of choice, all while the other turkeys are frying in turn. At the end of the frying and dining, guests then go home with their own fried turkey in tow and memories of a great afternoon shared with friends during the holiday season.

For some groups, such as the Dawn Busters Kiwanis Club in Metairie, Louisiana, deep-frying turkeys is serious business. Every year in the days prior to Thanksgiving, a team of volunteers preps and fries turkeys for the self-described “World’s Largest Turkey Fry,” cooking as many as 800-900 turkeys annually, with 100 percent of the profits funding year-round service projects. The Dawn Busters are not alone, as similar events are growing in popularity across the nation.
And if the size of the holiday crowd warrants, a fun option is to serve a fried turkey alongside a more traditional oven-baked version, offering friends and family a choice and a healthy debate on which tastes better.