If you’ve only ever eaten Thanksgiving turkey cooked in an oven, it might be hard to believe that there’s another way to prepare the holiday bird that could render even juicier meat and crispier skin. Curious?
We’re talking about deep frying a turkey, of course. And if you’re concerned about a grease-laden bird, don’t be—deep-fried turkey is more moist and tender than the best baked Butterball. It’s because, as a turkey deep fries, much of the natural fat melts and dissolves in the fry oil, leaving you with a less greasy carcass than a traditionally roasted turkey.
And, if you’re concerned about doing it safely, a healthy amount of caution is good. Here are three main things you need to keep in mind to prevent disaster.
More From Popular Mechanics
- Make sure your turkey is fully thawed, if it’s a frozen bird. If it’s a fresh turkey, make sure you’ve drained any juices that it may have been packed in, and pat it dry. When a frozen or very wet, drippy, turkey hits the hot oil, it can and will boil violently, overflow the pot and spatter everywhere.
- Lower the turkey into the water very slowly to help prevent the oil from bubbling over and out of the pot. Be patient. It may take a couple of minutes to fully immerse the bird in the pot.
- Turn off the gas and shut down the burner ANY time you are putting the turkey in the pot or taking it out. If there is no flame, it will be very difficult for the hot oil to ignite if it should drip, spill, or boil over.
So, if you’re ready to learn how to deep fry a turkey heading into the holidays, follow the steps below to cook the best bird every.
Get a turkey-frying kit
Turkey-frying kits are easy to find, so there’s no reason not to take the plunge. They can be had for as little as $90, but be sure you get one with at least a 50,000-BTU burner. Once you have a kit, start by unboxing it, assembling as needed, hooking up a propane tank, and firing it up.
Don’t wait for Thanksgiving. Make sure the regulator works and that the burner lights up consistently. We’ve found it necessary to deburr some of the holes and clean debris out of the internal passages to get a consistent, clean-burning flame. Then wash the pot and rack with detergent to get out any manufacturing oil clinging to the surfaces.
This is important: Add a gallon or so of fresh water to the pot and boil it. When it’s at a full rolling boil, check that the thermometer reads between 210 and 215 degrees F. A high-reading thermometer can give you undercooked turkey. A low-reading one, if it’s really low, could boil the oil and start a fire.
Deep fry prep
Avoid water- or oil-injected turkeys. The fried bird is plenty moist all by itself. Also, the pop-out thermometer is useless, so skip those too—if you end up with a turkey that has one, yank it out. Frozen is okay, but there’s nothing quite like a fresh bird. If you do choose a frozen one, thaw it completely! And don’t forget to remove the neck and gizzards.
Turkey-frying aficionados all swear by peanut oil or safflower oil. We’ve found it doesn’t really make a difference, so you’re safe buying whatever oil is on sale. We were able to find 3-gallon containers of peanut oil, in stock, at our local Walmart for a reasonable price. You’ll need several gallons, depending on the size of the turkey and the size of the pot. We have two pots: one that will handle a 12-14 pound bird and a larger one that will hold an 18-pounder. Cooking a 12-pound bird in the bigger pot uses almost 4 gallons of oil, but we only need about 2 for the smaller pot.
For a more accurate measure of how much oil you’ll need, follow these instructions:
- Put your bird in the rack and then in the pot. If you want to do this a day or two ahead, you can put the turkey, still in its packaging, in the pot.
- Pour in enough water to cover the turkey.
- You’ll need 4-6 inches of freeboard in the pot when the oil starts bubbling, so just barely cover the top of the bird with water.
- Pull the bird out and use a tape measure to check how deep the oil needs to be.
- To save time in the future, consider using a Sharpie or scratching the level on the outside of the pot to mark where the oil level needs to be. This will be a big time-saver for future use if you usually get the same size bird.
If you do this procedure the day before, you can now wash the bird in cool water and blot it dry. A dry rub is a great way to infuse flavor into the skin and meat, so use a generous amount. And don’t forget to rub the inside as well.
You can use any kind of rub you want—you don’t need anything fancy. You can make an excellent turkey with a simple, easy to make rub with these spices:
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons rosemary
- 2 tablespoons thyme
Once you’ve applied the rub, let it sit, covered, in the refrigerator overnight.
Pick a safe location to deep fry
Don’t wind up in one of those fried-turkey-disaster videos. Set up the cooker outdoors, not inside the garage and definitely not under your porch roof or a tree. Be aware that the heat will kill the lawn, so set up over pavement or gravel. Position the whole operation out of the way of traffic patterns and outside the reach of children and pets.
You can fry your turkey on the deck, but be aware that there will likely be oil splattered for 3-4 feet in every direction, and this will stain a wooden deck. Still, as a general rule, it’s a good idea to do your frying on a nonflammable surface, such as a concrete driveway.
Finally, keep a fire extinguisher nearby, wear closed shoes and long pants, and make sure your whole setup is level so nothing tips over during cooking.
Depending on the outside air temp and wind, it will take 20-30 minutes to heat the oil. Heat the oil to exactly 350 degrees F. Any hotter will leave you with burnt oil, which will affect the taste of the meat. Wind can lower the efficiency of your burner, so you may need to fashion a barrier to protect the burner. We use a piece of sheet metal bent in an L shape, positioned about 6 inches from the burner.
While the oil heats up, pull the bird out of the fridge and put it on the rack. Some folks prefer tail up. Others, tail down. As long as you’ve got the oil level correct, it really doesn’t make a difference. Here’s the tricky part: You need to carefully lower your turkey into the scalding oil. In addition to closed shoes and long pants, throw on a long sleeve shirt and some gloves.
Before you drop the turkey, turn off the propane. If you forget this step, you could have a fire on your hands.
Using the handle that came with your deep fry kit, slowly lower the bird into the oil. It will hiss and sputter as the moisture hits the hot oil, so be ready for that. If you dunk the bird into the oil, it will splash and catch fire (that’s why it’s essential to turn off the burner first). Take it slow. It may take several minutes to get the turkey completely submerged without a boil-over, so be prepared to support the bird for that entire time.
Now you’re cooking
Once the rack bottoms out and the turkey is submerged, relight the burner, which will be much more difficult because all of that metal will be incredibly hot. Be sure to use a long lighter to keep some distance between you and the boiling oil.
The temperature of the oil will now be substantially lower than the 350 degrees F target, so run the burner plenty hot to bring it back up. But again, be vigilant not to let it get above 350.
Your deep fry kit should have come with a meat thermometer; you’ll want to use it to make sure everything is at the right temperature. After your allotted time is nearly up, plunge the end of the thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the breast. Only the last 2 inches of the thermometer at the tip affect the reading, so push in only until you find the coldest part of the meat. When that reaches 170 degrees, you’re done. Don’t keep stabbing the meat with the thermometer, as you’ll only let out moisture.
Turn off the burner. Lift the turkey out, and let it rest for 15 minutes. It will continue cooking with its own internal temperature. If it looks overcooked because the skin is very dark, don’t worry. That means it’s perfect. Carve the bird as usual and enjoy.
Brad Ford has spent most of his life using tools to fix, build, or make things. Growing up he worked on a farm, where he learned to weld, repair, and paint equipment. From the farm he went to work at a classic car dealer, repairing and servicing Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Jaguars. Today, when he's not testing tools or writing for Popular Mechanics, he's busy keeping up with the projects at his old farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania.