Here’s Why Your Thanksgiving Turkey Crispy Could Explode and Get You Into the Emergency Room

Deep-frying turkey is a great way to have a delicious Thanksgiving meal. But this cooking method can be a very dangerous undertaking.

Every fall, millions of dollars in damage, trips to the ER and even died trying to deep-fry a turkey. Most of these accidents happen because people put frozen turkey in boiling oil. If you’re considering deep-frying this year, don’t forget to defrost and dry the turkey before you put it in the pot. Failure to do so could result in an explosive disaster.

What is dangerous about putting even a partially frozen turkey in the deep fryer?

I am a chemist who studies plant, fungal and animal compounds and is interested in food chemistry. What causes frozen turkeys to explode is, at its core, related to the difference in density. There is a difference in density between oil and water, and a difference in density of water between its solid, liquid, and gaseous states. When these density differences interact in the right way, you get a boom.

Understanding density

Density is how much an object weighs for a particular mass. For example, imagine you hold an ice cube in one hand and a marshmallow in the other. While they are roughly the same size, the block of ice is heavier: It is denser.

The first important density difference when it comes to frying is water is denser than oil. This has to do with how closely each substance’s molecules are together and how heavy the atoms that make up each liquid are.

Water molecules are small and packed tightly together. Oil molecules are much larger and do not pack together by comparison. In addition, water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, while Oil is mainly carbon and hydrogen. Oxygen is heavier than carbon. This means, for example, that a cup of water has more atoms than a cup of oil, and those atoms are heavier. This is why oil floats on water. It is less dense.

While different materials have different densities, liquids, solids, and gases of a single material can also have different densities. You observe this every time you put an ice cube in a glass of water: The ice floats on top of it less dense than water.

As water absorbs heat, it transitions to the gaseous, vapor phase. Steam occupies 1,700 times volume as the same number of liquid water molecules. You observe this effect when you boil water in a teapot. The expansion force of the gas pushes the water vapor out of the gas Boil water through the whistle, causing a chirping sound.

Frozen turkey filled with water

Frozen turkey – or any frozen meat, for that matter – contains a lot of ice. Raw meat can be anywhere from 56% to 73% water. If you’ve ever defrosted a piece of frozen meat, you’ve probably seen all the liquid come out.

For deep frying, cooking oil is heated around 350 degrees F (175 C). This is much hotter than the boiling point of water, which is 212 F (100 C). So, when the ice in a frozen turkey comes in contact with hot oil, the ice on the surface quickly turns to steam.

This rapid transition is not a problem as it occurs at the very surface of the oil. Water vapor is released into the air harmlessly.

However, when you dip the turkey in oil, the ice inside the turkey absorbs heat and melts, forming liquid water. This is where density comes into play.

This liquid water is denser than oil so it falls to the bottom of the pot. Water molecules continue to absorb heat and energy and eventually they change phase and become water vapor. The water molecules then rapidly spread apart and volume expands to 1,700 times. This expansion causes the density of water to decrease by one . density percent of oilso the gas wants to quickly rise to the surface.

Combine the rapid change in density along with the volume expansion and you get an explosion. The steam expands and rises, blowing up the boiling oil in the pot. If that’s not dangerous enough, because the replaced oil comes into contact with the burner or the flame, it could catch fire. When some oil droplets ignite, the flame rapidly ignites nearby oil molecules, resulting in a fast-moving and often catastrophic fire.

Thousands of accidents like this happen every year. So, if you decide to fry your turkey for Thanksgiving this year, be sure to defrost it thoroughly and pat dry. And the next time you add some liquid to a pan full of oil and boil the oil on the stove, you’ll know the science why.

Kristine Nolin is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond. This was first published by Conversation – “Why do frozen turkeys explode when deep-fried?

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