7 Questions For A Turkey Expert

For the past 30 years, home cooks suffering panic attacks at the 11th hour on Thanksgiving Day have had a reliable source to turn to: The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. Staffed by friendly Midwesterners, the hotline that started with 11 operators now takes over 100,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone. (It's easy to remember: 1-800-BUTTERBALL.) And now, for the Internet-savvy, sage advice can be accessed via iChat, through Butterball.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

"Butterball is here to make your Thanksgiving better," says veteran Talk-Line expert and company woman Alice Coffey when we called up the hotline recently. It's to be expected for a company that sells more than 12 million turkeys per year. Coffey gave us a rundown of common Thanksgiving calls she fields and how to avoid a total meltdown. Rule No. 1: Don't freak out. Seriously, she and her colleagues have an answer for just about any jam you can get yourself into.

1. What are some of the most common mistakes that people make?

The number one problem that people have is thawing. They're busy and, all of a sudden, it's the 20th and they find out that they're having 20 people over. You need to give yourself enough time to thaw the turkey: one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every four pounds of turkey. If it's a 20-pound turkey, it will take five full days to thaw in the refrigerator. If you don't have enough days in the week, you can put your turkey in cold water and it will take 30 minutes a pound to thaw it that way.

2. BIG question: To brine or not to brine?

Brining is something that has become popular in the last couple of years. You want to start out with a thawed turkey. When you brine, you're setting the turkey in a saltwater solution. We recommend adding a cup of kosher salt per gallon of water. You would do that up to 24 hours ahead of time, depending on the size of the turkey. It needs to be refrigerated the entire time it's brined. The recipe starts with salted water, but you can add other things to it, like herbs or fruits and vegetables.

After you take your turkey out of the water, you'll notice that the skin is shriveled up and has a grayish color, like it has been in the bathtub all night. That's perfectly fine. Then, you roast the turkey as you would, and you will notice it gets very juicy and tender after it's been brined.

3. Whether brining or not, what are some flavors that should be avoided?

You don't really need to avoid any flavors. If you want to use garlic, you can use them in a rub on the meat or under the skin. A lot of people mix herbs with butter and put it under the skin, which gives it a nice delicate flavor. At Butterball, we came out with a new recipe this year for a Mediterranean rub: you cook your turkey completely, then when it comes out of the oven, take a mix of parsley, lemon peel, rosemary leaves, oregano, black pepper and red pepper flakes and just sprinkle that on top. When you slice it, you get those fresh herb flavors. It's really delicious.

4. What's the craziest call you've ever fielded on Thanksgiving Day?

I had a guy who was cooking a turkey for his girlfriend and her parents. He was really nervous. He followed the directions on the packaging and the turkey looked great and he was all excited. But when he went to put it in the oven, he pressed the button that said 'clean' instead of 'bake.' So, the door locked and the oven went up to 500 degrees. He called panicked about what he was going to do and how to get the turkey out of there. If you have a self-cleaning oven, you know there's no way to get a turkey or anything out of there once it locks. I recommended that he go to the store quickly and try to find one of our cooked Butterball turkeys that they could just slice and serve. It was the only answer!

5. Do you use that little plastic thing that pops out of the turkey to let you know it's done?

You can certainly use that plastic button that pops up. It doesn't tell you the temperature of the meat, though. It tells you the meat is almost ready. Usually, they're put in the breast. I would definitely use a proper meat thermometer separately – either an instant-read or oven-safe one – and stick it in the thigh. Make sure the thigh goes up to 180 or 185 degrees F, because you want to make sure the meat is thoroughly cooked and safe, but also tender and delicious.

6. Another big trend is people deep-frying their birds. Any idea what the next big thing will be?

The other trend that people are discovering is, with the deep fryer, you can do parts: just the breasts or a couple of legs. Also, people are getting more experimental with the rubs and spices that they are putting on the meat. Turkey is a very economical product to buy for a family. It's a lot of meat for not much money. Edit Note: Frozen Butterball turkeys sell for 99-cents per pound in the supermarket.

7. Do you recommend stuffing any other animals inside your bird?

We have, of course, heard of turducken. We've seen videos on it and recipes, but we find that it's more trouble than it's worth. It's a lot of work and it's for an ambitious cook. Also, there are food safety issues to consider. All the different meats from different animals have to be kept clean, cold and separate. Plus, it's very expensive. So, I would not recommend cooking a turducken. If you want to have a different kind of meat with your turkey, you can cook up some pork sausage to put in your stuffing.

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