A Butterball Expert Reveals Exactly What You Need To Know To Cook The Perfect Turkey - Exclusive Interview

Americans eat a whole lot of turkey on Thanksgiving Day. As in between 45 to 46 million turkeys, according to CNBC. We also eat about 22 million turkeys on Christmas Day, and some 19 million on Easter. On most other days of the year, however, very few Americans spend hours slowly roasting massive birds in their ovens. This is why so many people have very little clue how to properly prep, cook, and serve this holiday protein staple.

The good news for the turkey timid chef? You're not alone. And in fact, you haven't been for four decades. That's because 2021 marks the 40th year in which the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line has been helping home cooks with all their worries, woes, and how-to queries regarding the proper storage, handling, prep, cooking, and even leftover management of turkey. In that time, according to Butterball's site, the Talk-Line "one of the first national, toll-free consumer help lines," has helped nearly 50 million people who have called in with questions. Or, in recent years, who have called, texted, Tweeted, Insta'd, or even engaged via Amazon's Alexa. Because sure, the Turkey Talk-Line may have consisted of just six people when it launched back in November of 1981 — six experts who fielded 11,000 calls that season alone — but as the times have changed, so too has the Butterball team. Today there are dozens of experts standing by and ready to engage via multiple channels.

To learn more about the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line and to get ahead of things and score some great turkey tips, Mashed reached out to Rebecca Welch, a senior brand manager from Butterball who not only knows the history of the Talk-Line and the company (a company responsible for a staggering one out of three turkeys sold every Thanksgiving, by the way), but also knows her way around a turkey.

Why Butterball launched the Turkey Talk-Line

What was the original inspiration for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line?

 The Butterball Turkey talk-line has been around since 1981. We're really excited to be celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. The inspiration was really to find ways to help make Thanksgiving easier. Putting on this meal, the most important meal of the season, [making it] easier and less stressful for holiday hosts. And we started back in 1981 with six experts who all had a culinary background at that time. They were home economists. Today we have over 50 experts and their backgrounds are anything from registered dietitians, we have some chefs, and everyone brings a food background in, and everyone is dedicated to finding ways to help holiday hosts get that turkey on the table with as little stress as possible so they can enjoy the day with their friends and family.

How has the use of the line changed over the years, and has user engagement grown or fallen or simply changed as the web came of age?

We've really been focused on evolving with consumers, and we started out with just offering assistance via the phone because back in 1981, that was how everyone talked to each other. And over time, as consumers have evolved and the way that they talk to each other has changed, we have changed with them. Back in 2016, we rolled out texting so that we could offer assistance via text. In 2018, we rolled out an Alexa skill, so that we could be right there in the kitchen with consumers when they have questions. And this year we are moving to TikTok to find ways to reach consumers there. As people have found additional ways to connect and get information, we want to make sure that the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is there to help them.

The most common Turkey Talk-Line questions

What are the most common questions that people ask?

Yeah, there are three or four most common questions. "How to thaw my turkey?" A lot of times people don't realize that you need to start thawing that frozen turkey three, four days in advance, maybe even up to a week in advance based on the size. We'll get a lot of questions of people realizing that they have a short amount of time and they need to get that turkey thawed quickly. And we have ways that we can help them using a cold water bath to take that thaw time down from a couple days to a couple hours. 

That's very common, "How long to roast my turkey?" A lot of people aren't quite sure how long they need to roast their turkey. We can provide assistance on that. And then over time we've seen the range of questions grow. People have questions about deep frying and smoking as those types of preparation methods have grown. We hit the whole range from the most common to new and exciting cooking methods.

So what is the best way to thaw a frozen turkey if you don't have that much time?

Absolutely the cold water bath method is the best way to do it. And what you do is you submerge your turkey in cold water and you'll need about 30 minutes per pound. And then just every 30 minutes, you flip it over so you're getting equal coverage on the whole turkey, and switch your water out because you don't want the water to get too cold and you need it to just keep being able to help that turkey thaw.

The strangest questions the Talk-Line experts have gotten

What are some of the strangest questions that the experts have received?

Oh yeah, we've received ... just an unbelievable range of strange questions. We had a gentleman call in one year — he was trying to get his turkey [to] thaw quickly. He also needed to get his twins in the bath. He called to find out if he could just throw the twins and the turkey in the bathtub together, whether that would work. We suggested maybe splitting them up, as the twins probably wouldn't like the cold water that much. We've had people call and they've accidentally left the neck on, or we have a bag of parts on the inside. They're concerned they've left that in. And that's one of the common questions we get. 

We've had questions from people who are trying to thaw their turkey and they've put it in a snowbank and they're trying to figure out if that was okay, or they've lost it, and now they're trying to find it and wanting to know if that's okay. And then we get just questions that maybe we as consumers don't necessarily always have to think about ... If someone is trying to take their turkey across town on a subway, and they need to know the best way to transport their turkey, our experts are able to help them with that. I know we had a question one year where someone was trying to figure out how to get their turkey across town and still keep it warm. And our experts were able to walk them through how to carve up the turkey, get it into something that was easy to transport and that could help them keep it warm as they moved it across town.

