The Best Turkey Fryer
The affordable, quick-heating stockpot kit has everything you need to get the job done except the oil, the turkey and the propane tank; the separate stove is solidly built, powerful (enough) and stable. You want that stability when you’re handling four gallons of bubbling peanut oil. It comes with a 1-year warranty.
I came to my conclusion after testing two stoves, frying two turkeys (one on a propane burner and one in a top-rated electric fryer for comparison) and talking to three chefs on what types of equipment work best for frying up turkeys for a crowd.
If you can’t find the SQ14, get the Bayou Classic SP10 High-Pressure Outdoor Cooker ($50). It’s the same price and actually cranks up the heat faster than the SQ14. The SP10 also has a great wind guard for keeping the flame jet-engine high. However, it only has three legs and a round base, which makes it feel a little less stable than the SQ14.
This year we again tried to find a good indoor alternative to the propane fryer but were disappointed by the soggy, oily results from the top two electric fryers. If you’re going to fry a turkey, do it right.
Table of contents
- These things are dangerous
- Why risk using a turkey fryer?
- What makes a good turkey fryer?
- What about electric?
- How we picked
- How we tested (and how to use this thing)
- Our pick
- Long-term test notes
- Runner up
- You don’t want electric
- The competition
- Turkey-frying advice
These things are dangerous
His story is a good reminder that most fried turkey disasters probably start as a bit of family fun. There are plenty of guides on the internet that can teach you how to not set your house on fire. Read up until you understand what you are getting into before you begin.
We’re serious. Turkey fryers are so risky that Underwriters Laboratories, the global safety company whose UL logo certification you find on nearly every piece of technology in your house, won’t certify turkey fryers. This UL video shows what can happen when you don’t take the proper precautions.
There are differing schools of thought on brining before frying, but flavor aside, there are safety concerns. Alton Brown recommends it; Sam Sifton warns against it. Sifton wrote this anecdote in the New York Times:
“DO NOT BRINE A TURKEY THAT IS GOING TO BE FRIED. The first time I went to a turkey-fry we made that mistake, my friend Manny and I, the two of us amped on beer and adrenaline, redneck in the extreme. We put the brined turkey into the super-hot peanut oil, which almost instantly converted the excess moisture the bird had been given by the brine into steam. The steam, caught inside the bird, exploded the breasts off the carcass and sent them hurtling skyward on a plume of boiling oil. It was a fairly intense couple of seconds. DO NOT BRINE A TURKEY THAT YOU ARE GOING TO FRY.”
Why risk using a turkey fryer?
This has not deterred adventurous cooks around the country from dragging propane tanks into the backyard. But even if you’re not a thrillseeker, there are benefits to frying your turkey rather than roasting it. First, you get more room in the oven on a day when space for your side dishes and pies is at a premium. Secondly, a fried turkey cooks in a fraction of the time of a roasted one—about 30-45 minutes as opposed to three hours.
And fried food is tasty, of course. Kellie Evans, Associate Food Editor of Saveur, used to fry turkeys when she worked in catering. “I really enjoy this kind of bird. It’s a LOT faster than roasting and less fatty since it doesn’t sit in its fat. The frying initially creates a shield/crust and then the meat essentially steams inside,” she told us.
(Also note that a lot of turkeys—definitely kosher turkeys but also many standard supermarket birds, too1—are salted already. We fried defrosted Butterball turkeys, which “contain up to 8% of a solution of Water, Salt, Spices, and Natural Flavor,” so an additional brine might have added too much salt anyway. An application of salt and pepper while the oil heated up provided the right amount of seasoning for my palate.)
What makes a good turkey fryer?
Turkey frying kits generally consist of a burner that you connect to a separately-purchased propane tank, a big pot deep and wide enough to fit a smaller turkey, a deep-frying thermometer that you clip to the side of the pot, a rack to set your turkey on and a metal hook that looks like an upside-down hanger which you use to slowly lower or lift the turkey. Sometimes the kits include a big basket and syringe injectors. Depth is important for the pot, in order to avoid spillovers. Brandon Boudet told us, “You want that turkey to sit in the pot with at least half the pot’s length above the turkey, so when you put the oil in, it’s probably only going to go about ¼ or ⅓ of the way.”
A turkey fryer kit with stove will run you anywhere from $60 to $160; this doesn’t include the cost of a propane tank if needed ($30) or propane ($10-$15). For the deep fryers, you’ll also need a large amount of a high smoke point oil such as peanut oil, which can be pricey even when purchased from a restaurant supply store. (I got mine from Costco in a 35-pound container, which comes to about 4.5 gallons for $41.) You’ll also want to have a potholder that covers your arm, a long fireplace lighter and a fire extinguisher in case things get out of hand. It’s not a cheap setup in total, but you should be able to use the equipment for many years to come. Many also use their kits for home brewing beer, crawfish boils and more.
