Why Deep Frying Turkey Can Go Very Wrong

Turkey fryer

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and that means Americans across the United States will be cooking up a turkey feast. One of the most popular ways to cook the bird is by deep frying it in oil.

Local TV stations everywhere spend this week warning about turkey frying. They’re not wrong… if things get out of hand you can end up burning down your house, if not your entire street. Let’s talk the science behind November turkey fires, and hopefully avoid a turkeyferno.

Simple Errors

The typical setup for deep frying a turkey involves lowering the bird into a big pot full of oil sitting on a gas burner. Ropes and pulleys are often used to lower the turkey into the pot to avoid getting one’s hands near the hot oil. Ideally, this should be done in a backyard, away from structures, to provide good ventilation and plenty of room in the case something does go wrong.

Overfilling the deep fryer is a great way to start a big fire on Thanksgiving. Credit: Ogden Fire Department

It all sounds fairly straight forward, but there are two ways that this often goes wrong, leading to leaping flames and calls to the fire department. The first of all is simple: overfilling. Lowering a turkey into oil will necessarily displace that oil. A pot filled to the brim will thus overflow the second the turkey enters the pot, with hot oil streaming down the sides of the cooking vessel directly towards the gas burner below. It’s a beginner’s mistake, but one that happens all too often. To avoid this, it’s important to account for the volume of the turkey before dropping it in the pot, to avoid starting a conflagration.

The second major cause of turkey fires is from attempting to deep fry a frozen turkey. The ice on the frozen turkey quickly turns to steam when it comes into contact with the hot oil. The steam rapidly expands, creating bubbles and quickly throwing hot foaming oil all over the place. This can easily cause severe burns by itself, but the presence of a gas burner only increases the danger. The hot aerosolized oil typically catches fire, either from the burner itself or simply the hot surfaces in the vicinity, and quickly creates a huge fireball.

Oil can be seen flying out of the pot thanks to the steam generated by the frozen turkey. Credit: Ogden Fire Department

It’s similar to the way molten aluminium reacts poorly with water and leads to dangerous foundry explosions, albeit without the chemical reactions that happen in the aluminium case. It’s a simple fact that letting excess ice or water come into contact with hot liquids above 212°F often leads to disaster.

Thankfully, these issues are similarly easy to avoid with the proper forward planning. The first step is to properly defrost the turkey, which usually takes at least 24 hours in the refrigerator per 5 pounds of meat. Check the inside and outside of the turkey for ice crystals to ensure it’s defrosted all the way through.

Water can then be used as a simple way to check for the proper oil level. Put the turkey in the frying pot, then fill the vessel with water up to a safe level. Remove the turkey, and note the level of the water remaining in the pot. This is how much oil you must put in the pot.

Keeping the oil at or below 350°F makes fire less likely and also avoids spoiling the turkey with nasty burnt oil flavors. Additionally, a great tip that few people think of is to turn off the gas burner before lowering the turkey into the oil. That way, if there is a spillage or other accident, there’s a much better chance that the oil won’t ignite. Once the turkey is safely nestled in the fryer, it’s a simple matter to light it back up again.

It also pays to have a fire extinguisher on hand suitable for cooking oil and fats. Wet chemical extinguishers are the most effective against these fires. A fire blanket can also be a useful in such situations. Plus, if you’ve chosen your spot well, and you’re not deep frying in a garage, under a patio or on a wooden deck, it’s less likely any incident will get out of control.

Avoiding hot burning oil spraying all over your guests and backyard is often cited as key to enjoying any holiday season, not just Thanksgiving. Thus, armed with this knowledge and the tips we discussed today, you should be ready to deep fry your turkey for Thanksgiving with an absolute minimum of personal injuries and property damage. Eat well and have fun out there!

P.S. Get it defrosting now! Don’t wait!

92 thoughts on “Why Deep Frying Turkey Can Go Very Wrong

      1. It is really good stuff when deep-fried correctly. It is just hard to do it correctly.

        I personally like pressure-cooked deep fried turkey, but you have to have a buddy who works at a KFC for that kind of thing.

