The Chemistry Behind Turkey Frying Explosions on Thanksgiving
How to avoid a grease explosion. (You're on your own with other explosions.)
On Thanksgiving, an insatiable desire to gorge on delicious turkey can also be what ends up burning your house down. There are three times more cooking fires on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year, predominantly because of folks who want to deep fry their turkey. A deep-fried bird is likely to be tastier and juicier than an oven-dried one, but the price many home cooks pay is steep.
As part of its “Reactions” series, the American Chemical Society explains in a new video that the reason why deep-fried turkeys cook so quickly — and why the process is so dangerous — comes down to the oil. When a bird is dipped into its greasy dunk-tank, the liquid heats the turkey’s exterior and causes all of the remaining moisture on its skin to evaporate in a process called convection. Through the direct contact heat transfer that happens during convection, the turkey begins to cook itself from the outside in — that’s called conduction. These processes are great for cooking but also bad for safety.
The oil can also cause an inferno through two means. First of all, cooking oils have individual “smoke points,” specific temperatures at which the oil’s airborne compounds are broken down. When the oil reaches its smoke point, it becomes extremely flammable. If the fryer isn’t turned down after it reaches this temperature, the oil will burst into massive flames.
Secondly, oil and water straight-up don’t mix. That makes throwing a frozen turkey into a fryer a huge problem. When the polar molecules of water meet the non-polar molecules in oil, these molecules try really, really hard to stay away from each other — and this can lead to a huge explosion. It also doesn’t help that when icy water comes into contact with hot oil, vaporization causes it to expand 1,7000 times its original volume, which makes the oil in the fryer flow overboard.
“When you’re frying a turkey, you want to make sure that turkey fryer is on a stable, noncombustible surface that’s ten feet away from your home,” Tony Falwell, Washington, D.C.’s Battalion Fire Chief, advised the American Chemical Society. “You want to monitor the fill level — you don’t want to end up overfilling that turkey fryer because that turkey fryer can end up causing serious burn injury to you.”
Deep-fried turkey is yummy, but burning down your house is bad. Following the correct set of directions — and having a fire extinguisher readily on hand — is something that you and your whole family can be thankful for.
This article has been updated.