You can buy each element piecemeal, but most experts recommend getting a kit so everything fits together well. The one exception to this is the burner. Hunter Lewis told us that stability is key for safety and to buy a burner with four legs. (Alton Brown said something similar on his deep-fried turkey episode of Good Eats.) The burners that come with the full kits often have bolted legs and a tripod base.
Whether stability or BTUs are your focus, you’ll have many more options to choose from if you buy the burner separate from the turkey rack/pot. Besides, propane cooking has been gaining popularity of late. A great propane burner can be a handy, super-powered auxiliary stove for messy, smoky projects you don’t want in the kitchen like deep frying, chile roasting and wok cooking.
The all-in-one outdoor propane kits are made by Bayou Classic, King Kooker, Eastman, Brinkmann, and Masterbuilt. Waring Pro, Masterbuilt, and Cajun Injector have electric fryer offerings. And Char-Broil and Masterbuilt have oil-free options; Char-Broil’s is marketed as “infrared”.
There are also several alternatives, including indoor electric deep fryers and outdoor thermal turkey “fryers” which do not require the use of any oil; we dismissed these after testing and researching.
What about electric?
While there are many articles and videos on the web showing you how to fry a turkey, most recommend getting an all-in-one fryer plus propane burner kit. One notable and trustworthy exception to this is Consumer Reports, who recommend an electric indoor fryer as “a safer way to fry a turkey”. However, we couldn’t find any head-to-head tests of propane vs. electric so we did one ourselves. Spoiler: you want propane.
How we picked
Most editorial points to buying a pot made specifically for the purpose of turkey frying—it’s the right shape and has max-fill line warnings, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to fit the bird in or having to buy too much peanut oil. Serious Eats says, “Don’t try and use a stock pot. Don’t use something that the turkey barely fits in. Don’t use a hot plate. Don’t put your pot on a grill. Three gallons of hot oil is nothing to fool around with, so start with the right equipment.” There aren’t a ton of options to choose from: there’s Bayou, the main player in the category, King Kooker, Brinkmann, Backyard Pro and Masterbuilt. The pots themselves are pretty straightforward with slightly different styles of turkey racks. We chose aluminum between aluminum and stainless because it conducts heat quickly and is the more affordable choice. The one that got the most nods was the Bayou Turkey Fryer pot—Serious Eats and Leite’s Culinaria like their kit best, and the pot gets a 4.5-star rating over 55 reviews on Amazon.
The problem is that most of these brands make all-in-one kits with lesser-quality burners included. Hunter Lewis, Brandon Boudet and Alton Brown (on Good Eats) say that the burner is where you want to pay attention to build quality—for that, you’re better off buying separately.
We ultimately decided to test two propane burners: the Bayou Classic SP10 High-Pressure Outdoor Cooker and the Bayou Classic SQ14 Single Burner Patio Stove. Either can be had for about $50. We looked at many different outdoor cooker models on Amazon, Home Depot and Lowe’s, and these two had the attributes recommended by the pros—a sturdy build, single burner, powerful heat and good value. They are also well-liked by Amazon readers and members of beermaking communities, who also prize them for their steady output of high heat and stability. (You can find multiple conversations on Home Brew Talk pitting one against the other.)
To check out the difference between a turkey fried in an electric fryer vs. one fried over a propane burner, I prepped a turkey for the top-rated Masterbuilt Butterball Indoor Gen III Electric Fryer Cooker ($100), which certified to be up to UL standards by the CSA, but is not UL-approved2. This is a fryer with the backing of Consumer Reports, who said that “[t]he meat was nicely browned and very juicy; Thighs were a bit oily; other parts weren’t.” The large black model is big enough to hold a 14-pound turkey, though most recipes recommend smaller birds. The previous-generation model has an impressive 4.5-star rating over 1,060 customer reviews. The differences between Gen III and the previous model are that Gen III has a front-facing oil spout instead of back-facing, and that the new lid is a single, detachable metal piece rather than a folding lid with a window. We chose to test the new one because when we called Masterbuilt, we were told that they are no longer making the previous-generation model. The fryer comes pretty much assembled; a little cleaning and reassembling is all that’s needed before you can start.
How we tested (and how to use this thing)
We started by assembling each fryer in turn, making note of how easy it was to go from box to boiling.
