I'm going to start this with a really important disclaimer: Deep-frying a turkey is an inherently dangerous undertaking. While there are plenty of precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk, there's no way to heat up gallons of oil to 350°F (177°C) using a big propane burner, lower a turkey into it, and be guaranteed not to hurt yourself or others. Let's start with a few critical points:
- Children and pets should be nowhere near a deep-frying setup. There shouldn't be even the remotest chance that they'll get anywhere close to it.
- You should read and follow all the manufacturer's instructions and warnings included with your deep fryer, and follow those instructions in all instances in which they deviate from what I've written here.
- Never use an outdoor frying setup indoors, or in any enclosed or covered space, and never use an indoor fryer outdoors.
- If you live in a colder climate, plan on being outside in the cold for a couple of hours: Responsible turkey fryers do not leave things unattended. (Alternatively, find people to relieve you if you want to go back inside.)
- Don't drink and fry.
Okay, now that I've put those warnings out there, let's talk about deep-frying turkey.
Why Deep-Fry a Turkey?
Bragging rights, obviously.
Seriously, though, the main reason is that it's a method that can deliver an incredibly juicy bird with the crispiest skin imaginable. I'm talking potato-chip crisp.
Some people will tell you that it's also faster than any other method. That's true if you count only the cooking time (under an hour, even for a large bird), but if you factor in oil-heating time and cleanup, it's really not any quicker than putting the turkey in an oven. And in some respects, it's a much bigger pain in the ass, unless you love dealing with a ton of used fry oil—no, you can't pour it down the drain.
It's also, in my experience, a somewhat forgiving method: Even if you overcook your bird—which I don't recommend—I've found that it comes out juicier than an equally overcooked roast turkey. I've accidentally taken a deep-fried turkey to the shockingly high internal temperature of 210°F (99°C), and, while I certainly wouldn't say the result was desirable, it wasn't as dry as I'd expected.
The key, though, is to pull it when the internal temp hits 145°F (63°C); any higher and you'll have an overcooked bird. If it's pulled out of the oil when the coldest part of the breast has reached 145°F, the final internal temperature will reach 155°F (68°C), which will give you moist and juicy results.
However, if you like making gravy from drippings, and if you like the smell of a roasting bird wafting through the house, you're better off not deep-frying, since the method produces zero drippings and smells distinctly of a fry shack.
How Big of a Turkey Can I Fry?
Both the indoor and the outdoor fryers I used claimed that they could handle up to an 18-pound bird. I recommend staying well below that maximum size.
First, smaller birds will cook more evenly, and frying a large bird increases the risk of burning the skin before the center cooks through. Second, in my tests, I found that 18-pound birds can create problems in both types of setup. In the case of an outdoor rig, they run the risk of an oil spillover, even if you've properly measured the oil and have it below the maximum-fill line on the pot. In the case of the indoor fryer, an 18-pound turkey can get stuck and jam the rotisserie mechanism.
My advice is to not go over a 15-pound turkey in fryers that claim an 18-pound maximum.
Check Your Bird for Ice, Twice
Another thing you definitely don't want to do is put a wet or icy turkey in hot oil. The result could land you in the hospital, particularly if there are chunks of ice.
Be extra careful with this: A seemingly fully defrosted turkey may harbor ice in its cavity, especially between the rib bones. That cavity acts as its own little icebox, and even when the rest of the bird has fully thawed, the cavity itself may still be very cold. Quadruple-check that there is no ice hidden in there, and dry the bird well, inside and out, before putting it in the hot oil.
How to Fry a Turkey Outside
This is the best-known method, and has spawned a slew of unfortunate deep-fried-turkey disaster videos. Frankly, I think this method is pretty darned dangerous.
You'll need an outdoor turkey-frying rig, which includes a burner and stand, a pot, a thermometer for the oil, and the hanger and lowering mechanism for the bird. I used a Brinkmann model; Kenji has used the Bayou Classic. Neither of us has complaints about them.
You'll also need a propane tank. You should not try to jury-rig your own setup.
The biggest mistakes people make when using this method are: setting up the fryer in or near a home or other combustible thing; overfilling the pot so that the hot oil spills over when the turkey is lowered into it; and dropping the turkey, causing the hot oil to splash.
