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Got turkey troubles? A hotline expert shares tips for a better turkey and common mistakes to avoid

<i>Adobe Stock</i><br/>Cooking the perfect turkey for Thanksgiving became a whole lot easier with these tips from a Turkey Talk-Line specialist.
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Cooking the perfect turkey for Thanksgiving became a whole lot easier with these tips from a Turkey Talk-Line specialist.

By Megan Marples, CNN

Whether it’s your first time cooking a turkey or you are a poultry aficionado, mishaps can happen in the kitchen, especially at the 11th hour.

That’s where Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line comes in. For the past 40 years during the holidays, these hotline experts have been available to help people troubleshoot their turkey troubles.

Karen Wilcher has been a Turkey Talk-Line specialist for 10 years and shared her best tips and tricks for cooking a delicious turkey every time.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: If someone has never cooked a turkey before, where should they start?

Karen Wilcher: The easiest way to cook your turkey would be to roast it in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re using a frozen turkey, you need to make sure it’s thawed by Thanksgiving. It takes about a week to thaw a turkey, so it’s recommended people move their frozen bird to the fridge the Thursday before Thanksgiving, which we like to call National Thaw Day.

If you forget to thaw it until the day before, at this point we’d recommend the water bath method. This is where you submerge your turkey in its original wrapper in cold water. You should change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. For a turkey as large as 24 pounds, you can get it properly thawed in 12 to 15 hours with this method.

Once thawed, take it out of its packaging and remove the package of giblets. Next, pat the turkey dry with a towel, brush some olive oil on it, then put it on a roasting rack in the oven. Butterball has plenty of recipes online for seasoning options.

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

Wilcher: A 10- to 18-pound turkey that has no stuffing should take three to 3 1/2 hours to cook while a 20- to 24-pound turkey should take four to 4 1/2 hours. If you have stuffing inside, add 45 to 60 minutes more of cooking time.

Basting is also unnecessary. Every time you open the oven door to baste, you are slowing the cooking process. The liquid doesn’t necessarily penetrate the skin so it’s not doing much.

This year at Butterball University, we grilled a turkey so everyone could get familiar with the grilling process. That’s another way to cook a turkey if you want to free up your oven or your oven is not available. I’ve been grilling my turkey on a charcoal grill for two years now and have had a fabulous turkey for Thanksgiving.

CNN: Why should people cook their turkey at 325 degrees Fahrenheit?

Wilcher: We know that we can get it safely cooked at 325 degrees. A lot of recipes add additional steps, such as starting out with a high temperature then lowering it part of the way through cooking. It’s such a busy day with so many things to do that it’s often easy to forget to go lower the temperature.

Additionally, we don’t recommend turning up the temperature to speed up the cooking time because it could dry out the breast meat.

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

Wilcher: It’s important to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of your turkey instead of eyeballing it. The middle of the stuffing should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the breast should be 170 degrees Fahrenheit, and the thigh area should be 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re scratching your head because you don’t know where those parts are on a turkey, Butterball has a diagram on its website.

CNN: Some people may be interested in deep-frying their turkey. What are some tips to stay safe?

Wilcher: You want to make sure without a doubt that your turkey is thawed. If you’re using propane, make sure you’re outside and in a well-ventilated area to keep yourself and those around you safe.

Prior to submerging the turkey, make sure to measure out the right amount of oil so that it doesn’t splash over when you add the large bird. One way to do that ahead of time is to measure using water first to know how much oil you need with it submerged. Deep-fried turkeys cook much faster than a roasted turkey, about three to four minutes per pound.

CNN: After 10 years working as a specialist on the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, what are some of your favorite stories from people who have called in?

Wilcher: I had one call a few years ago where someone was cleaning out their mom’s deep freezer and found a frozen turkey. It was easily 10 to 15 years old, and they wanted to know if they could cook it. Truthfully, it was probably food-safe, but I’m guessing after 15 years you might not want to share that one.

One of my other favorite stories was about a gentleman whose wife had asked him to help her thaw a turkey using the water bath method. He also knew that one of the things he had to do was give his kids a bath. So he figured he could do both at the same time. Needless to say, we do not recommend this.

Lastly, I had this guy put his turkey outside on his deck to thaw only to find that a raccoon had nibbled on part of it. Even though Thanksgiving is an opportunity to share your dinner, I’m thinking you might not want to share it with a raccoon.

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