To test burner power, we hooked them up to a tank of propane on a windless, 55-degree night to see how long each took to boil 6 quarts of water in a stainless steel pot, uncovered. It took me a few tries to figure out how to get the heat blasting. It helped to close off the air shutter and slowly turn the propane up until I could hear the flames whoosh.
Finally, the fun part: turkey frying time! I determined that the performance of the two propane models were close enough that I could get away with picking one over the other for design and stability reasons. So I only fried one 10.5-pound turkey in our pot pick. I also did another 10.5-pound in the electric for comparison.
Our pick is the Bayou Classic Aluminum Turkey Fryer Stockpot ($40). It comes with the necessary poultry rack, hook, thermometer and injector (which you don’t need). It’s big enough to hold your 10 or 12-lb. turkey. With the turkey fryer kits, one big decision to make is whether to go with aluminum or stainless steel. Our experts were mixed on this. While Kellie Evans prefers stainless steel, Hunter Lewis told us that “Stainless is going to cost you a lot. Aluminum is actually great for this because it conducts heat quickly and it heats up the oil quickly.” This helps once the turkey goes in, which always drops the temperature of the oil considerably. Bayou seems to be the go-to brand in the category; the same pot (but with its burner) was recommended by Serious Eats and Leite’s Culinaria.
Assembly is pretty easy and requires an adjustable wrench and a Phillips-head screwdriver. There are three pieces: a welded metal frame, a double-ring burner with a locking bolt and air shutter and a regulator hose that you attach to your propane tank.
Once everything has been set up, the instructions walk you through a soapy water test to check all the connection points for propane leaks. The manual reads long, but we appreciated how thorough the safety checks are.
As far as performance goes, it took about 16 minutes for 6 quarts of water to boil, which was admittedly a minute slower than the smaller SP10. But we gave the edge to the Bayou Classic SQ14 for the versatility of the large 16” x 16” cooking surface and the stability of four legs.
On the SQ14, heating the oil to 375 degrees took about 30 minutes, though it probably could have gone a little faster as I was able to crank up the propane about 15 minutes in. I tested the stockpot’s handy clip thermometer against my Thermapen and found that its temperature reading was accurate.
The results: A gorgeous turkey with Maillard reaction galore. That little flap of neck skin was like the crackly, Platonic ideal of gribenes. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, the skin and meat were flavorful and fragrant, reminiscent of the best fried chicken, and outer pieces like the wings stayed crisp after a long rest.
I’ll be honest—I let the bird go to 35 minutes, the full 3½ minutes per pound for a 10-lb. turkey, and my Thermapen told me the breast was overcooked at 170 degrees (before carryover!). I probably could have taken it out at least five minutes earlier. The breast meat was a bit dry and overdone, but that was a cook’s error. The rest of the bird was a revelation; crisp, seasoned skin that crunched like pork cracklings and meat that wasn’t greasy. It took a lot less work and time than overnight-brined and roasted turkeys I’ve done in the past.
Cleanup was easier than I had expected. I cooled the pot over a whole day, then strained and saved the oil. The rack and pot were easy to hand wash—no heavy scrubbing required.
Interestingly, the Bayou Classic Fryer Kit with the tripod burner is $121, making the kit cost $30 more than putting the fryer pot with the single stove burner.
Is it dangerous? It can be. But let’s be honest; that twinge of excitement is part of the fun. Hunter Lewis told us, “It’s the old primeval caveman thing where something is cooking, and it’s usually meat, and there’s beer involved.” Big holiday meals are like theatrical productions, and there are few things flashier than putting your mitts on and pulling a gorgeous, crispy, burnished bird from a vat of boiling oil.
While Brandon Boudet gets the propane cranking so he can cook 60 turkeys in 5 ½ hours, Hunter Lewis doesn’t think BTUs make for better turkey. Keep in mind that you don’t want the temperature on the oil to get too high or you risk a flash point (when the oil vapor can ignite) or burning the oil, which will ruin the flavor. A stronger flame might have gotten my oil back up to 350 degrees a little faster, but I don’t think it would have made for a more delicious turkey—just a faster one.
Long-term test notes
I’ve used the Bayou SQ14 Patio Stove throughout the year for wok cooking on my deck. It still works as well as it did when I got it, though the black paint has burned off in areas. The more I use it, the more glad I am for its wide base.
You don’t want electric
As far as electric turkey fryers go, we can’t in good faith offer a recommendation. Last year we only tried the Masterbuilt Butterball Turkey Fryer($130), which was recommended by Consumer Reports, and we found that the combination of a weaker heat source and less oil (2 gallons vs. about 3.5-4 gallons for propane) wasn’t sufficient to maintain the desired cooking temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, producing subpar results. Ultimately, we were left with a non-crispy-skinned turkey that tastes pretty much the same as a traditional roasted bird—only a whole lot oilier.
