3 Important Things to Know Before Cooking Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Photo: Brian Leatart

There’s a reason that people only cook 20-pound turkeys a couple of times a year, and it might have something to do with the fact that it takes days of preparation. The undertaking is so time-intensive and complicated that there’s an entire hotline dedicated to the process. The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which is open from early November through Christmas Eve, has been assisting cooks-in-need for over 30 years. We spoke with Marty Van Ness, a Turkey Talk-Line supervisor who has been with the company from the very beginning (and even refers to her baby grandson as her “little butterball”), about the most common turkey-related mistakes, so that you can be prepared for next week’s Thanksgiving feast.

Plan ahead to thaw the turkey.
“People underestimate how long it’s going to take to thaw a turkey,” says Van Ness. There are two ways to defrost your bird: the fridge method and the sink method.

Fridge Method
For those of you reading this story a few days before the main event, you’re in luck! A 20-pound turkey takes five days to thaw—one day for every four pounds. Take your turkey out of the freezer and, leaving it in its wrapper, place it in a pan. Let the pan sit in the fridge until the day of the event, discard the wrapping, and cook to your liking.

Sink Method
So it’s Wednesday morning and you have a very frozen turkey on your hands. Fear not. Place the turkey (still in its wrapper) into a large sink or cooler of cold water. Let the turkey thaw for 10 hours (30 minutes for every pound), regularly replacing the water so that it stays cold. On Thanksgiving morning, remove the bird from the water, discard the wrapping, and cook.

The turkey must be cooked between three and four days after it has been thawed.

Make sure the turkey is sufficiently cooked.
Van Ness swears by a meat thermometer, and recommends cooking the turkey until it’s at least 180°F in the thigh and 170°F in the breast. She says, “If it looks done, it isn’t always done. It can look beautiful and golden brown, and smell great in your kitchen, but if you didn’t cook it long enough, you’ll see red juices, which you don’t want.” She also explains that if the turkey hasn’t completely thawed before you pop it in the oven, skip the stuffing, as including it will greatly slow down the cook time.

Keep the oven door closed!
“It doesn’t need attention from you in that way,” says Van Ness. “People like to baste their turkey because they like to be in touch with it. Leave the turkey alone. Basting slows down the process, and the breast will overcook.”

And if you do make a mistake? Take a deep breath and dial 1-800-BUTTERBALL. Van Ness and the Turkey Talk-Line pros will be there to guide you from purchase to playing.

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