You should also have a fire extinguisher nearby that is rated to work with grease fires; attempting to extinguish a grease fire with water is incredibly dangerous.
To avoid an overflow of oil, it's necessary to first determine exactly how much oil you need. To do that, put the turkey in the pot and fill it with water, measuring as you go, until the turkey is covered by about half an inch or so; remove the turkey and pat it dry with paper towels.
Once the turkey is removed, the water in the pot should be below the maximum-fill line. Pour out the water, dry the pot well, then fill the pot with the equivalent amount of oil.
A good setup should be in an open area, a safe distance from anything combustible. In the photo above, you can see we've set the burner and propane tank on a concrete surface, and there's nothing within about 10 feet of it in any direction. Be sure not to walk between the propane tank and the burner: You can trip on the gas line, causing the pot of oil to tumble.
Once the oil has reached its temperature, about 350°F (177°C), insert the hanger through the bird.
Make sure its hooks catch the bird well.
You should be able to hold the turkey securely.
When you're ready to lower the turkey into the oil, you're going to want to wear heavy oven mitts and a solid pair of shoes, and not have any skin showing. Shorts and sandals are a bad idea.
Kenji recommends shutting off the burner for this part, then relighting it once the turkey is in the pot so there's no chance at all of a flare-up during turkey entry. That's a good idea (you'll see why in a second), though it also means monkeying around under a pot of hot oil to relight the burner after the bird is in, which comes with its own risks.
Lower the turkey very, very slowly. Ease it into the oil, and if anything seems to go wrong, abort by carefully lifting the turkey out, not by dropping it in—splashing oil can mess you up real bad.
In the photo above, you'll see why it's a good idea to turn the burner off when lowering the turkey into the oil, and also why the maximum size bird (in this case, 18 pounds) is not a great idea.
Even though I had measured my oil carefully to account for displacement, even though I made sure the turkey was dry and free of all ice, even though I lowered it slowly, a jet of hot oil still managed to shoot out of the pot once the turkey was fully in. In this particular shot, we see oil spattering out of the pot, some of it igniting down by the burner, and me running to the fire extinguisher while yelling to Vicky to get away.
The good news is that nothing bad happened and things quickly came under control, but this is a good example of how, even if you do everything right, deep-frying a turkey like this can still be risky.
Once the turkey is in, it'll fry pretty quickly. Most people say about three minutes per pound of bird, but I'd start checking it even sooner than that. My oil level started out above the turkey, but it slowly went down as the bird cooked, leaving part of it exposed toward the end. This didn't have any negative impact on the bird or its skin.
When you're ready to check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer, use the hook to fish the turkey out, and lift it very slowly, allowing oil to drain off as you raise it.
It helps to recruit a friend to check the temperature.
When it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C), it's ready. Let it rest for about 20 minutes before cutting into it.
How to Fry a Turkey Inside Your House
A lot of people probably don't know that you can fry a turkey indoors, but indeed you can. I discovered indoor turkey fryers while working on a turkey story for Food & Wine and needed a way to try out a fried-turkey recipe in a test kitchen that had no outdoor space.
Honestly, I think these things are way safer than the outdoor method (though, since it still involves plenty of hot oil, there's still some risk).
In essence, it's a large countertop fryer that can work for large batches of fried chicken (or as a steamer for an at-home clambake). It's about double the cost of the outdoor setups, but it's also a lot more versatile, since you can use it to deep-fry, boil, or steam all sorts of stuff.
Simply set the turkey in the fryer's basket following the manufacturer's instructions.
When the oil is ready (which I double-check with an instant-read thermometer, even though the fryer has a thermostat and temperature dial), it's time to lower the turkey in.
When the bird is done, lift it out of the fryer in the basket.
I found this turkey to be just as good as a turkey produced with the outdoor deep-frying method, and it cooked in a similar amount of time.
So there you go: two paths to deep-fried-turkey bliss, one, in my eyes, significantly safer than the other. As a wise man once said, now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with a new indoor countertop turkey fryer, since the previously recommended model is no longer available. Some of the step-by-step instructions for using it have been removed since they don't apply to the model now recommended.