Every year, I hear some Thanksgiving horror stories more serious than burning the turkey or getting food poisoning from the meat not being cooked through. A charred, inedible bird may ruin dinner, but sooner or later it will become a funny story. Even if a meal that winds up on the floor (in the style of A Christmas Story) makes a mess, the permanent damage is limited beyond a couple of serving plates.
One type of Thanksgiving disaster really is a disaster, critical enough to destroy your home or even your health: the deep-fried turkey gone wrong. Americans have reported more than 125 fires, 55 injuries, and $6,000,000 in property damage to the Consumer Products Safety Commission just since 2003. With the popularity of deep-fried turkeys appearing to grow unabated, we can expect this holiday season to bring additional hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage – not to mention the cost of potentially serious injuries.
Too much oil, too big turkeys, too high temperatures, too close proximity to homes, and too few safety precautions are all factors that can cause deep-frying a turkey to go horribly wrong. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Are Safety Precautions Enough?
Even celebrity and fried turkey enthusiast William Shatner has publicly cautioned aspiring deep-fryer aficionados about the dangers of turkey-related “fryer fires” (repeatedly).
In his public safety announcements, Shatner warns of the hazards of failing to practice proper safety precautions and carefully adhere to the instructions for minimizing risk during the deep-frying process.
The dangers are so great that some safety organizations actually discourage amateurs from ever frying a turkey. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) “continues to believe that turkey fryers that use oil, as currently designed, are not suitable for acceptably safe use by even a well-informed and careful consumer.” Despite changes in the design of turkey fryers that do address specific safety concerns, NFPA goes so far as to dismiss the idea “that consumer education alone can make the risks of either type of turkey fryer acceptably low.”
Protective hand gear is necessary for avoiding burns, but an oven mitt alone won’t make the deep-frying process safe. Take precautions, prepare your cooking and safety equipment in advance, and pay attention throughout the cooking process. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Deep-Frying Tips for Turkeys
If you do choose to deep-fry a turkey, though, consumer education is essential. From how to get a turkey ready for the fryer to how to get a problem under control before it becomes full-fledged disaster, attention and preparation are the keys to making sure your Thanksgiving feast doesn’t go up in flames (and take your home with it).
Frozen Is Not Your Friend
When deep-frying a turkey, always thaw the bird first. In fact, don’t just thaw a frozen turkey, but make sure that it is completely dry by clearing away any remaining frost or ice crystals and patting it dry. Otherwise, the water and ice can react explosively and cause a fire, just like it does in this video.
Pass (on) the Stuffing
If you’re deep-frying a turkey, you’ll have to either forgo the stuffing or bake it separately in the oven. To cook properly, the entire turkey needs to be exposed to the hot oil. Filling the bird with stuffing prevents that and could mean your turkey never reaches the minimum internal temperature necessary for consumption. You can, however, flavor the turkey by injecting it with a marinade.
Too Much Turkey
Less is more. In fact, even Butterball – a company that has a vested interest in selling more turkey rather than less – recommends against deep-frying a whole turkey that weighs more than 14 pounds. The National Turkey Federation actually suggests eight to 10 pound turkeys are ideal for frying. Their small size allows them to cook quickly, so that the meat is done and the skin doesn’t burn. More importantly, it’s much easier to safely lower small turkey into a pot filled with gallons of hot oil than it is to do with a large turkey.
A smaller turkey ends up with golden-brown skin like this when it’s done in the deep-fryer, but attempting to fry too big a turkey leave the skin charred and dry by the time the meat is cooked through. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
The Perfect Cooking Environment
Unfortunately, there is none. Never attempt to deep-fry a turkey with oil inside your home using fryers powered by propane fuel. Never use a turkey fryer near the outside of your home. Never use one on a wooden deck or patio. Essentially, keep your cooking station far away from any potentially flammable material.
A major reason so much property damage results from deep-frying turkeys is that people use them too close to their home or to another flammable structure, like a deck. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Cooking outside presents a problem of its own, especially in November. Raindrops or snow flurries that land in hot oil can make as big (and dangerous) a mess as a frozen or wet turkey. You don’t want to hide out under a tent or tarp, either, since both are flammable. Have a backup plan for preparing your turkey in case the weather doesn’t cooperate with your frying plans.
