Note from Scott: This is an article I wrote a long time ago, 1987, when I was the food editor for New Times in Phoenix. Jean Schnelle, whom I quote in the story, is no longer with the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, and some other things have changed, but pretty much all of the information is still valid.
Also, check out this recipe for a yogurt turkey marinade from the Divas of Dish, Pam Brandon and Anne-Marie Denicole.
You’re cooking the family dinner this Thanksgiving.
The turkey doesn’t quite seem to be done yet. You’ve invested more money in this one meal than you normally spendon food in a whole month. And that group of people sitting in the dining room staring anxiously at the kitchen door is about to change from the Waltons to the Addams Family.
Just try to stay calm. Don’t panic.
Most likely, it’s the pressures of the day and the size of the meal that get even the most experienced cooks flustered over preparing the big bird. But if you plan ahead and follow some rules, Turkey Day will turn out fine.
Not that you should relax altogether. As a matter of fact, if you’re not careful, Thanksgiving could end up with another family get-together -- in the emergency room of the local hospital.
Now you’re upset again.
Let’s start at the beginning and go through the rules. Luckily, you have the good fortune to learn from the past mistakes of others. The experts who man the phones at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line have heard all the turkey tragedies.
Jean Schnelle, director of the talk line, has been with the service since it began in 1982. Back then, there were only five or six women to answer calls. They were in a kitchen at the Swift-Eckrich facility in Oak Brook, Illinois, using regular phones, which they had to cradle on their shoulders while they talked. Today there are 44 operators, all professional home economists, with the convenience of headsets. They need to be comfortable to answer all those calls. The operators are armed with all the answers, and more than just a little compassion.
“We never laugh at anyone,” says Schnelle. Not even at the man who called when his wife got her hand caught in the metal clasp that holds the drumsticks together. The turkey was still frozen and the clasp wouldn’t budge. The man called because his wife had panicked and gone running through the house, attached to the turkey. It didn’t quite take the Jaws of Life to rescue her, but the fire department did solve the problem.
Then there was the woman who called because the family’s German shepherd had grabbed the finished turkey off the counter and dragged it out to the back yard. The woman had placed parsley in the tooth marks and wanted to check if that was all right.
Another guy -- Schnelle’s all-time favorite -- called the hotline because his wife went into labor shortly after putting the turkey in the oven. Then man would call periodically to find out what to do next. “He called all day to give updates on the baby and to find out how to cook the turkey.”
Luckily, he didn’t end up basting the baby.
Many of the callers are men. In fact, says Schnelle, it’s an inside joke around the phone room that half of the callers are the husbands of the operators who have to work on Thanksgiving Day. To help ease the crush of phone calls, I asked the Butterball Talk-Line experts to share some of the most common problems associated with cooking a turkey.
Buying the Bird
The first thing to consider is how much turkey you should buy. A general rule of thumb is to allow 1 to 1-1/2 pounds per person. This will provide for generous servings and ample leftovers.
Turkeys come fresh or frozen, self-basting and prestuffed. Which one you choose is strictly a matter of personal preference. If you choose a frozen turkey, be sure it is thoroughly frozen. Partially thawed poultry invite bacteria growth. Prestuffed birds should always come frozen and should not be thawed before roasting.
The younger a turkey is, the more tender it is likely to be. According to information provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, all turkeys sold in grocery stores are young and are labeled “young turkey.” This means they are between four and six months of age. “Fryer-roaster” turkeys are usually under four months old. The optional designation of “tom” or “hen” on the label is an indication of size rather than tenderness. It has no other importance except, of course, to another turkey.
Thawing the Turkey
If your turkey is not prestuffed, it will need to be thawed. This can be a big problem, even for experienced cooks. “A lot of the calls are from people who forgot to thaw the turkey or thawed it improperly,” says Schnelle. The proper way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator, where it will thaw slowly at a lower temperature, thus inhibiting bacterial growth. This may take up to five days for a large bird of 20 to 24 pounds or only one to two days for an 8 to 12 pound bird. Schnelle says the turkey should be placed in the refrigerator, in its original wrapper, on a tray to catch the juices as they melt. Raw turkey juice is not good for the other foods in your refrigerator.
If you suddenly remember the day before Thanksgiving that you forgot to thaw the turkey, there’s a faster way to get the job done, if you consider 12 hours fast. Schnelle says that the bird can be submerged in cold water, in the sink of bathtub. The water needs to be changed every 30 minutes and must be kept cold to inhibit bacterial growth.
Microwave thawing is also possible but is not recommended by the people at the hotline because it may affect the quality of the finished bird. If microwave thawing is your only resort, check the owner’s manual of your oven to determine procedure.
As a very last course of action, the bird can be cooked frozen. This does not present a health problem but may affect the quality of the turkey. The USDA recommends a temperature of 350 degrees if cooking an unthawed bird.
A Clean Bird is a Healthy Bird
Once thawed, be sure to removed the neck and giblets (heart, liver and gizzard). Schnelle says that a lot of people aren’t aware that there are two cavities in turkeys: the neck and the, uh, other one. Be sure there isn’t something hiding in one or the other: the neck and the giblets are usually packed in these cavities, wrapped in paper or plastic. Cooking the turkey with these things still inside probably won’t cause a health problem but may prove embarrassing to the cook.
After removing the neck and giblets, wash the turkey thoroughly inside and out using only cold water, nothing else. Once washed, your fowl is ready to be stuffed.