This year we tested the Masterbuilt against the Waring Pro Rotisserie TurkeyFryer/Steamer ($240), which was praised by Food & Wine in their November 2013 issue: “With a built-in rotisserie and safety catches, it’s much less likely to splash or spill hot oil — a big risk with other setups.” The Masterbuilt Butterball fryer again produced a turkey with oily, soggy skin that clung to the meat like wet clothing. The Waring Pro produced slightly crisper skin but still disappointing results. In our tests, even when filled to “max fill” line with oil, both models failed to cover the 14 lb. turkey completely, leaving us to choose the lesser of two evils—top off with more oil to cover the turkey completely (which is too dangerous) or let the turkey cook with the ridge of the breast exposed to steam.
That steam is one of the the reasons these turkeys wind up soggy rather than crisp. Both fryers instruct you to fry the turkeys with the lid on, probably to reduce the amount of spatter in a home kitchen, but it goes against the science of frying. As a food fries, steam escapes, causing those rolling bubbles in a vat of hot oil. The steam needs to escape to form a crispy crust. Putting a lid, even a vented one, on a pot of frying food doesn’t let the steam escape, so you can end up with soggy, greasy food.
With an electric fryer, you put the turkey in a “basket” that more resembles a colander. It’s a metal tray with holes punched out with a handle or handles attached. You don’t get the oil circulation around the turkey that you would in a large pot fryer, which is also another reason for the soggy skin.
If you want that crackling deep fried turkey skin, they won’t get it from an electric fryer. But you’ll come closer to it with the Waring.
Clean up was just as you’d expect. You have to have to dispose of 3 gallons of oil, just as you have to do with a traditional turkey fryer. Also, the parts are really big. I have a professional two-compartment sink in my backyard with hot water, and it was still a pain to maneuver. If you have a standard kitchen sink, you will have to wash these fryers in the bathtub.
If you must have fried turkey on Thanksgiving, and you have the outdoor space, the best bet is to spring for the Bayou Classic set up. After you’re done frying turkeys, you can also do crawfish and lobster boils in the spring and summer to get more out of your investment.
The SP10 was the other gas burner we tested. It’s supported by a slightly smaller 14-inch-wide welded tripod frame compared to the SQ14’s 16 inches and has a longer, 48-inch hose compared to the SQ14’s 29-incher. Once I was able to fiddle with the regulator and air shutter, the propane cranked out with a loud whoosh and blue flames roared under the center of the pot that boiled the 6 quarts of water in an impressive 15 minutes (compared to 16 minutes for the SQ14). But ultimately, we thought the added stability of a fourth leg and a larger footprint outweighed the nominal speed boost you get from the SP10, because safety should always come first.
There are other gas fryers that we considered and dismissed, too.
The King Kooker Turkey Fryer Package ($106) is about the same price as the Bayou kits, but Amazon customers don’t rate them as highly as the Bayou models. According to Home Depot, their turkey fryer burner gets up to 38,000 BTUs, much lower than our pick, and the legs on their burners look and seem a little less stable than the Bayou Classic’s.
At $60, the all-in-one Brinkmann Turkey Fryer is the most affordable option. But it gets only 3.5 stars over 67 Amazon reviews; they fault it for gas valve issues, with multiple users echoing Omar A. Ramirez’s comment: “Now here is the problem. This thing won’t stay lit.”
The Char-Broil Big Easy Infrared Turkey Fryer ($99), meant for the outdoors, is not technically a fryer at all. It uses a propane-powered heating chamber to cook the turkey. Because it doesn’t require oil, you can use a rub on the skin without worrying about it dissolving off. However, it does require a propane tank. Epicurious tested it and said, “Every one of our 14 Thanksgiving guests said the turkey was the best they’d ever tasted, and it was still juicy days later.” We followed up with Jolène M. Bouchon, the author of the Epicurious piece, who told us, ”I don’t know if it’s because we stored the machine outside (covered, but still) or if this is something that just happens over time, but the second year we did our turkey in the machine, it cooked unevenly. Some of the propane jet outputs had gotten blocked, I believe, which we didn’t realize until cooking was underway.” They have not gotten it fixed yet, but they do plan on it. Serious Eats’s J. Kenji Lopez-Alt considered it a unitasker and said, “Skin was great too—better than the roast, though not quite as cracklingly crisp as the actual deep-fried bird.” It earned 4.5 stars over 402 reviews, and people love it for the most part, though two people claim theirs caught on fire. Ultimately, cooking takes considerably longer than the oil fryers: 8-10 minutes per pound, making a 12-lb. bird a two-hour affair from raw to cooked (as opposed to the 30-minute heating plus 30-45 minutes in an oil fryer). While some customers think it tastes like the real deal, others think it’s not the same. Amazon customer JaSoN said, “My big complaint is that this device basically just replicates your oven, but outside.”
