Deep Frying a Turkey for Thanksgiving – Yes, No, Maybe?

If you answered Yes or Maybe, then this article is for you!

According to the U.S Fire Administration (USFA) between 2011 and 2013 more than twice as many residential fires were reported on Thanksgiving Day on average than any other day of the year. Approximately 72% of those Thanksgiving Day fires are cooking fires!

I have never had the pleasure of experiencing a deep fried turkey; however, I hear it’s a truly unique treat encased in a crispy brown crust. This delicious parcel of poultry does come with a caveat: It is the MOST dangerous way to cook a turkey. Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) – an independent product testing company – will NOT certify any turkey fryer with the trusted UL Mark because of their inherent unsafe design and operation.  The primary hazards are fire and burn injuries. I am sure most people have seen videos of turkey fryers erupting into fireballs.

Deep Frying vs. Oven Roasting

A little background science would be a good place to start. The biggest advantage of deep frying is time.  What may take 3 – 4 hours in the oven may only take 30 minutes in the deep fryer. In deep frying, heat is transferred to the turkey via the hot oil, while in roasting heat is transferred via the hot air in the oven.

Matter can exist in three forms: a solid, a liquid or a gas. The hot liquid oil transfers heat faster to the turkey than the hot air in an oven. Heat transfers between substances when their molecules collide.  Since liquid cooking oil is denser than air, its molecules are more closely packed together. This means the oil can transfer more heat than air per unit volume and time. Here is a simple analogy: you can put your hand in a 350°F degree oven and not get burned, but you would not put your hand in a pot of 212°F degree boiling water.

There are some other advantages to deep frying versus oven roasting. First, because the turkey is completely submerged in hot oil, the outside gets that characteristic crispy deep brown crust and appealing aromas. The hot oil reacts with the proteins and sugars in the turkey’s skin to create a complex set of flavors. As the heat continues to quickly vaporize the moisture on the turkey’s skin, the process speeds up and the flavors become more and more concentrated.

Also, the temperature of the oil remains fairly constant as it spreads into every nook and cranny of the turkey resulting in even cooking. This uniformity is more difficult to achieve in traditional oven roasting because of variances in temperature and possible poor heat circulation within the oven.

Basic Ground Rules for Deep Frying a Turkey

Based on my experience conducting accident investigations, I will never use the term “common sense” as it is subjective, undefinable, and surely not measurable.

If you are planning on deep frying a turkey this year, let’s set some basic ground rules.

Rule #1. Never set the deep fryer up in an enclosed structure, on an attached porch, deck or any other combustible surface or with any combustibles nearby.  A porch or deck fire can quickly spread to the main structure with potentially catastrophic results.

Rule #2. Make sure there are no children or pets in the area of the deep fryer

Rule #3. On Thanksgiving there is a lot of socializing taking place, which may include the consumption of alcoholic beverages.  If any guests have been drinking, do not allow them near the cooking area as alcohol increases the chance of stumbling, tripping, falling or losing one’s balance.

Rule #4. The cook, who will most likely be the host, should be sober, alert, and maintain a safe zone around the deep fryer as there is a potential for liability.

Preparations

When you’re ready to start cooking, everything should be ready to go. An old boss once told me to always remember the five “Ps”: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

The deep fryer should be placed on level ground and be steadied. The deep fryer is top-heavy, making it more prone to tip over and some of the earlier models only have three legs.

The sides of the cooking pot, lid and pot handles will get dangerously hot, posing severe burn hazards.

To determine how much oil to use, place the turkey in the pot and fill with water to just cover the turkey.  Remove the turkey and measure the amount of water and that will be the amount of oil to use. This will prevent overfilling the pot with oil, which may result in a spill over when the turkey is inserted. When the spilled oil hits the burner flame, it catches fire – which will engulf the entire unit.

The cook should never place the turkey into the hot oil by hand. The turkey should be secured to a metal hook attached to a metal cable which can be looped over a swing set crossbar, tree branch or other suitable setup.  Prior to cooking, do a practice run to ensure the turkey will drop directly into the center of the pot without hitting the top or sides.  This will prevent the possibility of tipping over the pot of oil.

Check out our Fire Safety Guide for more tips on preventing fires!

Cooking

The fireballs that I mentioned above are caused when a frozen, partially thawed, or wet turkey is submerged in hot cooking oil. To prevent this from happening, the turkey must be completely thawed and free of excess water. Don’t forget to check the turkey’s cavity for water, pieces of ice, and yes, that little package of giblets that needs to be removed.

Scenario of a Fireball

In order to deep fry effectively, cooking oil should be heated to approximately 350°F. Water boils at 212°F. Many people are familiar with an old method of testing oil to see if it has reached frying temperature by flicking a few drops of water into the pan. If it sizzles it’s good to go. That sizzle is the water immediately vaporizing, which can pick up some oil in the process and splash back. I think everyone who cooks has experienced that feeling.

Now, let’s step this up a bit and substitute the few drops of water for a frozen 15 lbs. turkey and the small amount of pan oil for several gallons of 350 degree F cooking oil. The vaporization that will occur will pick up oil in the form of a mist. This oil infused mist will come into contact with the burner and ignite, setting off a chain reaction. The resulting fireball will engulf the entire cooking setup.

The flash point, temperature at which a material will ignite, of commonly used cooking oils is about 600°F. That temperature will be achieved when the mist contacts the burner.

Before deep frying your turkey, I strongly recommend googling several videos to see just how fast the fireball erupts and how violent and dangerous it is. There are also YouTube videos sponsored by fire departments that contain very useful safety information.

So, do your due diligence to ensure a safe Thanksgiving, a delicious turkey – and use your phone to call family and friends instead of 911.