The 3 Biggest Turkey Mistakes a Butterball Expert Hears Every Thanksgiving
Roasting a whole turkey is one of those essential holiday traditions that, despite being a staple of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, isn't something most cooks do more than once a year. While nobody should be expected to be an expert at something they only get to practice annually (though there are a few ways to rehearse for Turkey Day), the pressure is on the hosting cook to deliver on the signature protein come the fourth Thursday of November.
Thankfully, Butterball has been staffing the Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL) with poultry experts since 1981 to help you through your most trying turkey tribulations. In keeping with the times, this year Butterball launched a new lifeline that just requires asking Amazon's Alexa for help. Talk-Line expert Beth Somers (who is featured on the Alexa skill) stopped by the Food & Wine offices to show off this latest iteration and talk all things turkey. Somers has been answering Talk-Line queries for six years, so I asked her to share the three most common mistakes callers, emailers, texters, and tweeters make every season in hope that we can all avoid them this Thanksgiving.
They forget to thaw the turkey.
"I don't know what the exact percentage is, but a lot of our calls are about thawing. A lot," Somers told me. "Most of them are people who forgot to thaw the turkey and it's a couple days ahead or even the day of. That's super common."
And that's why Butterball promotes Thaw Thursday, the week before Thanksgiving. Pull your turkey out of the freezer and pop it into the refrigerator the Thursday prior and it will definitely be ready for roasting on the big day. But if you wake up Thursday morning and find yourself with a frozen turkey that's as hard as a block of ice, there's still hope. Try using Butterball's cold water thawing method (it takes about 30 minutes per pound). "One of the biggest mistakes people do is leave the turkey out on the counter to thaw and you should never do that for any length of time for food safety reasons," Somers advised. "Even if you don't have time to fully thaw it, doing the cold water method for just a few hours is quite helpful toward getting your turkey to a state that will cook nicely, even if it's still a little bit frozen. It's always better to do that than to leave it out."
And don't worry about getting the bird up to room temperature. While it's common to fully thaw out other cuts of meat for a better sear and more even cooking, it's okay for your bird to be cold. Otherwise, the outside could heat up too quickly and dry out before the inside has a chance to cook.
They waste time basting.
"You don't need to baste a turkey. You should not baste a turkey," Somers warns. "Because when you open the oven door it releases all of the heat and it completely prolongs the time of cooking. And the basting doesn't actually do anything. The skin of a turkey is like a raincoat: If you take a spoon or a baster and pour juices over it, they literally roll right off the turkey — it doesn't penetrate whatsoever. Basting does nothing but make your turkey take longer to cook."
While we're on the subject of wasting time in the name of juiciness, if your turkey is pre-brined (check the label carefully), there's no point in brining it again with your own solution. It's actually possible for too much salt to enter the equation, pull the moisture out of the flesh, and dry out the bird while it cooks.
They don't use a meat thermometer.
When is turkey done? There are so many methods, from checking the juices to see if they're running clear, to that little red pop-up doohicky, to wiggling various parts of the bird to feel it out. Guess what? None of those methods are truly reliable, and none of them work as well as just knowing your way around a meat thermometer. "Using a meat thermometer is the only way to know when your turkey is done," Somers explains. "Everything else is just a shot in the dark. You can wiggle the thigh, but you could have wiggled it ten minutes earlier or twenty minutes later and it would have felt exactly the same. Juices aren't really a great way to tell either because younger turkeys have a little bit of a red tinge in their bones. It doesn't cook out, and it doesn't mean it's unsafe. The juices can be pink when it's a safe temperature to eat. To that end, using a thermometer is also the best way to avoid an overcooked turkey."
So, do your best to avoid these three foibles and, hey, maybe Beth can go home early this Thanksgiving! Alas, if you didn't get to this article in time to save your turkey, just contact Butterball. That's why they're there.