        1. I do sous vide turkey roasts. A turkey roast is basically a small turkey deboned and then rolled and tied into a cylinder. Sous Vide that for a few hours and pop out of the bag and brown with a torch. Some of the best turkey ever. Turkey haters ever loved it.

          1. Giving ‘boiling’ a fancy frog name doesn’t make it a better way to cook.

            At least you aren’t doing it to good food, just turkey, should be banned from buying beef.

          2. Although the video seems too exagerated on the dumb side of people (but with americans we never know) gold is always in the hackaday’s comments :

            I must agree with “sous vide” turkey.

            “Sous vide” turkey, will keep the delicious perfumes, and slow, low temp cooking will preserve meat quality and taste. My #1 recipe for a “special-tasting” meat.

            A Frog.

          3. for NoScottishCooking: Sous Vide isn’t at boiling temperature. It’s at the temperature that you’d want the meet to reach, but not exceed. For turkey, I’d expect that to be 165-170F. (It can be lower because “safe” temps assume just hitting that temp for an instant. The same anti-bacterial effect can be had with lower temps for longer. At that point, it’s more of a texture issue so 165 is probably still optimal.) The benefit is that it never gets “too done.”

          4. Lol, its not boiling. The idea is cooking at a controlled low temperature for a long period to kill anything bad without cooking the crap out of it like though normal means. Keeping it sealed in a container like a vacuum bag and using water is ideal since the mass of the water makes it easier to maintain a specific temperature, thats why it is used in chemistry to regulate reactions, you could use oil too, it does not matter since the fluid never touches the food.

            For turkey I cook at 145f for about 4 hours due to the thickness. Pork is great sous vide. You can make tenderloin that is safe to eat in its rare state. Want to make edible cookie dough? Sous vide the eggs to pasteurize them. And steaks… I cook ribeyes at 127.5f for about 1.5hrs for a thick one and finish with a torch and it’s some of the best steaks we have ever had, even using cheap supermarket ribeyes.

          5. sous vide for the win. Whenever I don’t want to overcook meat it’s my go to. Most people don’t realize that is how all steaks are cooked at the high end steak houses and just assume it is boiling the meat.

  1. Tastes pretty good but overrated unless maybe you want to cook several. Turkey + oil + propane + heating up the oil + letting it cool down + figuring out what the heck to do with 4 gallons of used oil + brining or seasoning it + finding space in the fridge for it for 2 days + spending maybe 75 bucks for turkey and oil = pain in the neck. Buy smoked turkey. Warm it up. Done.

        1. Here I recommend buying an old Mercedes from 60s. No fine filtering or modifications needed. Just be sure there are no visible pieces of chicken nuggets in the oil :D. It eats through everything otherwise.. even half solid oil in the winter :D

          1. Tarpan Honker with Andoria 4C90 engine will also run fine on both cooking and heating oil. Just make sure it’s 4C90 and not 4CT90 – the later are unreliable (swap is cheap tho). Also avoid ADCR (common raill version of 4CT90). It may support EURO5 but it’s total and utter turd.

            If looking for good truck look for Star 200 or ex-military Star 266. They are also pretty reliable.

    1. The oil can be reused a few times. Could deep fry some french fries or fried chicken, or use it a teaspoon at a time in pan frying. After that, there are places that will recycle the stuff, and of course it can be used as diesel fuel after thorough filtering.

  2. I was always fascinated by this method to cook turkey and by the ads that promotes machines to do so.
    I personally wouldn’t do this because it seems to me risky for my home (fire) and for my health (fat).

    1. Turkeys come out tender and juicy. Takes 30-40 minutes. I can’t see doing just one though. Really good for large gathering. Or a neighborhood thing. The oil can be used to fry other stuff too, potatoes, bread… It’s different, quick

    1. I ‘think’ it is mostly a Southern thing. When I was down there on the job once in Louisiana, the guy I worked with invited my wife and I over for dinner. This is the way they cooked it. It was quite moist if I remember correctly (back in the 90s). We always roast ours up north. Of course outside temp may have something to do with it too :) . Tomorrow we should have a high of 44F up here in MT.

