Baked, fried or smoked? Loyalists double-down on turkey strategies

Nov. 23—Turkey-crazed shoppers are flocking to stores across Haywood County this week on a quest for the perfect centerpiece for their Thanksgiving table.

With rock-bottom prices on turkeys this Thanksgiving season, people are buying birds hand-over-fist.

Undoubtedly, turkey-related questions flood Google search results in the days before Thanksgiving: "How do you cook a turkey," "How do you safely deep-fry a turkey?" and "What turkey brand is best?"

While the prices are low, the stakes are high. Success or failure determines how many guests will come back next year.

Yet where to start? There are so many ways to cook a bird: oven-roasted, deep-fried, smoked, brined and the list does on.

Kitti McPherson, who was scouring the turkey case at the grocery store over the weekend, said she discovered the "low and slow" method a couple of years ago.

"I couldn't even believe it would work," she said. "It was 275 degrees and came out tender, cooked, and it wasn't dry."

While McPherson and her partner are having Thanksgiving at a friend's house, they'll be cooking their own turkey anyway.

"We want leftovers," she said.

Kyle Hess, who was shopping with his wife, said they switch up their recipe every Thanksgiving, and this year's recipe is still to be determined.

"It's fun to try something new each year," he said. "We're still at the picking-the-turkey stage, and everything else will come later."

In his book, there are some minimum requirements for a proper bird recipe, though.

"The most important thing is slathering some butter on it every once in a while when you open the oven up to keep it moist," Hess said. "Other than that, whatever suits your fancy."

The Hess family does have one thing on which they won't budge: brand.

"It has to be Butterball," he said. "It's a family tradition. That's what mom and bad bought, so that's what we buy."

Last year, Hess was finally passed the torch, or rather the carving knife, when he and his wife hosted Thanksgiving for the first time at their home — marking a rite of passage into adulthood.

"I cut the turkey for the first time last year," said Hess, who is in his 30s. "My dad finally showed me how to do it. He said, 'If you cook it at your house, you've got to cut it.'"

Dedee and Keith Hall now swear by smoking their turkey after making the switch five years ago.

"We bought a smoker and tried it, and it worked out good," Dedee Hall said. The couple uses an electric PitBoss smoker, but getting the right result is complex.

"We use apple chips and put apple juice in there, too, as the water base," DeDee Hall said. "We add chips every couple of hours. It takes anywhere between 6-12 hours, depending on the turkey size."

Is all that work worth it?

"Oh yeah," she said. "It's juicier and more tender. It turns brown on the outside, and the meat just falls off the bone when you take it out."

Perhaps the most elite group in turkey circles are the deep-fryers — those Thanksgiving Day daredevils who risk life and limb each year to deliver sublime results. The first time taking the plunge naturally comes with some trepidation, however.

"We were pretty scared about it, but we looked it up online," said Matt Sanders, who will deep fry his turkey for the seventh straight year.

He said that one key to staying safe when using a deep fryer is to cut down on any moisture in or outside the bird.

"This turkey will not be in the fridge," Sanders said. "We'll set it out for four days so there's no moisture."

Sanders has nearly a dozen people attending Thanksgiving at his house this year, so he's looking for a 17-19 pound turkey.

"We inject it [with Tony Chachere's Creole Style Butter Marinade] and put a Creole dry rub on the top," Sanders said.

A quick pot-to-table time is a reward for those willing to take the deep-frying challenge.

"It takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and it's juicy and crispy," Sanders said. "We're getting better at it each time. There's no going back."