(Don’t) Fill the Pot
A turkey fryer can hold as much as 5 gallons of oil, which is a lot, especially if it begins sputtering and catches on fire. Some pots will have lines marking the highest point it is safe for you to fill with oil. If not, don’t just eyeball it. The safest way to determine how much oil you need is to do a practice run. Put your turkey in the pot, and then fill the pot with enough water (not oil) to submerge the turkey. Carefully remove the turkey and measure how much water you needed to use to cover it. Dump out the water and dry both the pot and the turkey before adding that same amount of oil. The National Turkey Federation urges deep-fryers to always make sure they leave at least three to five inches of space in the pot so that they can safely lower the turkey into the oil and pull it back out when it’s done.
Only use as much oil as you need to cover the turkey. Not only does this reduce the risk of a fire, but it also decreases the amount of wasted oil (and money). Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons licence).
To deep-fry properly, the oil must be at least 350 degrees. Begin heating the oil before you put the turkey in to make sure it reaches this temperature. Allowing the oil to get too hot – closer to the 400-degree mark – can contribute to fires. To avoid this danger, keep a careful eye on the flame and the thermometer. Don’t let the flame grow so large that a stray splatter of oil could splash into it and ignite.
Make sure you use a separate thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. The minimum temperature varies depending on who you ask. While some sources may say that 160 degrees is hot enough, others, like Butterball, recommend 175 to 180 degrees for dark meat and 165 to 170 degrees for white meat. When it comes to potential food poisoning, always err on the side of caution, or risk having a very unhappy Thanksgiving night.
Easy Does It
One thing you absolutely don’t want to do when putting the turkey in the hot oil is drop it carelessly. A quick drop will displace more hot oil, potentially sending it over the edge of the pot and onto your clothes, your skin, and your (hopefully outside) cooking environment.
There are a couple of don’ts going on in this picture. While coat hangers can pull a turkey out of the hot oil, this is not as sturdy a choice as the equipment that comes with a turkey fryer. The person manning the deep fryer should wear protective gloves. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Instead, use the metal lifting hook, the part William Shatner referred to as the “dingle dangle,” to lower and lift the turkey. Remember, your hands will be very close to the boiling oil and hot metal, so wear heavy-duty protective gloves.
When used as intended, lifting hooks can make the process of lowering the turkey into the oil and pulling it out when it is finished cooking significantly safer. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Be Prepared for the Worst
Say you follow every step of the safety process exactly, but something still goes wrong. Don’t wait until you have a problem to figure out a way to handle it. Plan ahead by making sure you have enough protective safety gear – especially gloves – for everyone who will be hanging around your cooking area. Keep a phone on hand so that you can call for help if necessary.
Most importantly, know what steps to take to put out an oil fire. Dousing the area with water has the potential to make the situation worse, not better. Instead, purchase the correct kind of fire extinguisher – a class “B” or all-purpose “ABC” extinguisher – and keep it nearby for the entire process, including the time it takes the oil to cool.
For the safest results, stay alert while cooking Thanksgiving dinner. That may mean waiting until the turkey is finished to take that hard-earned celebratory drink. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
If you still want a deep-fried turkey taste but don’t want the fire risk, consider purchasing one of the new oil-free fryers, or purchase your turkey from a professional. Whether you fry it yourself, buy it from a store, or roast your turkey the old-fashioned way, carefully observing cooking safety procedures is important. Even if you’re not trying out the deep-fry trend, don’t make the mistake of thinking your holiday food preparations are risk-free. Each Thanksgiving, an approximate 2,000 fires kill five people and cost $21,000,000 in property damage, Yahoo! reported. That level of destruction is nothing to be thankful for, and it’s not only deep fryers doing the damage. Unattended pans in busy kitchens, roaring fireplaces, unsupervised candles, and even early Christmas decorations can all contribute to a risk that is anything but festive.