The Food Lab: OK, Deep Fried Turkey Is Awesome!

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

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First off, an admission:

If you've been following The Food Lab at all, you'll know that a couple weeks ago, I fried a turkey and didn't like it. Well, I take it all back! Fried turkey can be good. Really good. Excellent. Lip-smacking, finger-licking, crispy crackly, moist and tender, juice-explosion good, even. As many of you so eloquently and kindly pointed out (and some not so eloquently or kindly), I jumped to a very premature conclusion in that post based on very little data.

I did it, and I'm sorry. Hey—we're all entitled to mistakes now and then. Indeed if it weren't for bad science, then good science wouldn't exist!

Luckily for me, SE'rs are quite an astute (and hopefully forgiving) bunch, and when I make a mistake, nobody lets it slip by. Thanks!

A couple weeks and a few fried turkeys later, I'm changing my tune. I've eaten well-fried turkey, and it was delicious.

I think I've managed to pinpoint the error I made and have fried a perfectly juicy and crisp turkey, no brine or injection necessary! In addition to frying with the legs down (they get exposed to more heat that way), it's all got to do with carryover cooking—the rise in temperature that occurs in large pieces of meat after you remove them from their cooking mediums.

It helps to refer back to the diagram I had in my original post representing the way a turkey cooks from the outside in. For those of you who were asking, the temperature gradient illustrated here is one that I developed by probing the turkey breast to different depths with an instant read thermometer. For the sake of easy illustration, I'm representing the turkey breasts as cylinders.


So. On the left, you've got the temperature gradient of a turkey breast roasted in the oven. By the time the very center is 150°F, the very outer layers are at around 180°. After pulling it out of the oven, this hotter outer portion continues to give energy to the center of the bird, causing the temperature to rise by around 5 degrees or so, bringing you to a final temperature of 155°F. Nice and moist.

The mistake I made was to assume that in a fried turkey, this carryover cooking would be similar to a roasted turkey. I pulled the bird out of the fryer when the very center was at 150°F. Because of the high energy of hot oil, a fried turkey breast shows a much greater temperature differential than a regular roasted turkey breast. The exterior gets to above 200 degrees. Consequently, the carryover cooking is far greater. In fact, my turkey breast ended up carrying over to nearly 165°F! Anyone who follows the USDA guidelines for cooking meat knows that a 165°F bird is a dry bird.

So all I had to do to make sure my turkey remained moist was to pull it out of the fryer much earlier. By pulling it out at around 145°F, it rises to a final temperature of around 155°F, giving you results that are quite moist and juicy. I fried one even lower (to 135°F), and it was even better, though the almost medium-rare quality of the meat might be offputting to some. Yes, the very outer layers still get to above 200°F, and frankly, there's no way I can think of to prevent that, so you will always have a slightly thicker layer of overcooked meat in fried turkey than in a properly roasted turkey, but it's an understandable tradeoff for better skin, better dark meat, and a much faster cooking time.

If you are willing to brine your bird, it can also mitigate these effects. Personally, I prefer an unbrined bird, as I find brining dilutes flavor in an unpleasant way.

Frying Tips


Frying a turkey is pretty simple, but here are some safety tips and tricks to making sure that your bird remains moist and crisp.

  • Get a real turkey fryer.
  • Don't try and use a stock pot. Don't use something that the turkey barely fits in. Don't use a hot plate. Don't put your pot on a grill. Three gallons of hot oil is nothing to fool around with, so start with the right equipment. The Bayou Classic is easy to set up, inexpensive, and sturdy.

  • Safety first. Make sure that your frying area is not near any structure or trees. Cook over stone, dirt, sand, or some other non-flammable surface. Keep children and pets away at all times. I use a large dog fence to cordon off the frying area. Have grease fire extinguishers handy, and above all, be careful!
  • Use a small bird. Using a large bird will only exacerbate the uneven cooking problem. Additionally, you run the risk of burning the skin before the center cooks through. A 10 to 12 pound bird is ideal, and should fee 8 to 10 people.
  • Use peanut oil. Peanut oil is one of the most highly saturated vegetable-derived oils and as such, produces crisper results. It also has a very high smoke point, which means that it's got a longer life, allowing you to reuse it multiple times before you've got to discard it.
  • Defrost the bird! Frozen turkey + hot oil = disaster.
  • Brine, inject, or season as desired. A brine or injections is not necessary for a juicy bird (I prefer mine without), but it's good extra insurance from overcooking can add flavor to your bird if you're into that. Either way, pat your turkey dry before frying it.
  • Measure your oil before you heat it. Nothing it worse than lowering a turkey into the fryer only to realize that you haven't added enough oil and the top of its sticking out. Ok, perhaps lowering it and having the oil overflow is worse. To avoid either of these problems, place your turkey into the cold fryer and add oil until the turkey is just covered. Remove your turkey, and heat the oil up to 350°F. You are now ready to cook, and have the exact right amount of oil.
  • Turn off the flame. If there's one safety tape to take home, let it be this one. By shutting off the flame under your pot before lowering your turkey, you can absolutely prevent your pot of oil from catching on fire—an all-too-common mishap. Shut it off, then relight it using a long match or long-tipped lighter after the turkey is safely in the pot.
  • Lower the bird slowly. It should take at least a minute to get your turkey into its hot oil bath (Thank the maker, this oil bath is going to feel so good!) Any faster, and you seriously risk boil overs.
  • Use a thermometer, not a timer. A timer is good for general guidelines, but a thermometer is the only way to guarantee that your bird is cooked to the right degree. Start checking the bird about 25 minutes into cooking. You want the coolest part of the breast to register 145°F before extracting it. Your oil temperature should be maintained at between 325 and 350°F while frying.
  • Let it rest.
  • This is absolutely essential. Cut it open immediately, and your exterior will be dry and your center undercooked. Allowing it to rest allows the temperature to equilibrate and for the juices to redistribute to make sure that every bite is relatively even in terms of moisture.

Scan through the slideshow at the top for some step-by-step photos.

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