Let’s be clear: Deep-frying is the most dangerous way to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey. But every year, countless courageous cooks do it anyway. Some successfully fry up a magnificent bird. Others set off explosions, light their homes on fire, or wind up in the emergency room. Take these essential precautions to deep-fry a turkey without killing anyone in the process.
Warning: Popular Science does not recommend that you deep-fry your turkey. Even if you take every safety precaution, it is still dangerous. Stay safe! Maybe try spatchcocking instead?
Location, location, location
No matter how carefully you prepare and carry out your deep-frying, hot oil can spray and spurt unpredictably. If it hits bare skin, the 350° F oil will cause burns, but if it hits a building or furniture, it can set them on fire. Your first task is to choose a location where an oil accident will do minimal damage.
The ideal spot is at least 10 feet away from any buildings. It should have a level surface made of dirt or concrete, NOT wood, where you can place the burner. That surface should also be large enough for you to place the burner’s propane tank as far away from the burner as possible without over-stretching the hose or risking it tipping over.
Just in case, make sure to keep a fire extinguisher near your setup, but not too close to the fryer.
Finally, keep people out of this area unless they absolutely need to be there to help with the cooking.
Thaw the bird
Whether you’re frying or roasting, the first step is to prep the turkey. Before you start fretting about spice rubs, you must make sure the meat is completely thawed. Because this is what it looks like when you lower a still-frozen bird into hot oil.
The inferno starts when the turkey, saturated with frozen water, hits the hot oil. As you may have heard, oil and water don’t mix, so pockets of the heavier H2O will start sinking toward the bottom of the fryer. But the oil around them quickly heats the water above its boiling point. As the water vaporizes, it expands, spattering the oil around it into the air.
Small oil droplets heat up much more readily than the large reservoir in the fryer. And if only a few of them hit the burner, they can easily ignite into flame. Then they set off their neighboring droplets, creating a chain reaction that results in a cloud of fire.
To avoid that, make sure the turkey is entirely thawed. Butterball recommends that you let it sit in the fridge for one day for every four pounds of meat, or put the wrapped-up bird in cold water for one hour for every two pounds.
Once the bird appears to be thawed, you should still check its body cavity for ice, dry it inside and out, and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
Careful with the flavor
Everyone has their own way to prepare turkey—salt or spice rubs, brining or marinade—but deep-frying cooks need to take particular care. If your treatment of choice involves soaking the bird in liquid, make sure to dry it off and let it air-dry for an additional 30 minutes before lowering it into hot oil. If you want to inject marinade into the bird, make sure to get it deep into the muscles: A water-based liquid immediately under the skin will cause more oil-spattering problems.
Measure twice, cook once
You absolutely do not want to put too much oil into the fryer. If it overflows, the oil will hit the burner and ignite, leading to fire, burns, fire, sirens…you get the picture. So check your volume before you start.
To do so, put the turkey into the fryer and add water until the water level is four to six inches below the rim. Then remove the turkey and measure the volume of the water left in the fryer. Once you have this number, empty the fryer and dry it thoroughly. Then fill it with the same volume of oil.
If you are going to lower your turkey by hand, make sure to protect your skin. Wear oven mitts, long sleeves, pants, and close-toed shoes. When a splash of hot oil hits bare skin, it sticks to it, continuing to cook the vulnerable flesh beneath. This can lead to extremely painful burns, so cover up.
Choose the vessel you’ll use to lower the bird. It needs to hold a lot of weight, so pick sturdy materials such as large metal hooks, a heavy, easily grippable hanger, or a strong fryer-basket insert. Before you lower the bird into hot oil, practice using your contraption to lower it extremely slowly. If it’s too slippery to grip while wearing oven mitts, the turkey shows signs of slipping, or it weighs too much to lower gradually, then rethink your plan.
When you do lower the bird into the oil, do so very slowly. If the oil starts spitting, DO NOT DROP THE TURKEY. If the turkey hits the liquid too quickly, oil can slosh against the burner’s edges and overflow. Instead, if there seems to be something wrong, you should slowly lift the turkey back out of the oil.
Of course, lowering by hand is not your only option. Chef and avid DIY-er Alton Brown designed a turkey-frying derrick that uses a rope-and-pulley system to gently submerge the turkey without putting humans in the danger zone.
As Brown knows, DIY projects make every event better.
Grease fires are the obvious drawback to deep-frying, but don’t overlook another danger: undercooked poultry. You should cook the turkey for roughly three minutes per pound. Before declaring it done, use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature has reached at least 155° F. Once you lift it out of the oil, let it cool down for about 20 minutes before carving it. During that time, the bird will continue cooking and eventually reach the safe internal temperature of 165° F. If you want to be extra-sure, you can stick a thermometer in the resting bird and watch to make sure it hits that mark.
Make sure to let the oil cool down before disposing of it. Use a thermometer to check that it has reached a safe temperature before beginning your cleanup. Do. Not. Pour. It. Down. A. Drain. Seal it into disposable containers and throw them away in the trash. If you’re worried that those containers will leak, leave them in the freezer until the oil congeals into a solid, then throw them away.
Finally, clean the grease off your fryer and stow it away until next year. Congratulations on not burning your house down this time.