The Dos and Don’ts of Deep Frying a Turkey
Follow these guidelines for the turkey of your dreams—not your nightmares.
I’ve wasted a lot of time roasting turkeys. By wasted, I don’t mean the turkeys weren’t delicious. I marinated, basted, brined, injected with vinaigrettes and broths, hid slivers of garlic in the skins, rubbed spices outside, and stuffed herbs and citrus fruit in the cavities to ensure moist, tender, and flavorful birds.
But I could have done just a fraction of those prep steps and spent one-quarter of the time deep frying turkeys instead. Consider the time differences: It takes 20 minutes per pound roasting them and only 3 to 4 minutes per pound frying them.
Of course, there are legitimate safety concerns to deep frying turkeys in bubbling peanut oil over outdoor propane flames (or in electric indoor fryers). I was yesterday years old when I finally tried my hand at deep frying a turkey, and everyone told me, “Turkey fryers explode.” Friends showed me some disturbing videos on social media. But I noticed a trend running through all those clips: Most, if not all, of the accidents involving turkey fryers are caused by user error.
I tested seven turkey fryers for Bob Vila in a month—and lived to tell you about it! After successfully dunking 46 pounds of poultry into 18 gallons of hot oil, these are my key turkey-frying takeaways.
DO Test Your Equipment
How often do you use a turkey fryer? Once, maybe twice a year? The rest of the time you keep it in the basement or garage—some kind of storage. That’s why it’s super important to check all the equipment before you begin—especially the connection from the regulator to the propane tank to search for possible leaks.
You should also fill the stock pot with water to look for pinprick holes that may have developed over time. Better to find them before the pot is filled with oil and propped over a propane flame.
Also make sure that screws haven’t fallen out of burner frames and legs on tripods haven’t rusted or become wobbly. An unstable turkey fryer is an unsafe one.
DON’T Wing It
Frying a turkey isn’t like driving somewhere without directions, where the worst that can happen is that you get lost and turn on Google maps. In this case, you really need to have read the manual. If you’ve thrown out the construction and cooking guides, there’s plenty of information online, and you should always refresh your knowledge before you start.
In addition, keep a fire extinguisher nearby. I don’t say this to scare you but to be practical. When you’re cooking with hot oil over a live flame, there’s always a potential for fire. You can’t put out an oil fire with water. That’s one of those user errors I saw. And keep the propane tank as far as the hose will allow away from the burner. If the worst does happen and oil splatters on the flame, you don’t want the propane to explode.
Likewise, prepare the equipment away from the walls of your house. Again, this is just in case. Make sure the fryer is on an even surface, such as a patio or cement, not inside (unless it’s designed for inside) or under a roof. Don’t use it on grass, where it could tilt, or an incline, however slight.
Also, wear safety gloves that go up to your elbows like this option available at Amazon—a favorite in our researched guide to the best BBQ gloves—along with a leather apron, so that when you raise and lower the turkey you don’t get burned by the occasional splatter. Keep all your necessary equipment nearby: Turkey hooks, temperature gauges for the oil so you can tell when turkey frying temperature is optimal (325 degrees), and meat thermometers. Once the oil starts heating up, you should never leave the equipment unattended.
DO Measure the Volume
The biggest user error is randomly filling the stock pot with oil, dropping the turkey in, and watching the oil overflow onto the propane flame. There you go: Fire and possible explosion.
Here’s how to measure the volume before you begin: Put the turkey in the pot. Fill with water to cover. That’s how far the oil will rise. Remove the turkey. Draw a line with a food-safe marker to where the water settles back down. This is how much oil you need to fry a turkey.
Wash the pot and dry it well. Remember the rule: Oil and water are enemies.
When you unwrap your turkey for prep, write down the poundage. If you forget to do the previous step and measure the volume, this can help you figure out how much oil you’ll need to cook it without overfilling the pot. There are plenty of guides on the internet.
You also need to know how long to deep fry a turkey. This, too, will vary by poundage, but the general rule is 3 to 4 minutes per pound, plus a few minutes extra depending on how big the bird is.
Again, consult your guide if you haven’t thrown it out. It should also tell you, according to the model you have, whether you should fry the bird legs up or legs down. While seasoned cooks might think, “Duh, legs up so that the juices settle into the breast,” that’s not how all of these machines work.
Finally, don’t depend on your eyes. The skin will turn a pretty golden color long before the interior is done. A good meat thermometer like this option available at Amazon—a top pick in our researched buyer’s guide—is essential.
DO Dry (Rub) the Turkey
You’ll find plenty of deep fried turkey recipes on the internet. Some will provide rubs with herbs, spices, or both. You can drop a seasoned bird into the oil. That’s not a problem.
Others will advise you how to marinate your bird, inject it under the skin, or brine it. Many deep fried turkey kits come with accessories such as a syringe set so that you can flavor the poultry in unique and individual ways.
If you do choose to go the marinating route, be sure that you dry off the turkey before you fry it. Any liquid on its skin will cause the oil to splatter.
DON’T Drop the Bird in Wet, Tied or Stuffed
As with roasting or any other method, a turkey needs to be completely defrosted, giblets removed, before it can be deep fried. In this case, it also needs to be dry. I like to wrap it in paper towels, with some stuffed inside the cavity, in the refrigerator for about an hour before I’m ready to cook it. These absorb the extra moisture. Then I take it about 15 to 20 minutes to let it warm up a bit before it hits the hot oil.
Don’t forget, of course, to remove the paper towels before it goes for a dunk. Make sure you’ve untied its legs as well, if they’ve come tied, and don’t twine them together if they’ve come loose. Your turkey basket or rack should do enough to keep the bird together.
In the oven, you have a choice about whether to cook your stuffing inside the turkey or out of it, although experts recommend doing it separately to avoid foodborne illness or cross-contamination. When you deep fry a turkey, you have no such option. Don’t add anything to the cavity.
DO Watch the Process the Whole Time
It’s tempting to pop the ignition and go grab a beverage while the oil is heating up. That process, to get the oil to a cooking temperature of 325 degrees, takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.
The same is true when you lower in the turkey. It’s going to take about 45 minutes for an average-size bird of 14 to 15 pounds. And unlike cooking one in the oven, when you deep fry a turkey, you don’t have to baste it. So you’re not going to pull it up.
We’ve talked a lot about the physical dangers of deep frying a turkey. But we haven’t talked about the culinary ones. Despite the best calculations out there, you need to watch in order not to burn the oil or the bird. There’s not a lot worse than the smell of burned peanut oil, and overcooking your turkey kills more than the white meat—it also ruins the mood.
DON’T Walk Away
We get it: Standing near a propane flame is hot and sweaty work. Of course, stand far enough away to avoid splatters. I also suggest having a designated runner: Someone to bring you drinks and appetizers—along with any tools you may have forgotten—as you do the hard physical labor of deep frying a heavy turkey.
That’s because leaving the scene of a deep frying turkey to gather with relatives or friends simply isn’t an option. Hot oil plus live fire equals your eyes on the pot at all times. There’s no other way to say it. If you leave, you don’t know what’s happening. If you’re there, you can spot the warning signs and deal with trouble before you wind up on YouTube as a lesson for somebody else.