Turkey prepping tips from a Butterball expert

What are few important turkey prep tips that you can share?

Absolutely I think the biggest one, the most important one, is definitely plan ahead. That's one [problem] that I myself have run into the first couple times I made Thanksgiving dinner, just thinking through, making sure the turkey is thawed, how you're going to sequence making the different dishes throughout the day, how you're going to [time it], when you're going to cook the turkey versus your side dishes. One of the things we recommend is cooking the turkey first, and then you can cover it with foil and towels to keep it warm while you cook the rest of your dishes. Just planning out the day so that you get everything done around the same time and are able to keep it warm. 

And have a meat thermometer on hand. That's another great tip — that meat thermometer will help you cook the turkey to 170 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the breast and 180 in the thigh and keep you from overcooking it. Nobody wants to have a dry turkey. That meat thermometer will help you make sure you get it to a place where it's food safe, but not overdone.

And how large of a turkey is needed based on the number of diners you have?

Yeah, we recommend one and a half to two pounds per person, if you want leftovers. And that'll make sure that you've got plenty for the people at the meal and some to send home with people if you want.

What are some unique cooking techniques or that are becoming more popular aside from the traditional oven roasting?

Deep frying. We've definitely seen that grow in popularity over the last few years. We've also seen grilling and smoking becoming much more popular. The air fryer has grown in popularity. [An] Air fryer works better for smaller offerings, like a turkey roast or a turkey breast. And those are the main ones that we've seen growing over the last few years.

The most common mistakes people make when cooking turkey

What are some of the most common mistakes people make with their Thanksgiving turkey?

Yeah, great question. Really, it's forgetting to thaw it, [forgetting to] move it from the freezer to the refrigerator. I think that is one that's [common]. We talked about the cold water bath method, so [that] can be rectified pretty easily, but it causes a lot of stress. I know myself, I had one Thanksgiving morning, I pulled the turkey out to prepare it and it was still frozen solid. And I myself had to go through the cold water bath and it just made the day a lot more stressful and got the schedule off a little bit. So getting that turkey thawed, checking on it as it's thawing to make sure that everything is moving along, is really something that will help consumers have less stress as they go through the day.

And then overcooking, that's another one again. Just have your meat thermometer [on hand] so you don't overcook it.

Butterball expert Rebecca Welch talks side dishes, leftovers, and the best way to cook a turkey

What are some of the most iconic American side dishes to go next to that turkey?

Yeah, there are so many, and I think that's why people love Thanksgiving so much; it's because you get such a wide range of flavors throughout the day. But stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams, green bean casserole, cornbread or biscuits. A lot of very traditional side dishes. We find when we talk to consumers that there is a fairly tight range within those traditional side dishes, [and] people want to make sure they have the basics. And then as we've seen new consumers come into hosting the Thanksgiving dinner over the last few years, we've seen younger hosts want to approach things a little bit differently and put their own take on the day. And we've started to see new side dishes added in with those traditional sides as well. There's kind of the iconic ones that have to be there. And then whatever else you can bring in to add flavor and variety is great as well.

What are the best uses for the leftover turkey?

There's always that day after Thanksgiving sandwich, which is great. This year as part of our rollout of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Taste Kitchen, [we] actually tested some new and interesting uses of leftovers. We made a stuffing waffle sandwich. We actually turned the stuffing into a waffle to serve as the bread and then put all the fixings on the sandwich to give it kind of a unique twist. There's also casseroles and soups. Those are all great uses. We just recommend that you carve that turkey up and use or freeze those leftovers within three days.

In your opinion, do you think there is a single best way to cook the turkey?

Oh, that's a great question. In my opinion, I don't think there's a single best way. I think that there's a lot of great ways. I love a deep fried turkey. It's fantastic. But I also love a roast turkey. I think as long as you make it your own and you're celebrating with your friends and family in a way that you're comfortable with, there's no wrong way to have turkey at thanksgiving.

Speaking of people's comfort, how is the pandemic seeming to affect the holiday, and what is Butterball doing differently this year because of it?

Last year we saw an increase in celebrations as people chose to stay home and celebrate with their immediate family. And one of the things that we at Butterball want to do is really be insight-driven and understand how holiday hosts are approaching Thanksgiving and understand their mindset. And we do still see that about a third of consumers this year plan to have smaller gatherings again this year. We think that this year some consumers will choose to celebrate in a smaller way and some may feel comfortable going back to a larger celebration. What we really wanted to do was be there to help holiday hosts prepare for the day, regardless of how they want to celebrate.

We've got our tried and true tips. We've got some new ideas that we've put out on TikTok and social media for new ways to prepare their Thanksgiving turkey, whether it's a spicy turkey or a new pickle brine. And we're here to help them plan out their day so they can achieve it with less stress and spend more time enjoying friends and family and the holiday in a way they might not have been able to last year.

Got turkey questions? Call 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372) or text 844-877-3456, or reach out to Butterball via TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest channels, try the Butterball Skill for Amazon Alexa, or chat live with the experts on Butterball.com for real-time suggestions advice, trusted recipes, and tips for success.