Why Turkey Fryers Explode

Hot oil and a frozen turkey are really combustible combination. American Chemical Society/HowStuffWorks

Not everyone gets up at the crack of dawn to put their turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving. All over the U.S., and particularly in the South, around midday, people put their turkeys in a fryer. Not only is this a fast method, typically taking just an hour to cook, but the bird also comes out particularly moist and juicy.

But there is a downside: explosions. Three times more cooking fires occur on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. Cooking your turkey in a fryer means submerging it in 3 to 5 gallons (11 to 19 liters) of hot oil, which can cause all kinds of accidents and burns.


Here's why: Cooking oils have specific temperatures called smoke points, at which the oil breaks down, starts to smoke and releases airborne compounds. (The temperatures vary by the kind of oil. Peanut oil, for instance, has a smoke point of 450 F, or 232 C, while canola's is 400 F, or 204 C). These airborne compounds are extremely flammable — if you see the oil you're using start to emit black smoke, that's a sign it's getting near its smoke point and the temp needs to be lowered.

Second, water and oil don't mix, which is why putting a frozen turkey into the fryer is extremely dangerous. Water molecules are polar (one side of the molecule is slightly positive and the other is slightly negative) while oil molecules are nonpolar. Polar and nonpolar molecules try their best to stay away from each other. 

So, when the ice from a frozen turkey meets a vat of hot oil, it instantly changes to steam and expands to 1,700 times its original volume. This can cause the oil to bubble over and if an oil particle makes contact with a flame — boom — you're in trouble.

To stay safe, don't overfill your fryer with oil and monitor your oil temperature while heating. Also, make sure to thaw your turkey completely and pat it dry before plunging it in.

For more information, check out the video above from the American Chemical Society.