The Masterbuilt Butterball Oil-Free Electric Turkey Fryer and Roaster ($129) uses radiant heat like the Char-Broil. However, it uses electricity rather than propane to heat things up. Again, many customers say this is more of a roaster than a fryer. Amazon customer Casey D. Stutzman says, “If you are looking for that deep fried crispiness and look…this won’t give you that.” Amazon customer Ed says, “Did not taste like a deep fried turkey to me. However came out very juicy.”
– The most often repeated advice is this: Turn the fire off before you lower the turkey. Once your oil comes up to temp, turn off the flame before s-l-o-w-l-y lowering the turkey into the pot. When the moist turkey hits the hot oil, it will bubble up angrily and messily, and you don’t want that to happen when the flame is on. All those fires you see on YouTube were likely caused by overflowing oil catching fire from the burner.
– Do not leave your burner unattended. This process requires vigilance. Keep an eye on the clip-on thermometer to make sure the temperature never gets above 375 degrees at any point or you risk flash point.
– You don’t need an elaborate recipe to make a fried turkey taste good, but you do need to have the right equipment. Aside from the equipment that we’ve recommended in this guide, you will also need:
an instant-read thermometer for testing the turkey’s internal temperature
a full propane tank
a 35-lb. (4.5-gallon) container of peanut oil or other high-smoke point frying oil (we got ours from Costco for $41)
Protective long sleeves and pants, as well as good shoes (no slippers!)
Long-armed oven mitts (we loved this one) for lowering and lifting the turkey
A fire extinguisher
Cardboard to lay around the stove to prevent stains on your cement
Something to cordon off your hot oil, both during the cooking process and cooling process.
(You could do Alton Brown’s turkey derrick, but turning the flame off before lowering the turkey using the kit’s hook and a strong oven mitt will give you plenty of control and protection.)
– Test your burner before the big day, especially if you’ve moved your setup. Use soapy water to check for leaks at all of the connections. You want to make sure everything turns on and off smoothly and that your burner is stable before you start heating up your oil.
– Even if there’s a fill line on your pot, you’re better off doing a liquid displacement test before you heat the oil. A lot of people recommend that you put your turkey in the pot, fill with enough water to cover, measure how much water you’ve used, and then use that amount of oil. But this means you have wet your turkey again just when you need it to be dry. We like Serious Eats’s technique—put the bird into the pot and cover with oil, not water; once you reach the right level, take the turkey out and put the pot of oil on the burner to heat. And you don’t have to completely submerge the turkey – once you lower the turkey in, the hot oil will bubble up enough to cover the top of the bird. Respect the max fill line on the pot.
– Set the turkey upright on the rack, breast up, legs down, “like a beer can chicken, like any second it could just start dancing,” says Hunter. This is also the advice that Serious Eats gives.
– Cement is going to be a more sturdy, stable base than dirt. Brandon Boudet says, “Lay out a couple of cardboard boxes around, where you’re going to be standing. Helps absorb the oil.” Once your bird is done, place a stack of newspaper on the cardboard next to the pot and let the turkey drain excess oil there before you transfer it to your cutting board. There will be a lot of drainage.
– Keep dogs and children far, far away. They are going to want to get in on the action. Be firm.
– Accidents can happen even after the stove is turned off, and four gallons of oil require a whole day to cool off. Make sure you let the pot cool in a safe place where little hands won’t reach in.
– You can reuse the oil. Brandon says he can fry two turkeys in a single batch of oil before changing it—useful if you’re having more than 10 people over because you can just fry a second turkey after the first one comes out (in less time than it takes to roast one in the oven). Hunter suggests letting the oil cool, skimming the top and straining the bits out, and saving the oil for one more use.
– Once you’ve exhausted its use, don’t pour the oil down the drain, where it can clog your pipes. Check your local Craigslist to find biofuel recyclers who’ll be happy to take the stuff off of your hands. You can also check your local .gov for household hazardous waste recycling events.
– Hunter Lewis says, “And just to reiterate, dogs love these things.”
Wrapping it up
The Bayou Classic Aluminum Turkey Fryer Stockpot ($40) and the Bayou Classic Single Burner Patio Stove ($50) provide an affordable fryer setup that will probably make you want to cook everything outside. Be safe and have fun!
Originally published: November 7, 2013