How to avoid an 'exploding' turkey this Thanksgiving

We all know that oil and water do not mix.

That old warning is especially handy for Thanksgiving chefs who seek to fry a turkey, according to a new "exploding turkey" video from the nonprofit American Chemical Society.

The key to avoiding turkey fires is to get rid of water in advance, said Diane M. Bunce, a professor emerita at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who consulted on the video.

That means the exterior of the bird should be thoroughly dry, and the inside must be completely thawed, she said. Otherwise, trouble is in store once you dip the turkey in hot oil.

"All the water in the ice is going to be released all at once," said Bunce, who conducts research at the U.S. Naval Academy. "When it evaporates quickly, it's going to take some of the oil with it."

Another danger sign is smoke. That means the hot oil has reached its "smoke point," meaning that fatty acids have started to break down and become volatile. Time to turn down the heat, lest the airborne compounds reach the "flash point," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Asked if she had ever tried to fry a turkey, Bunce said, "You think I'm crazy?"

But for those who persist, she has two more tips: 

  • Do it far away from combustible materials, such as a wooden deck
  • Have a foam extinguisher handy — not water! —along with a spouse who is ready to dial 911.

It is no joke. According to the National Fire Protection Association, each year Thanksgiving is the peak day for home cooking fires, with 1,730 reported in 2014 — nearly four times what is reported on a typical day.

Locally, fire departments always are on the lookout this time of year, said Kenneth J. Clark, fire marshal for Abington Township.

Oven fires have been more common in recent years, but the township had a serious fryer fire more than a dozen years ago, he said. Hot oil splattered onto the Astroturf-style carpeting that the homeowner had on his porch.

"After that, it was off to the races," Clark said.