Dry-Brined Deep-Fried Turkey Leg

by rivka on November 6, 2013

in main dishes, techniques, Thanksgiving

By now, surely you’ve heard the news: Thanksgiving and the first night of Hanukkah are one and the same. Once-in-a-lifetime doesn’t quite capture the specialness of this event: Thanksgivukkah happens only once every 79,000 years. To us cooks, that means one thing: better make that meal unforgettable.

I knew immediately that no matter what else graced our Thanksgivukkah table, there would be turkey-fat-fried latkes. In truth, I supplemented what little turkey fat I managed to render with some schmaltz from the freezer, but my taste testers were none the wiser. I also knew that these latkes would contain both potatoes and sweet potatoes, and I knew I’d be topping them with cranberry applesauce – the clear no-brainer of the menu. I briefly considered adding some toasted marshmallows overtop, but that seemed like overkill. (Instead, we’ll be topping our butternut squash soup with toasted marshmallows. They’ve got to go somewhere.)

I briefly dreamed of one monster dish, a sandwich of latkes, cranberry apple sauce, roasted turkey, and gravy piled high and eaten with plenty of napkins. But Thanksgiving is a time for refined fare; we’ll save the Thanksgivukkah sandwich for Black Friday. (Fortunately, Food52 took care of the details here.)

Most Thanksgiving meals feature a whole bird as the piece de resistance. I’m still debating whether or not to bother: breast and leg simply do not cook at the same rate, so why not cook the parts separately and make each as delicious as possible?

Beautiful as a whole bird is, the great appeal of cooking the turkey in pieces is that it allows us home cooks to make something previously relegated to those willing to cook Thanksgiving dinner in a flame-resistant body suit: deep-fried turkey.

Whole, deep-fried turkey is not only challenging, it’s dangerous. Most of the DIY turkey-fryer kits I’ve seen include long gloves, and some even include goggles. It’s the definition of “don’t try this at home.” But if you’re willing to cut up the turkey, the leg is a very manageable piece of meat to fry, and much, much less scary. What better way to commemorate the oil lasting for 8 nights than to take (way more than) 8 nights’ worth of oil and crisp up a drumstick?

Even better, I dry-brined the turkey before deep-frying it. God, did it burst with flavor. The dry brine, borrowed from Bon Appetit, is by far the best I’ve had.

No surprise here: deep-fried turkey leg is delicious. It cooks more evenly than roasted leg, and the meat within stays ultra-tender and juicy. If you time things right, you’ll also get skin so crispy, you can eat it like a chip.

And just as many southerners swear by day-old fried chicken straight from the fridge, this deep-fried turkey leg may actually improve with age.

It’s a Thanksgivukkah miracle.

Dry-Brined, Deep-Fried Turkey Leg
Dry brine adapted slightly from Bon Appetit

Dry brine flavors your bird without requiring a huge pot and a mess in your fridge. Like a dry rub, you rub it all over the bird and then let it rest uncovered in the fridge for a couple of days to soak up the flavor. Then you rinse it off, dry up those legs, and fry (or roast!) them into awesomeness.

Seriously, I roasted a leg to test it as well. It was every bit as delicious as the deep-fried version, and I think I liked the caramelized flavor it developed better than the super-even-throughout thing the deep-fried leg had going on. Roast at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour, maybe more, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165 degrees. Set on a plate and tent with foil to rest for 5 or so minutes before eating. Perfection.

Dry-Brined Deep-Fried Turkey
Inspired by Bon Appetit’s dry-brined turkey
Serves 4

Special equipment: digital thermometer (optional, but very helpful)
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar (or maple sugar, if you have it)
1 teaspoon chile flakes
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 whole star anise (or 1 ½ tablespoons of star anise pieces)
1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
4 turkey legs
1 gallon vegetable oil (canola, peanut, or grapeseed will work, too)

In a small pan, toast anise and fennel over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar along with chile flakes, and grind until mostly smooth. Pour into a bowl and add salt, brown sugar, and thyme. Stir to combine.

Wipe turkey legs with a damp paper towel and set on a large plate. Rub dry brine all over turkey. Then transfer the plate to the refrigerator and chill, uncovered, for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days.

Pour the oil into a very large stock pot or other large pot. (A 21-quart canning pot works very well, but my largest stock pot also worked perfectly.) Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot, turn the heat to medium-high, and bring the oil to 300 degrees. (The thermometer typically lags the oil temperature a bit, so when the thermometer reads 300, the oil is probably hotter; that said, once you add the turkey legs, the heat will drop significantly, so don’t worry too much about small fluctuations in temperature.

While the oil heats up, rinse the dry brine off your turkey and dry very, very thoroughly. Any liquid that remains on the turkey will splatter when it hits the oil, so be sure to wipe the turkey legs several times (using paper towels) until they are bone-dry. Set the legs on a clean plate. You’ll be cooking them two at a time.

Stick the heat-safe end of your digital thermometer into the largest of your turkey legs. Starting with that leg, carefully add it to the pot: hold the leg by its thin end, and set it gently into the oil, round end first. While I found gloves unnecessary, you definitely want an apron, and you might consider long sleeves. If your legs are dry, the oil will sizzle a bit, but it will not splatter.

Add a second turkey leg to the pot. Then set your digital thermometer to notify you when the turkey legs have reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees. In my pot, that took about 20 minutes. If you’re nervous about undercooking, 22-23 minutes should definitely do the trick.

When the turkey legs are done, carefully remove them from the oil using long, heatsafe tongs. Transfer the finished legs to yet another clean plate and allow them to rest for at least 3-5 minutes before digging in. Cook the remaining legs in the same manner.

Serve with turkey fat-fried latkes and cranberry applesauce. Happy Thanksgivukkah!

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