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The Dangers of Deep-frying a Turkey and Why It Explodes

Updated Dec 8, 2022

Updated Dec 8, 2022

Home > Blog > The Dangers of Deep-frying a Turkey and Why It Explodes

Deep-frying a Thanksgiving turkey has been a popular Southern tradition for decades and has gained widespread popularity in recent years – and if you’ve ever had a deep-fried turkey, it’s no surprise. The crispy, golden-brown skin combined with the savory, moist meat makes a Thanksgiving Day meal you won’t soon forget. However, if not done correctly, this cooking method can create an equally unforgettable disaster resulting in property damage and burn injuries. This article will delve into the dangers of deep-frying turkeys, examine the associated risks, and discuss some southern-style safety tips for turkey frying.

The Dangers of Deep-frying a Turkey

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated five deaths, 60 injuries, and over $15 million of damage occurs yearly due to turkey fryer fires. This activity is considered so dangerous that the NFPA discourages even well-informed and seasoned cooking veterans from undertaking this tradition.

Turkey sitting in a deep fryer to be cooked
Image Source: Canva

Overflowing and Boiling Oil

Frozen turkeys explode due to how water and oil react to heat. Water’s boiling point is 212°F, and cooking oil is around 350°F. So, when a frozen turkey is added to a pot of boiling oil, the ice within it will instantly vaporize into steam. This steam will rapidly expand, multiplying in volume and increasing the internal pressure inside the fryer. The result of this expansion of gases and pressure is a torrential overflow of oil and steam called a Burning Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE). The steam and oil vapor overflowing from the fryer are extremely hot and can cause severe burns if exposed to the skin or eyes.

Overheating Oil and 10-Foot-high Jets of Flame

As oil reaches a high temperature, typically over 450°F, it will begin to smoke and potentially catch fire. This critical temperature is called an oil’s “smoke point.” Each oil has a different smoke point, with animal fats like lard having lower ones than plant-based oils. If your fryer lacks thermostat controls, the oil within can easily become too hot, reaching its smoke point, and catching fire.

If the oil spills from the lid of the fryer and hits the flames below, it will combust. The flames will snake up the side of the fryer, igniting the rest of the oil as it goes. This chain reaction can result in the entire fryer catching on fire and exploding into large pillars of flame. In extreme cases, these explosions can be as large as 10 feet high. These oil fires can melt siding and ignite wooden decks, sheds, and eaves. 

why do fried turkeys explode infographic
Image Source: Sam Wasson / House Method Team

Extremely Hot Handles and Lid

Even if the oil does not overflow, the deep fryer’s handles, lid, and sides can become extremely hot. Handling these fryer parts without pot holders can result in serious burns.

Safety Tips for Deep-frying a Turkey

If you decide to deep-fry a turkey for Thanksgiving, there are several safety precautions you’ll need to follow to ensure your and your family’s safety.

  1. Choose the right location: While it may be tempting to deep-fry a turkey in your garage, deck, or front porch, these locations set you up for disaster. By putting your deep fryer next to your home — if an overflow does happen — the damage could spread and result in a house fire. The National Park Service recommends choosing a level surface outdoors, at least 10 feet from your home. It also states that you should never fry a turkey inside your garage, on your deck, or under low-hanging branches or covered patios.
  2. Come with the right equipment: Always use a properly functioning turkey fryer with working thermostat controls. You should also have a Class-B flammable liquids fire extinguisher, a grease cover, safety goggles, long sleeve clothing, and heat-proof hand covers (oven mitts).
  3. Know your oil’s smoke point: Knowing the smoke point of your oil will help you boil your turkey at a safe temperature. If your oil is beginning to smoke, you should immediately extinguish the fryer’s flame and allow the oil to lower to a safe temperature. Here is a list of the smoke points of the most common cooking oils:
Butter350°F
Canola oil400°F
Clarified butter450°F
Corn oil450°F
Extra-virgin olive oilBetween 350°F and 375°F
Lard370°F
Olive oil465°F
Peanut oil450°F
Sesame oilBetween 350°F and 410°F
Soybean oil450°F
Sunflower oil440°F
Vegetable oilBetween 400°F and 450°F
  1. Use the right amount of oil: One of the most common ways homeowners experience turkey grease fires is by overfilling the cooking pot. There is a fine line between not having enough oil to cover your turkey and an overflow. For the best and safest results, you should:
    • Place the turkey into the fryer.
    • Fill it with water to the point where it’s just covering the turkey.
    • Remove the turkey from the fryer.
    • Note the water level.
    • Pour out the water.
    • Thoroughly dry the fryer.
    • Add oil up to the old water level.
  2. Only fry a completely thawed turkey: To prevent a BLEVE, ensure your turkey is completely thawed and dry before placing it into the fryer. Never put a partially frozen turkey into a deep fryer, as it can result in an oil boil over and fiery explosion.
  3. Don’t leave the fryer unattended: When deep-frying a turkey, you can’t leave the fryer unattended. You’ll need to keep an eye on the oil’s temperature to keep it below its smoke point. If the oil does begin to smoke, immediately turn off the flames and allow the hot oil temperature to lower to a safe level before reigniting.
  4. Lower and raise the turkey slowly: Never rush when adding or removing the turkey from hot oil. Quickly adding the turkey to the oil can result in splashing, leading to fires or burns.
  5. Keep children, pets, and guests away from the fryer: Small accidents like bumping into the fryer can lead to burns from the hot metal sides or dangerous oil splatters. Remember that oil can remain hot for hours after boiling, so you’ll want to keep everyone away from the fryer even after the turkey is cooked.
turkey in vat of oil to fry
Image Source: Canva

Final Thoughts on Deep-frying a Turkey

It’s unfortunate that a deep-fried turkey is so dangerous to prepare, as it’s truly a delicious option for Thanksgiving dinner. But no matter how tasty the result is, you should always prioritize the safety and security of your home and family. If you decide to deep-fry your turkey, always thoroughly follow the proper safety procedures.

For more information on the dangers of deep-frying a turkey, we recommend this video from Fox News and the DeKalb County Fire Department:

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