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Thanksgiving safety tips for deep-frying a turkey without setting your house on fire

Courting disaster is worth it for something this delicious -- but safety is of paramount importance.

how-to-deep-fry-a-turkey
 YinYang/E+/Getty Images
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Deep-frying makes everything taste good, including Thanksgiving turkey. But frying a turkey is a serious undertaking and, as countless flame-engulfed YouTube videos attest, incredibly dangerous if done wrong. So here are some tips on how to deep fry turkey -- and what not to do.  

First, get the right equipment

Turkey fryers exist and you should get one if you intend to fry your bird. Cobbling together a homemade rig is ill-advised for safety reasons. But you have more than one option when it comes to a commercial turkey fryer.

Amazon

This oil-free turkey fryer is great for those who are squeamish about dealing with a literal vat of scalding hot grease, plus there's no used cooking oil to dispose of -- but it's not technically fried, either (in the same way air fryer food isn't technically fried but is still nice and crispy). It uses a propane tank and infrared heat to "fry" the turkey, and accommodates birds up to 16 pounds.

Amazon

This electric fryer is the real deal (in that it does deep fry your turkey in a pool of oil). There's an oil drain valve for easier cleanup and it will take a turkey up to 20 pounds; we recommend not attempting to max it out, though. The company says that it's safe for indoor use, but per some of the reviews, you may still want to take it out to the garage due to the fried turkey smell that will permeate the space -- great leading up to the meal, not so much three days later when it's still lingering the in the air.

Walmart

This is your traditional outdoor turkey fryer with a portable gas burner and a huge metal pot. It also includes a turkey rack and lifting hook, an aluminum fry pan, a perforated fry basket and a thermometer. It does require more care to use and should never, ever be used indoors, but your 20-pound turkey should fit nicely in this one too.

Definitely use the thermometer to keep an eye on the oil temperature, because if it gets too hot, it can flash over into a fire in an instant. You'll need a propane tank to hook it up to.

Choose the right oil

The makers of the Bayou Classic turkey fryer recommend peanut oil, because its high smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit allows the oil to reach the correct temperature to fry the turkey properly without giving it a burnt flavor.

Canola, another popular frying oil, has a smoke point of only 400 degrees and will turn your turkey to charcoal if you're not careful.

If peanut allergies are an issue, corn oil also has a 450-degree smoke point, but its flavor is somewhat less neutral than peanut oil's.

Whatever you do, don't use extra-virgin olive oil: Aside from putting you in the poorhouse, five gallons of it at 350 degrees will create a raging inferno -- its smoke point is only 320 degrees.  

Read more on Chowhound: A guide to common cooking oils

how-to-deep-fry-a-turkey-chowhound
jkbowers/E+/Getty Images

What NOT to do

  • Do not neglect to read the instruction manual for whichever fryer you are using well ahead of time. They include safety tips and proper usage guidelines for a very good reason. Get acquainted with them before turkey day arrives.
  • Do not set up the fryer on uneven ground, on a wooden surface, on grass or anywhere too near a house, outbuildings or flammable objects (like trees). The general rule is at least 10 feet away from all such things.
  • Do not use an oil with a low smoke point, as noted above.
  • Do not overfill the pot with oil or (obviously) it will spill over and ignite in a fireball when you lower the turkey in.
  • Do not drop the turkey in; lower it slowly and carefully into the hot oil so it doesn't displace any grease over the sides.
  • Do not put a frozen turkey in the fryer; the sudden temperature change can also cause an explosion of flames. Make sure to thaw the turkey completely and pat it dry before you cook.
  • Do not leave the fryer unattended. Not even for a hot second. And do not take your eyes off the thermometer for too long.
  • Do not let children, pets or drunk friends or family members get anywhere near the fryer, including for several hours after you're done, since it takes a while for all the grease to cool down.
  • Do not scoff at proper safety equipment, including heat-resistant gloves and goggles (do you really want to take chances with that much hot oil?).
  • Do not take frying a turkey lightly in general, because it seriously has the potential to kill you, maim you and your loved ones and burn down your house if it goes wrong. Just respect the process and take the proper precautions.
  • If the fryer does catch fire, do not put water on it
Amazon

Make sure you have a fire extinguisher close at hand, and make sure it's capable of putting out oil and grease fires. Familiarize yourself with how it works ahead of time, too.

How to deep-fry a turkey

If you're not scared off yet, check out Chowhound's deep-fried turkey recipe (with a Southern rub and instructions for dry brining the turkey overnight), and see Chowhound's step-by-step guide to frying a turkey to walk you through the process in even more detail. 

deep-fried-turkey-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

What to do with all the leftover grease

So you've successfully deep-fried your turkey without incident. Congrats! Now what do you do with all the oil?

First, let it cool. Don't try to move the fryer until it's pretty close to room temperature. If you strain the oil through cheesecloth to remove all the particles, you can reuse the oil. Just put it back in the original container and store at room temperature. You might not want to use it for deep-frying again, however -- when oil is heated to frying temperatures multiple times, its smoke point goes down.

But if five gallons is more peanut oil than you'll ever use, there are ways to get rid of it that don't involve pouring it down the drain (do not do that) or putting it in your trash can. Bayou Classic recommends bringing used oil to your local recycling center -- after calling to make sure they accept food-grade oils. From there it will be turned into all kinds of things.

When the Chowhound team first fried a turkey back in 2006, they gave their 10 gallons of used oil to San Francisco writer James Nestor, who said it would take his vegetable-oil-powered 1978 Mercedes 300D from San Francisco to Big Sur and back -- almost 300 miles. So maybe you can give it to someone with a car that runs on straight, unprocessed waste vegetable oil, or somebody who can make biodiesel out of it (a nontoxic, biodegradable and clean-burning fuel made from vegetable oil or animal fat that needs to be processed a bit first, and then can power a diesel car).

Or make like a restaurant kitchen and pay to have a professional disposal company cart your oil away.

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Originally published earlier this week.