There’s something truly, intensely intimidating about roasting a Thanksgiving turkey. At its core, you just season the bird, throw it in the oven, and wait. But despite how truly easy this bird can be to prepare, 80 percent of first-time Thanksgiving cooks (and 40 percent of repeat cooks) are worried about getting the bird right. Luckily, the reliable folks at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line are there throughout the holiday season to coach you through this big task.
And though the Butterball Talk-Line is there to take your calls (and texts), we thought it would be a great service this Thanksgiving to get in contact directly with a Talk-Line expert and have her answer her most-asked questions for you. So we rang up Carol Miller, who’s been with Butterball for over 30 years, and she talked us through everything you need to know to make your holiday perfect.
“For best quality, you want a turkey that has been in your freezer for no more than six months. But it is fine after a year. Anything after two years will have a quality problem. It gets a little dried out and will have picked up a little of that freezer odor. When we’re talking or texting with someone, we make sure they haven’t had a power outage during that time. Of course, that would affect what’s happened to the turkey. But if not, yeah, you can use that turkey after a year.”
“Most holiday cooks want that generous holiday serving and leftovers. Those leftovers are either going to go into a little foil packet to their guests or they’re going to be what the family enjoys for the next three days — that second Thanksgiving dinner heated up in the microwave or sandwiches. With both of those things in consideration, a pound and a half per person usually works out well.”
“That’s really easily solved. You don’t have to buy a 30-pound bird. You can buy two 15-pound turkeys. The yield per pound is the same. Smaller turkeys are a lot easier to handle, they take less time to roast in the oven. A lot of people will prepare one of those turkeys the day before, carve it, chill it, and use it as their backup turkey for Thanksgiving. You have your ta-da turkey and then you have the other one when you run out of meat. The other option is to buy a larger turkey and a bone-in breast. Nobody really wants to deal with a 30-pound turkey.”
“Early. It’s really simple. If you buy it early, then it’s so easy to thaw. A frozen turkey takes one day in the refrigerator for every four pounds. Then you have an extra holding period of three to four days. That takes a lot of the worry about trying to get that frozen neck out of the body or having a turkey that is not totally thawed. Buy it early so you don’t have to go through any extra considerations thawing it.”
“You certainly can use those, yes. But you want to put the pan and the turkey on a cookie sheet with sides, so you can grab the cookie sheet when you’re putting the turkey in and taking it out of the oven. In the small print on those pans, there is a disclaimer that suggests that you do that. You know, a 20- or 25-pound turkey in that thin aluminum foil will wiggle and wobble. I always tell people to do the ‘pinhole test.’ Hold that pan up to the light in the grocery store and then again at home and check for little holes to avoid your oven smoking.”
“No, because after you thaw it, you have an additional three to four days. But what I tell people is not to count Thanksgiving. That’s a roasting day, not a thawing day. If you’re calculating one day for every four pounds, don’t count Thanksgiving. You want it thawed by then.”
“You can thaw it in cold water. It’s not a problem. Submerge it in a sink, tub, or cooler and cover it with cold tap water. You want to change the water every 30 minutes. For each pound of turkey, it needs a half hour in the water. That size turkey would need 10 hours. Overnight, it goes back in to the refrigerator. Set a timer to remind yourself that you have something going on in the kitchen.”
“No, you really shouldn't. The thing that’s great about Butterball turkeys is that they’re all cleaned out and everything like that. And if you wash your turkey, you’re getting raw juices splashing all over your kitchen. Just pat them down with paper towels and in the body cavity to get some of that liquid out of the middle. Just be sure to get the paper towels out. You get people though who think it’s very important to do that. Then we just warn them to be very, very careful and clean up afterward.”
“Yes. You want to stuff it right before you put it in the oven. You don’t want to prepare it like that and leave it in the fridge all night. You can sauté raw meat like sausage or oysters, your onions and carrots the night before. Get your dry ingredients all ready. In the morning, put it all together and stuff it in the turkey. Of course, then you do not take your turkey out of the oven until the center of the stuffing is at 165 degrees. If you follow those directions, you’re fine.”
“It’s the same principle as cooking one cookie on a cookie sheet or a dozen. They’re going to cook in about the same amount of time. So there’s no need to increase the time. You do need to treat the turkeys as individuals. Even though they weigh the same, their composition may be slightly different. Don’t take them out of the oven until you get that safe temperature.”
“The skin of the turkey is really like a raincoat. The basting liquid that you put on goes right back in to the pan. Hand-basting doesn’t go into the flavor of the breast. But… it is a tradition! Yes, you can baste. But you don’t want to do it too often. It’s not going to hurt the turkey. What makes the turkey moist is just not overcooking it. It’s getting it out of the oven at those temperatures.”
“You can’t tell if a turkey is done just by looking at its color. And some people just cook by the time. They look and it says three to three and a half hours, so they cook it for three and a half hours and take it out of the oven. But you really need to cook by temperature. Early in the season when we get someone on the phone or via email, we remind them to get that meat thermometer out, buy one if you don’t have one, and make sure it’s calibrated.”
“First, make sure it’s really done. Maybe you’re just looking at color or time. Check the temperature. If it really is ready to come out of the oven, if it’s an hour or less before serving, just remove the turkey from the roaster, cover it with foil, and insulate it with some clean towels. If it’s more than an hour, place the turkey in a cooler, and that will keep it warm for a little longer. It’s not until it’s more than two hours that you’ll need to return the turkey to a warm oven. If you do it right off the bat, you’re going to dry out the turkey. Just insulate it with some foil.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a Thanksgiving where I don’t plan to have the turkey out of the oven an hour before it’s ready to be served. That way, I can use the oven to heat up the stuffing, heat up my casserole dishes, and make the gravy. Really, turkeys don’t take as much time as people think in their mind. I don’t know if they’re thinking of Grandma who would cook for hours and hours. You don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to roast a turkey. So that hour is my ace in the hole. Getting everything on the table hot is always a challenge.”
“In the refrigerator, for best quality, you want to use them in about three days. If it’s more than you know you’re going to be using in that period of time, cut it up, put it in meal-sized packages, and put it in the freezer. Then you can have Thanksgiving turkey stew or turkey barbecue.”
Now that you know how to cook your turkey, get creative filling the rest of the table with these 101 Thanksgiving recipes.