Turkey Cooking Tips and Common Mistakes Before Thanksgiving

That’s where Butterball’s Turkey Talk comes in. During the past 40 years during the holidays, these hotline specialists are available to help people troubleshoot their turkey troubles.

Karen Wilcher has been a Turkey Talkline expert for 10 years and shares her best tips and tricks for cooking delicious turkey every time.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Karen Wilcher: The easiest way to cook your turkey is to bake it in an oven set to 325 degrees F. If you’re using frozen turkey, make sure it’s defrosted before Thanksgiving. It takes about a week to defrost a turkey, so everyone should move their frozen bird into the refrigerator on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, which we call National Defrost Day.

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If you forgot to defrost it until the day before, at this point we recommend using the water bath method. This is where you soak the turkey in its original packaging in cold water. You should change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is defrosted. For a large turkey up to 24 pounds, you can defrost properly within 12 to 15 hours using this method.

Once it has been defrosted, take it out of the package and discard the pack of raw milk. Next, pat the turkey dry with a towel, brush a little olive oil over the turkey, then place on a rack in the oven. Butterball has lots of recipes online for seasoning options.

CNN: How long does it really take to cook a turkey in the oven?

Wilcher: A 10 to 18 pound turkey without stuffing will take 3 to 3 and a half hours to cook while a 20 to 24 pound turkey will take 4 to 4 and a half hours. If you have the filling, add an additional 45 to 60 minutes of cooking time.

The smear is also not necessary. Every time you open the oven door to bake, you’re slowing down the cooking process. The liquid doesn’t have to be absorbed into the skin so it doesn’t do much.

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This year at Butterball University, we roast a turkey so that everyone can get familiar with the baking process. It’s another way to cook turkey if you want to free up the oven or your oven isn’t available. I’ve been roasting turkey on a charcoal stove for two years now and had a great turkey for Thanksgiving.

CNN: Why should anyone cook their turkey at 325 degrees F?

Wilcher: We know we can safely cook at 325 degrees. A lot of recipes add extra steps, such as starting with high heat then lowering the temperature partially in the cooking process. It’s a busy day with so much to do that it’s easy to forget to turn the temperature down.

Also, we don’t recommend raising the temperature to speed up the cooking time as this can dry out the brisket.

CNN: How does someone know if their turkey is done cooking?

Wilcher: It is important to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of your turkey rather than its eyeballs. The center of your underwear should be 165 degrees F, the bust should be 170 degrees F and the thighs should be 180 degrees F. If you’re scratching your head because you don’t know where those parts are on a turkey, Butterball there is a diagram on its website.
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CNN: Some people may be interested in deep-frying their turkey. What are some tips for staying safe?

Wilcher: You want to make sure your turkey is defrosted. If you are using propane, make sure you are outside and in a well-ventilated area to keep yourself and those around you safe.

Before submerging the turkey in the oil, be sure to measure the right amount of oil so that the oil doesn’t splatter when you add large poultry. One way to do that ahead of time is to measure the water in advance to see how much oil you need when submerged. Crispy turkey cooks much faster than roast turkey, about three to four minutes per pound.

CNN: After 10 years as an expert on the Butterball Turkey Talkline, what stories do you like best from people who have called?

Wilcher: A few years ago, I got a call when someone was cleaning out their mother’s deep freezer and found a frozen turkey. It’s easy for 10 to 15 year olds, and they want to know if they can cook it. Honestly, it might be food safe, but I guess in 15 years you might not want to share it.

One of my other favorite stories is about a man whose wife asked him to help her defrost a turkey using the water bath method. He also knew that one of the things he had to do was bathe his kids. So he thought he could do both at the same time. Needless to say, we don’t recommend this.

In the end, I told this guy to put his turkey outside on his deck to defrost and only discovered that a raccoon had gnawed on part of it. While Thanksgiving is an opportunity to share your dinner, I think you might not want to share it with a raccoon.


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