  3. In Scotland I can walk to the closest chippy and get a deep fried pizza, and a deep fried marsbar right now, infact they probably have a few ready to go, but a deep fried whole turkey. You Americans are just weird.

        1. Ah yes the Irish invented that I believe.
          ( at this point the instructions say ‘after lighting the fuse step back till the firework goes off, at no point return to the firework even if it looks like it has gone out’ )

          1. Honestly on reading about whisky a bit i’m not sure i’d call it a Irish nor a scottish invention. Genuinely seems like it was more a product of the region as every region distilled “Aqua vitae” in their own way depending on the ingredients they could work with. The former Gaelic regions sharing a lot resulting in the type of spirit that what would later turn into Whisky getting distilled all over the place.

          2. When you drink your whisky all that matters is that it comes from a little island called Islay.

            I’m not knocking the Irish stuff or the USA stuff. After all they’re really good for window cleaning and parts washing.

      1. No one drinks warm beer. Room temperature beer though, sure. We only chill drinks we don’t like the taste of at room temperature. If you can only drink your beer cold it means it’s no good.

        1. Or it’s because the beer was designed to be drunk cold – like most lagers.

          It’s the same how airline food has extra salt and sugar in it. You start to lose your sense of smell and taste at the lower air pressure and low humidity air inside the cabin, so they add more seasonings. Even the background noise makes a difference, because you can’t hear things like how the food crunches or snaps between your teeth. If you make food that tastes good at cruise altitude, it tastes bad at sea level, and vice versa.

      2. Beer has only been cold for the last hundred years. Before refrigeration it was all warm. The whole point of beer and wine is that they kill the bacteria in the water and make it possible to drink. You can’t store water in a wooden barrel without bacterial contamination but you can store beer or wine in it and drink it over months.

        1. Except again, lager, which was made and kept in cellars in the winter. “Lagering” is a thing that goes back to medieval times. In the 19th century before mechanical refrigeration, ice was stored in the winter under stacks of hay and used to keep lager in the summer. It couldn’t be brewed in the summer though since the fermentation makes enough heat that you’d run out of ice.

          And the strength of beer or wine isn’t enough to keep bacterial contamination out. If you had a contaminated barrel, it would turn to vinegar because the bacteria ate the ethanol. It’s rather that in the process of brewing you boil the water and wash the barrels, even char the insides on an open flame or burn sulfur inside them to sterilize them etc. because you want to make beer instead of sour filth – so you had to perform these “magic” tricks that people had found reduced the chances of fouling a barrel.

  4. Why….?????

    I can’t think of a worse way to cook a turkey.
    And deep-fat frying over an open flame is asking for trouble, hard to believe it’s common these days, but I guess that’s the US/U.K. divide, both in common sense and obesity…

  5. I’m not sure the Americans are weird as such, but their measurement system is. So:
    212°F = 373.15 kelvin (as in: 100°C)
    350°F = 449.816667 kelvin (as in: 170°C)
    4 gallons of used oil = 15,1416471 litre of used oil
    2 days = 172800 seconds
    maybe 75 bucks = (or may be) € 66,99

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Filling the pot with water just before you start cooking risks leaving a bunch of water droplets at the bottom. You really don’t want ANY water pooling under the hot oil.

      I was making fries once, blanching the potatoes in boiling water first, then using the same pot for the oil. I forgot to wipe the last water droplets off before I put the oil in and put the pot back on the stove. Few minutes later it started making loud popping noises and spraying oil everywhere. A pea-sized droplet of water will rapidly expand to the size of a plum and displace as much oil as it boils off to steam.

