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The Food Lab: How to Fry a Turkey (and Is the Whole Thing a Sham?)

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UPDATE: Since publishing this story, I've had a little more experience with various fried turkeys and have changed my tune somewhat. See the update here. And check out our recipe for BUFFALO FRIED TURKEY (yes).

Fried turkey just sounds awesome, doesn't it? There's something about taking a whole 12-pound bird and lowering it into a vat of hot oil that makes manly men go weak in the knees. It's certainly the most macho way to get thanksgiving dinner on the table (not to mention the most dangerous).

But here's the sad truth: Fried turkey sucks.

"But wait!" you cry. "By all accounts on record, it's awesome!"

"Juiciest bird ever!" you hear. I'm skeptical. "Frying turkey is the only way to get it to taste good!" is a common one. My internal bullsh*t meter starts climbing up the dial at this stage.

Then there's the ever-popular one: "The hot oil seals in all the juices so it stays nice and moist." And that's the one that buries the needle. As we've proven several times, this idea of "sealing in juices" simply doesn't happen in real life. Whether seared, battered, deep fried, or boiled, the amount of juices that come out of a piece of meat are related to the internal temperature of the meat, and that's it.

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The concept of frying a turkey simply doesn't make sense. How is it possible that after 45 minutes submerged in 350°F oil that the turkey breast will emerge anything but dry? Is there some kind of magic going on inside the pot that prevents the turkey from drying out? The answer is that it's not possible, and there's no magic. Fried turkey is dry.

Let me rephrase that: Fried turkey breast is dry. Anyone who tells you different is selling something. Most likely a turkey fryer.

How do I know? Well, last weekend I performed a little test, with about a dozen tasters in tow.

The Test

Starting with two identical turkeys seasoned with the same amount of salt and pepper, I roasted one in a 350°F oven until it reached an internal breast temperature of 150°F. I then allowed it to rest for 20 minutes, carved it, and served it.

Simultaneously, I deep-fried the second turkey in a turkey fryer filled with 350°F peanut oil until it reached an internal breast temperature of 150°F as well. I rested it for the same period of time, and served it side-by-side with the roasted turkey.

I also happened to weigh both turkeys before and after cooking. Even before we got to the tasting, one thing was immediately apparent: the fried turkey lost significantly more moisture—more than twice as much.

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While the roasted turkey retained 84% of its initial weight, the fried turkey dropped all the way down to 63% of its original weight, indicating a massive level of moisture loss.

Tasting it only confirmed this observation. As you can see from the photo below, the oven-roasted bird on the left looks juicy, and sliced into smooth, even pieces. The deep-fried turkey, on the right, on the other hand, was dry, chalky, and crumbly in the extreme.

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Erin even went so far as to say, "I was thinking beforehand that I'd just play devil's advocate and support the fried turkey no matter what, but yeah...I just can't. It's soooo dry."

Indeed.

One more advantage of the roasted bird: gravy. A fried bird leaves no fond in the pan to help build a flavorful gravy like a regular roasted turkey does, which means that you don't even have some nice rich liquid to cover up the texture of the dry breast meat after you've fried your bird.

That said, it wasn't horrible. Indeed, the wings and dark meat, with their protective fat and connective tissue were downright delicious, and that's not to mention the perfectly crisp, crunchy, deep brown skin that came off the bird. If you are a skin and wings fan, this is definitely the cooking method for you.

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But it's those dry, dry breasts that beg two questions. First, how is it that a turkey cooked in a 350°F oven to an internal temperature of 150°F can come out so much moister than a turkey deep-fried at 350°F to the same final temperature? And secondly, if fried turkey is so bad, why do people love it so?

The Thermodynamics of a Turkey Breast

The first question can be answered with a bit of thermodynamics. As we all should know by now, temperature is not the only thing that matters in cooking. Think about this: you can safely stick your hand in a 350°F oven, but touch a pot of 350°F oil, and you won't soon be forgetting it. Why is this? It's because the temperature of a given body is not and accurate indicator of how much energy it contains, and with cooking, energy transfer is far more important than temperature.

Volume for volume, a 350°F oil simply has far more energy in it than 350°F air. So while it may take a turkey three hours to roast to 150°F in an oven, it'll make the same journey in just about 45 minutes in a pot of hot oil.

But wait—didn't I say earlier that no matter what your cooking medium, the juiciness of meat has to do only with its final internal temperature? Well that's true. Sort of.

The exception to this rule is for thick cuts of meat—cuts of meat that are large enough that even within the same piece of meat, there can be a considerable temperature differential.

To explain this, let's take a look at what's going on inside a turkey breast. The chart below represents a cross section of two turkey breasts, one fried, the other roasted. For our purposes here, we can approximate the shape of a turkey breast as a cylinder, giving us the circular cross-section seen below.

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While both breasts reach a central internal temperature of 150°F, it's what's going on in the rest of the breast that causes problems. With the roasted breast, the temperature gradient is not so extreme. The gentle heat of an oven ensures relatively even cooking, with the exterior layers never getting much hotter than 180°F or so. With the fierce heat of a fryer, on the other hand, the turkey get much hotter, even going north of 200 degrees on the outermost layers.

No wonder it comes out so dry! Only the very center is actually at the right temperature!

Incidentally, this same line of thinking explains how sous-vide cooking is able to get your meat perfectly evenly cooked from center to edge: the slower you cook something, the more evenly it comes out.

So Why the Hype?

So we've pretty conclusively shown that as far as moistness of the meat is concerned, a roasted turkey has fried turkey easily licked—no question about it.

So what is it about fried turkeys that keep people coming back for more? I mean, as you can plainly see, even our relatively dry turkey was picked pretty clean (minus a large amount of dry breast meat that ended up going to the dog).

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I've got a few theories that might explain it, though it's tough to say which one is correct:

This last explanation is known formally as the Effort-Justification Paradigm. In a 1959 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Aronson and Mills wrote about an experiment they conducted in which two groups of people were exposed to two different sets of initiation rituals to join the same club. The group who were made to undergo the more severe initiation found the club to be more interesting than the group that went through only a mild initiation.

It's the same reason why fraternal organizations participate in hazing new members: by making the process of achieving the end goal more difficult, the goal itself becomes far more desirable, even if in reality, it's not all that interesting. Fascinating!

Of course, there's yet one more theory, and the one which actually might be the most likely: It's just plain cool. People don't fry turkey for the flavor or moisture. They fry turkey because frying sh*t is cool, and frying really big sh*t is really cool.

Click through the slideshow at the top for a closer look at the process (and stay tuned for a video!)

UPDATE: A couple weeks and a few fried turkeys later, I'm changing my tune. Thanks to all of you for all of your helpful comments and suggestions as to what might have gone wrong. I think I figured out the problem, and have now become a fried turkey convert. At least partially. I never expected this kind of firestorm this post generated, but as I said on my Facebook page, insulting fried turkey seems second only to insulting god in terms of easy ways to get people riled up. It was never my intention, I swear!

Expect a full post-length update this week with new instructions and a tried-and tested recipe which I think you'll all really dig for thanksgiving this year (at least those of you with a turkey fryer!)

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