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Frying turkeys can explode. Here's how to avoid that

Deep-frying a turkey has become popular in recent decades — but the Consumer Product Safety Commission is reminding people of the risks of the technique, and how to safely fry a bird for Thanksgiving.
Jason Kempin
Getty Images
Deep-frying a turkey has become popular in recent decades — but the Consumer Product Safety Commission is reminding people of the risks of the technique, and how to safely fry a bird for Thanksgiving.

"Cook the turkey, not your home."

That's the Thanksgiving message being sent by the Consumer Product Safety Commission — and to emphasize the warning, the agency shared an alarming video showing the cataclysmically explosive results of making mistakes when frying a turkey.

As the video racked up views on social media, the CPSC also acknowledged what many suspected: It's pretty fun to make small-scale disaster films.

"You know when we do space stuff in America and the rocket takes off, or the satellite deploys, or the helicopter flies on Mars and everyone cheers because it all worked the way it's supposed to," the agency said, "and no one got hurt. It's a lot like that."

For anyone planning to fry a turkey this year, the CPSC says that if you make any of the mistakes below, you run the risk of burning down the house:

  • Use too much oil, and overheat it;
  • Try to fry a frozen turkey, especially a big one;
  • Use your fryer on a porch, in a garage, or next to your house.

It's also crucial to carefully read and follow the instructions that come with your fryer, the CPSC says. And heaven forbid, do not set up a fryer inside your home.

Why do some turkeys basically explode?

The CPSC's new video shows what look to be normal turkeys sparking a conflagration in different domestic settings, as oil splashes over the pot's rim and ignites into a sheet of flame from the gas burner below. The footage is similar to the agency's earlier oeuvre — like its use of dummies to show what can go wrong when fireworks are mishandled.

But birds aren't bottle rockets. So why are these turkeys blowing up?

"The reason frozen turkeys explode, at its core, has to do with differences in density," chemist Kristine Nolin wrote for The Conversation, saying the high proportion of ice inside frozen turkeys can fuel explosions.

Because it's less viscous, water might seem less dense than oil; it's not. In a pot of hot oil, water from the turkey falls to the bottom. But the extreme heat also converts the water into its gas phase: steam.

"The water molecules then rapidly spread far apart from one another and the volume expands by 1,700 times," Nolin said, noting that the water's density is suddenly much lower than the oil above it.

Add the rapid change in density and expanding volume together, she said, "and you get an explosion." And things get worse when, as in the CPSC footage, displaced oil is ignited and spreads flames around the fryer.

So, why do people still deep-fry turkeys?

The draw of moist turkey meat and fast cooking times of only a few minutes per pound have created legions of fried-turkey fans in the U.S. since the technique started to become popular more than 20 years ago.

As the CPSC video suggests, when you're dealing with extremely hot oil and an open flame, one of the big dangers is that by the time you realize mistakes have been made, it's hard to correct them.

One time-tested way to make sure you reach a safe and effective oil level in your fryer pot is to measure it with water ahead of time, so the liquid sits around 1 to 2 inches above the bird.

"Remove the turkey and note the water level, using a ruler to measure the distance from the top of the pot to the surface of the water," the National Turkey Federation says. "Pour out the water and dry the pot thoroughly" before refilling the pot with oil to the proper level.

If you decide to measure the oil this way, do it before the turkey is marinated or breaded.

And given the dangers of water and hot oil noted above, make sure the turkey is fully thawed, drained and patted dry before you prepare it for the fry pot.

Fire dangers are heightened on Thanksgiving

No matter what method you'll use to cook your Thanksgiving meal, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is pleading with people to stay near their food when it's in the oven or on the burner.

"There are more home fires on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year," the agency said, adding, "Unattended cooking is the number one cause of home fires!"

On an average Thanksgiving Day, the U.S. sees about 1,600 cooking-related fires break out, the CPSC says. That's more than three times the normal daily figure.

Over all, cooking accounts for nearly half of the 360,800 home fires in the U.S each year, the CPSC said.

Because of the risks of nearly instantaneous fire spreading from a turkey-fryer mishap, the National Fire Protection Association says that it "strongly discourages the use of turkey fryers," urging people to buy fried turkeys from a restaurant or grocery store instead.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.