    2. Sorry Glen, I have to call you out on that one. That’s plainly false.
      Oil and water are not very different in expansion coefficient.
      Water at 100 C is 96% as dense as when it is 10 C
      Oil at 100 C is 94% as dense as it is at 10 C

      At 140 C it even closer: 92.5% vs 91.3%

  6. Do what the rest of the civilized world does and stick it in the oven. Yes, you have to start it early in the morning, but as a bonus you’ll still have a home to watch the game in later.

  7. > Avoiding hot burning oil spraying all over your guests and backyard

    … Wow y’all have lame parties then :)

    Excellent line.

    What do most people do with the oil after they’ve fried a turkey? Even when doing my heavily breaded and seasoned chicken nuggets 10 and 20lb at a time i’d get several fryer load batches through the oil before the Burnt Crispy Bits built up to the point of needing to filter the oil.

    If you’ve got that much oil already hot you owe it to everybody to at least do a run of onion rings or some other such treat.

    1. Fries, apple fritters, etc.

      Then let it cool to handling temperature, strain and bottle for future cooking use. Try not to disturb the sediment when straining – it’s ok to dispose of the bottom 5-10%. Also, don’t let it get too cold because it won’t strain as easily. A temperature that would be as hot as you could comfortablly hold in a mug would be ideal.

  8. Thaw turkey starting the morning before, in cold water, with a trickle constantly running (or change the water every half hour).

    Brine overnight; plain old salt and water, in a COLD location (if it won’t fit in the fridge).

    Rinse like hell; roast unstuffed, breast-down for 45 minutes or so at 400F. Flip over (silicone oven mitts! watch out for liquid pooling in the cavity!) Reduce to 325F and roast until the breast registers 165-170F. “Upside down” lets the back fat melt and drip into the breast. Total cook time, about three hours for a 15 lb bird. Juicy and tender.

    In lieu of stuffing, a separate casserole of dressing.

    I like smoked turkey…but the rest of the family demands my homemade gravy. :(

          1. Now don’t get me wrong boasting about the size of something is quite common, but ‘take a look at my fridge’ as a chat up line is a new one on me

    1. What did he do with so many turkeys? If he actually knew what he was doing it might have been a good idea to have him frying enough turkeys for all the properties around him, compared to each of those properties frying their own.

      1. he was one of those types who would give out the world to his buddies to get his name out, and obviously he did not know what he was doing (with turkeys and life since him, wife and 3 kids lived in mother in laws house) watch the video in the article …. then picture that going 8 times inside a timber frame garage… built in 1992

      1. lbs or £’s makes a bit difference if I’m happy or sad [mostly sad hence on this site posting this crap] [ and a facebook ban for a day or two has nothing to do with it]

  9. As a quick psa, If you have fryer oil to get rid of in almost any quantity just contact any local resteraunt and ask if they will take it. A lot of restaurants actually get paid for their used oil. There is a big bin that the restaurant stores the oil in and a company comes and recycles it.

  10. Ogden, Utah is my home town. I moved my family to Texas this year for an amazing job opportunity, but this is our first Thanksgiving away from the extended family and it is a real boost to see my hometown firefighters being featured here! ❤️

  11. Commenting as a guy from the UK, I heard about these on various BBQ sites I frequent and imported one 6 years ago. Let me tell you, if done correctly, its amazing and no more risky than deep frying chips. Moist and juicy is my description. It”s now a tradition when lots of people come over to use it to make en mas KFC or bulk loads of chips/fries. Excellent bit of kit but dangerous in the wrong hands!

  12. A turkey fire is super simple to avoid and I’m surprised the author didn’t mention this. You simply turn the gas off the burner for a few minutes before you put the turkey in the pot. Problem solved because if you’re dumb or inexperienced enough to let the oil overflow or foam up from a frozen turkey, it won’t catch fire. Just make sure you clean up your mess before you relight your burner. Same procedure when you remove the turkey.

  13. There are also electric turkey fryers that control the temperature digitally and are designed obviously without flames so if you get a spill-over it runs down the side and not the internals.

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