What first-time turkey cooks need to know

With more families staying home this year, more first-time cooks are expected to be making Thanksgiving dinner.

EASTON — With the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, families are being urged to stay home and spend Thanksgiving with only their immediate households this year. That means some people are finding themselves faced with the prospect of cooking their very first turkey. The Star Democrat went to the experts at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line to find out what they should know.

Diana Jimanez has been answering calls for the helpline for 17 years. The Turkey Talk-Line receives more than 10,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone, she said. With the pandemic, the Turkey Talk-Line has gone remote and Butterball’s experts are taking calls and helping from the safety of their own homes this year.

“With less than a week until Thanksgiving, you need to be getting a turkey right now. Go ahead and buy it today,” Jimanez said.

Cooks need to decide if they want fresh or frozen turkey. If they choose fresh, it comes vacuum-sealed and can be stored in the refrigerator on a tray until they’re ready to cook it on Thanksgiving Day, she said.

If they choose frozen, the turkey will need to be thawed. The amount of time it takes to thaw depends on the size of the turkey. A 10- to 18-pound turkey will take four or five days to thaw in the refrigerator, so they should begin thawing it now, Jimanez said.

With smaller gatherings of just immediate family, they might consider a smaller bird, maybe seven to 10 pounds, or try the boneless breast or the bone-in breast roast, which are suitable for two to four people, she said. Those should only take two days to thaw.

What if they get to the store and all the smaller choices are gone?

“We love leftovers,” Jimanez said with a laugh. “And we have lots of recipes on the website.”

If someone forgets to thaw the turkey until the day before, don’t panic. There’s a trick to deal with that. By putting the turkey breast down into a cold water bath in the kitchen sink and changing the water every 30 minutes, thawing time can be reduced from days to just five to eight hours, she said.

If the cook selects a Butterball turkey, they have been injected with a brining solution to make them juicy and tender, Jimanez said. The cook can add herbs if they like; the herbs will add flavor to the drippings for gravy later.

Now they’re ready to cook the turkey. Jimanez recommended brushing the turkey’s skin all over with oil and placing it on a foil ring in a shallow roasting pan. The ring will raise the turkey and help it cook evenly, she said.

Bake the turkey, uncovered, at 325 degrees for three to three and a half hours for up to an 18-pound, unstuffed bird. Add an extra hour if baking with stuffing inside, she said.

Besides a roasting pan, another essential tool is a meat thermometer. To be sure your turkey is fully cooked, the temperature of the breast should be 170 degrees, the thigh, 180 degrees, Jimanez said. And if you are doing stuffing inside the bird, the center should be 165 degrees.

“Be sure you do not touch the bone (with the thermometer),” she said. “You want the temperature of the meat.”

Optimum eating time is up to two hours after the turkey finishes baking. After that, any leftovers should be refrigerated, and leftovers should be eaten within three days or frozen, Jimanez said.

More advice is available at butterball.com, she said, and experts at the Turkey Talk-Line are just a phone call away, 1-800-288-8372.

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