The problem with Thanksgiving turkey is that it’s just not very good.
Admit it: Nobody actually looks forward to a few slices of mealy breast meat — except that you can slather them in gravy and surround them with stuffing and mashed butter made with real potatoes. Even the caveman appeal of a drumstick gives way to a mess of weird, wiry tendons and sinew.
But while a few noble pilgrim families have set out in search of a more delicious holiday — a lamb leg, say, or a standing rib roast — the turkey gobbles up most of the real estate on the typical Thanksgiving table.
Fed up, I finally decided to give in to the only thing said to solve this problem, at the very reasonable cost of possibly burning down your house: I deep-fried the damn thing.
How-tos on deep-frying a turkey are easy to find, and the how-not-tos — featuring frozen 20-pound projectiles dropped into vats of oil, rickety setups collapsing onto flammable decks — are at least as plentiful. These days, area police departments routinely issue cautions on Facebook.
Between all the fryer fear-mongering and the sheer volume of kits for sale at the local hardware store, it’s a miracle the suburbs haven’t turned into the smoldering, ash-flecked hellscape of “The Road” yet.
But even for a first-time fryer, the actual process is not nearly as scary as it seems. And it has some very real ancillary benefits. Football is awful this year. And were you really looking forward to an Election Day debrief with your extended family and/or in-laws this year? Me neither. This November, several hours alone in the yard is something to be thankful for indeed.
Even so, resist the urge to set your house on fire. I set up on some patchy grass rather than on the driveway, so any spills wouldn’t run toward the house or the storm drain.
I made sure the burner — I bought one of the Bayou Classic models recommended by consumer review website Thesweethome.com, which has never steered me wrong — was level and stable, which meant kicking and tamping a little dirt first. I connected the burner to the propane tank from my gas grill and tested the flame; you’re looking for hot and blue.
Once you know how to work your burner, get your bird ready. I brined mine overnight in a small cooler, dissolving about a half-cup of salt and a half-cup of dark brown sugar in just enough water to submerge the turkey.
A couple of hours before cooking, I dried it like I was waxing my first new car, then realized I’d forgotten to do a displacement test to figure out how much oil to pour in the pot. This means assembling the apparatus you’ll use to lower and lift the bird, setting the whole thing in the empty pot, and filling it with water until it’s covered. Once you pull everything out, make a mark at the water line. That’s how much oil you’ll need.
For my turkey, which was right at the stated 14-pound size limit for my cooker, the line was a good inch above the max fill line marked on the pot. This was concerning: Either hot oil would be spilling onto my feet, or my turkey’s legs would be poking up from the oil like a big kid doing a handstand in the pool. (Fourteen pounds isn’t much of a turkey — when I dropped the carcass off at Michael Dukakis’s house later, he deemed it “kind of small” — and there are larger models that can accommodate a more robust bird.)
I chose cooking my own feet over leaving my turkey’s feet raw. Reaching the mark took more than the 3 gallons of oil that come in those strange cardboard-encased plastic frying-oil cubes, so I dumped in another gallon or so of straight peanut oil.
Now comes the fun part: sweet, sweet solitude. I lit the fire and sat in a camp chair as the oil slowly heated, the turkey drying on a rack in the kitchen. You want to carefully massage the liver — yours, not the turkey’s — so I opted for two fingers of Old Grand-Dad 114, neat. Depending on the weather, it can take up to 4 ounces of bourbon to reach frying temperature.
This is where many how-tos go off the rails. No matter how well you’ve dried the turkey, you can’t just drop her in. Once the oil passed 350 degrees, I turned off the flame. Then I lowered the turkey in very slowly. Wearing heat-proof gloves and with a solid grip on the hook that holds the turkey, I dipped it in a few inches at a time, waiting for the roiling of the oil to subside before lowering it slightly more.
Once the turkey was submerged, I relit the fire and adjusted the air intake to get as hot a flame as I could — 14 pounds of cool turkey meat had brought the oil’s temperature below 300 degrees.
After about 45 minutes — 3 minutes per pound — and another bourbon, I killed the flame again and hoisted the turkey out of the oil, which would cool in the pot before being ladled back into its container for the next fry day.
After letting the turkey rest a few minutes on a rack, I removed the legs and breast meat, then sliced them into meaty hunks draped with skin so thick and crisp it recalled pork cracklins. The meat was moist and faintly sweet from the brine. It was, by a wide margin, the best turkey I’ve ever had — a suitable Thanksgiving centerpiece, for once.
And if the dinner conversation turns political? Well, that vat of oil sitting out in the darkening yard isn’t going to ladle itself.