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Is a deep-fried Christmas turkey worth the risks?

A volunteer deep fries a turkey for victims and volunteers of Hurricane Sandy in the Staten Island borough of New York, Nov. 21, 2012.


One of the biggest, juiciest, crispiest trends in turkey preparations – deep-frying – comes with a huge caveat: It's dangerous.

"When it goes wrong, it will go wrong really quickly," said Lisa McWatt, a spokeswoman for Allstate Insurance Company of Canada. "We don't think it's worth the risk."

Deep-drying even small bits of food comes with inherent dangers of fire and serious skin burns. When you are lowering a 20-pound bird into a vat of boiling oil, the dangers increase exponentially.

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Have doubts? Do a quick search on YouTube and you'll find a plethora of deep-fried turkey disaster videos, complete with three-metre-high flames and visits from fire departments. Reports from the U.S. estimate that accidents involving deep-frying turkeys are responsible for several deaths each year.

Deep-fried turkey has its roots in the southwestern U.S. A major part of the appeal lies in the fact deep-frying allows the turkey to be crispy on the outside and perfectly juicy on the inside. Now, the trend is slowly taking hold north of the border as more aspiring home chefs look to put a new spin on an old dish .

Typically, turkeys are fried outdoors in a special fryer that can be purchased at home retail stores. Outdoor turkey fryers are fuelled by gas, which heats up a vat of oil that's deep enough to cover a whole turkey.

The problem? The hot oil can easily spill or splatter during the cooking process or when the turkey is being lowered into or lifted out of the fryer. This can accidentally a) cause a fire or b) result in severe burns from boiling oil splashing on the cook. There is also a risk that the cooking oil itself could ignite if its temperature becomes too high; it can be difficult to control the temperature on many turkey fryers.

For this reason, fire-prevention authorities warn people against deep-frying turkeys – period.

"It tastes really good. I think that's certainly part of the draw," said Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, based in Massachusetts. "I think, unfortunately, when it comes to fire, people often think it's not going to happen to them, or they think that if they can purchase something on the market, then it must be safe. Sometimes, the reality is these things aren't as safe as you might anticipate."

Anthony Toderian, manager of corporate affairs for the Canadian Standards Association Group, says that guidelines and standards for turkey fryers have evolved to help protect consumers from burns and fires. He noted that indoor turkey fryers, similar to counter-top deep fryers that are equipped with lids, are becoming more popular. They reduce the risk of fire because, unlike outdoor fryers, they don't use an open flame to heat the oil. As long as consumers follow the manufacturer's instructions and heed warnings , there shouldn't be a problem, Toderian said.

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But Ryan Betts, acting manager of public fire safety education for Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal, says the risks are simply too great. Even the most careful consumers can end up with a house fire or severe burns because there are too many variables to control, he says. For instance, frying a turkey that is wet or is still partially frozen can cause oil to splatter or boil over.

He added that cooking fires are the number-one cause of house fires, and the risks increase during the holidays when people tend to be entertaining and may be consuming alcohol or not paying close attention to the stove.

"When it [goes wrong], the amount of damage is unbelievable," McWatt said. "We all think we're pretty cautious people, but when you look at the number of house fires that we see, it's staggering. And it can be prevented."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More


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