Stuffing Versus Dressing
The operators at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line have a lot of answers for even the most obscure questions. But no one there seems to know what the difference is, if any, between stuffing and dressing. Folks use it interchangeably, sometimes in the same sentence. As near as anyone can tell, it’s called dressing until it’s put inside the bird. It’s a mighty good-tasting part of the dinner (some people think the turkey is only there to hold the stuffing), but it’s one of the most dangerous parts of the meal.
A lot of people get in trouble with the stuffing because the bread it is made with, once moistened, is highly vulnerable to bacteria. “Bread stuffing is a dream come true for bacteria,” reports Schnelle. A lot of people, she says, try to save time by stuffing the bird the night before -- which gives the bacteria the chance to multiply. Refrigerating the stuffed, raw turkey overnight won’t help because the bird will act as an insulator from the cold for several hours, long enough for the germs to grow. Eating infected stuffing can cause severe food poisoning, even after it’s cooked.
Some folks mix up the dressing the night before, ready to stuff the turkey the next day. Also not a good idea, says Schnelle. If you’re intent on saving time, she advises, mix the wet and dry ingredients separately and refrigerate overnight.
An alternative to stuffing the bird is to bake the dressing separately in a greased, covered casserole during the final hour the turkey is roasting. This saves time in preparing the turkey and in cooking it -- an unstuffed bird takes less time to cook than a stuffed one. Besides avoiding the bacterial risks mentioned above, cooking the stuffing outside the bird is healthier from another standpoint: it isn’t soaking up all that turkey grease during the roasting time.
Prestuffed turkeys do not present a bacterial hazard as long as they have not been thawed. Schnelle explained that prestuffed turkeys are done so under sterile conditions and then flash-frozen, a process that cannot be duplicated at home.
You can stuff both the neck and body cavities, but do pack the dressing in loosely because it will expand as it cooks. Then turn the wings back to hold the neck skin in place and return legs to tucked position.
Ready for the Roast
Place the turkey, breast side up, on a flat rack in a shallow roasting pan, about two inches deep. (A deeper pan may shield parts of the turkey, causing uneven roasting. A shallower pan will be difficult to lift out of the oven without spilling the drippings.) Placing the bird on a rack will help prevent the drippings from sticking to the turkey.
If you want, you can rub the turkey with a little vegetable oil before placing it in the oven. This is optional and is done more for cosmetic purposes. “A lot of people call wanting to know how to get a picture-perfect bird,” says Schnelle. The oil will aid in giving the turkey an even tan. Schnelle does not recommend using butter, This is primarily a “beauty tip” because butter can cause scorching spots on the turkey.
Next place a tent of aluminum foil over the turkey. To do this, tear off a long sheet of foil and crease it down the center. Place it over the bird and loosely crimp the ends to the sides of the pan to hold in place. This prevents overbrowning, allows for heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist and reduces oven splatter. If you prefer, the foil can be left off until the turkey is golden brown.
If using a meat thermometer, insert it through the foil into the thickest part of the thigh, making certain the thermometer isn’t touching bone.
Cooking the Bird
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and throw the turkey inside. Do not try to cook the bird at a lower temperature. This will promote bacterial growth in the stuffing and may also dry out the meat. A dry turkey can also result from cooking at a temperature higher than 325 degrees.
Now comes the hardest part: do nothing. Just let the turkey cook. You don’t have to tend to it at all. You don’t have to flip the bird, you should pardon the expression, halfway through the cooking and you don’t have to baste it, either.
“Most people believe basting is necessary,” says Schnelle. “There is no need to open the oven at all, and we don’t recommend pouring liquid over the bird.” She says that one year the talk line got a call from a flustered cook who couldn’t understand why her turkey wasn’t done yet. She told the operator that it had been in the oven for nearly 10 hours and showed no sign of being done anytime soon. The operator asked if she had been basting the turkey and, if so, how often. The woman told her she was careful to baste it every 10 minutes.
“Opening the oven door just cools the oven and heats the kitchen,” says Schnelle. She adds that any liquid poured over the turkey does not penetrate the skin and will not result in moist meat.
Is it Done Yet?
Most people wait until the meat is falling off the drumstick as a sign that the turkey is done. In an open roasting pan, Schnelle says, that might not happen. The better way to test for doneness is to use a meat thermometer placed int the thigh muscle. When the temperature reaches 180 to 185 degrees, the bird is done. Before removing the turkey, place the thermometer in the stuffing for five minutes [not necessary to wait that long with new-fangled instant-read thermoms.] Its temperature should reach 160 degrees.
Some turkeys come with little pop-up thermometers. The problem with these, according to Schnelle, is that they’re placed in the breast, the part that cooks the fastest. It may take longer for the thigh and stuffing to be fully cooked.
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, you can test doneness by pricking the inner thigh with a fork. The juice should be clear and not pink. You can also press on the fleshy part of the thigh. If the meat feels soft, of if the leg moves up and down freely, the turkey is probably done. Do yourself a favor and invest a few dollars in a meat thermometer. It’ll take the guesswork out of the dinner.
Once you remove the bird from the oven, give it 15 to 20 minutes to sit covered with the foil before carving. During this time the white meat reabsorbs the juices and firms up. If you carve the turkey immediately, you’ll likely get a log of stringy meat.
If you run into any problems on Thanksgiving Day, give the ladies at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line a call at 800-288-8372. Of course now, in these modern times, there is a wealth of help and information on the Internet, including Butterball’s Web site. You’ll find answers to frequently asked questions and how-to videos.