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I Fried Turkeys with the Lexington, Kentucky, Fire Department and Lived to Tell the Tale

You don’t need to be friends with the fire department to fry a turkey. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

Published July 29, 2021.

On the ATK Reviews team, everyone has his or her own niche. Some people like reviewing baking equipment, others appliances, and still others cleaning tools. Personally, I’m drawn to the absurd (watermelon slicers, under-appliance cleaners) and the dangerous (cleavers, mandolines, deep-fryers). 

Turkey fryers fit both those categories. They’re slightly ridiculous—dedicated contraptions for frying large birds! And they carry significant risks: You can burn yourself, your house, or even your neighborhood if you don’t take the proper precautions. They’re so dangerous that the National Fire Protection Association strongly discourages the use of turkey fryers, and UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories), a widely respected safety testing company, refuses to certify any turkey fryer. Many state and local fire agencies warn against frying turkeys at all—the Los Angeles Fire Department, for example, once tried to discourage Angelenos from laying waste to the city with an article ominously titled “Your Turkey or Your Life?”

Naturally, I’ve wanted to test these things for years. And finally, this year, I got to do it.

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I live in a densely populated area in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. So to make sure that I wasn’t breaking any laws or endangering anyone besides myself by testing fryers in my backyard, I emailed the local fire department. 

Expecting to be shot down, I was pleasantly surprised when I got a call from Todd Houston from the Lexington Fire Department. Yes, I certainly could fry turkeys in my backyard if I wanted to. But would I have any interest in doing it with the fire department?

It turns out that not all fire departments are quite so negative about frying turkeys. In fact, the Lexington Fire Department has embraced the process. Every Thanksgiving, the Lexington Fraternal Order of Firefighters holds a turkey fry for charity with the help of Double H BBQ, a local barbecue joint. They’d had to forgo the 2020 turkey fry due to pandemic restrictions, but in 2019 alone, they fried nearly 500 turkeys over the course of 24 hours. Expertise—both in terms of frying turkeys and fighting fires—was in good supply. 

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Even better, the fire department had been meaning to film a public service announcement on turkey fryer safety. Cooking is the leading cause of residential fires in the United States, and turkey fries are particularly popular in the South. Who better than the LFD to explain how to do a turkey fry safely? They’d help me do the testing and film it for their video.

So that’s how I found myself frying turkeys in the parking lot of Double H BBQ with Houston; fellow firefighter Jerome Brown; and Ernie Hanley, Double H BBQ's owner and pit master.

frying turkeys
Frying turkeys under the tutelage of an expert, Double H BBQ's owner and pit master, Ernie Hanley

Hanley was clearly an old hand at frying turkeys, lining the pavement under the fryers with Oil-Dri to absorb spatters and even drilling holes in some of the fryer lids to suspend the fryer thermometers. He knew exactly what to expect from each of the fryers and was the best at coaxing the flame to stay on with a particularly balky model. An old chart on the wall of his smokehouse listed all the cooking times for turkeys of different sizes, though he no longer needed to reference it.

As the turkeys cooked, I grilled Houston and Brown on fire safety issues. Their biggest pieces of advice? Set your fryer up on a level surface, make sure that you have a fire extinguisher, and under no circumstances should you try to fry a turkey that hasn’t been defrosted—that’s the easiest way to create a massive fireball that’ll wreak havoc on your neighborhood. (For their complete set of recommendations, read these safety guidelines.)

frying turkeys
Frying turkeys with an audience

Considering all the videos I’d watched of exploding turkey fryers—and the extensive list of warnings I’d seen in the turkey fryer manuals—I was amazed at how easy and casual the process was. Sure, I was obviously in good hands. If anything had gone wrong, the firefighters would have dealt with it. But in practice, it was pretty simple to follow all those rules, set up the fryers properly, and avoid catastrophe. I came away from the day feeling confident that even a klutz like me could manage one or two fried turkeys at home without the assistance of the fire department. Fried turkey is doable. (And delicious.)

So if you’ve been considering frying a turkey for Thanksgiving this year, go for it! I know what I’ll be doing.

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