The 5 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Deep-Frying a Turkey — And What to Do Instead

published Nov 3, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn, Food Styling: Meghan Splawn

There are many good reasons to deep-fry your turkey this year: You can fry a turkey in half the time it takes to roast a turkey, it’s a great way to get juicy meat and very crispy skin, and it frees up your oven for all of the other Thanksgiving dishes (looking at you, sides and desserts).

Deep-frying a turkey is also impressive and can serve as a bit of dinner theater, but you have to know what you’re doing to make sure the show doesn’t go sideways. Poorly planned frying can result in fires, damaged property, and bodily harm. C’mon, who hasn’t heard a horror story or seen a YouTube video of absolutely everything going wrong

The good news? As long as you avoid a few key mistakes, you can safely deep-fry a turkey and wow all your friends and family with its deliciousness this Thanksgiving. Here’s what not to do — and what to do instead.

1. Skimping on or improvising with equipment.

You have that one large butane camping stove and, like, a really big pot for making stock that you’re pretty sure can hold a large turkey. Surely, if that pot holds a chicken, it can hold a turkey and five gallons of oil, you think. But when it comes time to fry, you either can’t get the oil hot enough or you try to cram the turkey into a too-small pot, causing an oil spill that catches fire. You’ve now become one of those YouTube horror stories. 

Do this instead: Buy a proper set-up for outdoor frying. You can get a kit for deep-frying turkey that includes a 30-quart pot, a fryer burner, and regulator hose, plus a poultry lifter and a long-stemmed thermometer for around $80. This set will guarantee that you have plenty of room for your turkey and the oil, plus the tools you need to get the turkey into the oil safely. Finding used equipment is pretty easy too — check Facebook marketplace or Craigslist (especially after Thanksgiving) to find a great deal. Just be sure to thoroughly examine any used equipment to be sure it’s in good shape before purchasing it.

2. Frying inside, on your deck, or under your carport. 

It rains or gets blustery on Thanksgiving day (or whenever you are deep frying a turkey) and you try to move the event indoors or at least undercover. The result is most often a disaster with property damage. Technically you can use a propane burner inside but few of us have the proper ventilation required to do this in our homes — think restaurant quality hood vent with fire suppression! The results from attempting to move your fryer undercover are most often a disaster with property damage, such as lighting your deck — or your whole house — on fire.

Do this instead: Fry your turkey in a space that is at least 10 feet away from a house, cars, or shed. Pavement or asphalt are the best surfaces for frying on and they should be level and debris-free — that means sweeping any dead leaves before you start too. Keep kids and pets away from the frying setup and make sure a sober adult is present to watch the pot of hot oil at all times. 

3. Not properly thawing and drying the turkey. 

The biggest fried turkey explosions come from a frozen turkey being dropped into a pot of ripping hot oil. The icy bird creates a ton of steam that bubbles the oil over the sides of the pot and into the fire of the fryer burner below. From there the fire can spread and catch the propane tank on fire as well. Wet turkeys also cause oil to splatter, which can cause burns and fires.

Do this instead: Thaw your turkey completely in the refrigerator, being sure to allow plenty of time for it to completely thaw (it can take three to five days in the fridge, depending the size of your turkey). After thawing, unwrap the turkey and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. After drying, season the turkey all over with kosher salt and let it sit uncovered for another day in the fridge. Then pat the turkey dry again just before frying. Proper thawing and dry brining makes for a more delicious turkey, to be sure, but it also ensures that you won’t have lots of steam and splatter when you lower the turkey into the hot oil. 

4. Overfilling the pot with oil.  

When it comes to deep-fried turkey, more oil isn’t necessarily better. Too much oil in the pot can create spillover, which can cause fires — and by the time you realize you’ve got too much oil (i.e., the moment you lower the bird into the pot) it’s too late. On the flip side, if you have too little oil and end up having to add more after you’ve put the turkey in the pot, the oil in the pot will dip in temperature, which slows down the cooking.

Do this instead: Measure the amount of oil you will need using your frozen turkey, your fry pot, and water a few days before you plan to cook. Put the turkey in the pot (it helps if it’s still wrapped) and cover it with water. (A quart-sized measuring cup is perfect for the job.) As you fill the pot, keep track of how much water you’re using. Once you’ve added enough water to cover the turkey with about an inch of water, note how many quarts of water you used. That’s how much oil you’ll need when it is time to fry. Remove the turkey from the pot and use a Sharpie to mark the water line. Dump out the water (use it to water your plants!) and dry the pot well before using. 

5. Dropping the turkey! 

And we don’t mean on the ground, but rather into the oil. This mistake, partnered with leaving the burner on when lowering the turkey into the oil, is the fastest way to start a grease fire, ruin dinner, and potentially hurt yourself. 

Do this instead: Make sure you use a turkey lifter and heat-resistant gloves and have a firm grip on the lifter’s hook. Spread your legs a little wide to create a strong, sturdy base with your body, then slowly lower the turkey into the oil. And by slow, we mean sllloooowwww. It should take about two minutes for you to go from the base of the lifter to the moment when you can release the hook from the lifter. 

Final Thoughts

Don’t let these cautionary tales keep you from deep-frying a turkey this holiday season. Done properly, deep-fried turkey is fast and will give you one of the best turkeys you’ll ever eat. Just make sure that you’re prepared for the task, that you stay present while frying, and that you don’t panic. Having a fire extinguisher nearby is crucial too, but if you follow these tips, you shouldn’t need it!