Our Biggest Thanksgiving Fears, According To Butterball

Butterball's Turkey-Talk Line Experts are there to comfort us when we need it the most.

It might not yet be Halloween, but the experts at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line have been preparing for this moment for months. The famous Thanksgiving-centric hotline officially opens November 1, and Butterball's team of experts will be standing by to talk you through the process of buying a Thanksgiving turkey, cooking it, and safely storing any leftovers. More than anything, however, they'll be standing by to comfort you.

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"We've been doing this for 41 years and provide a lot of emotional support to people," says Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Expert Bill Nolan, who answers calls from uncertain cooks every November as they navigate their Thanksgiving spreads.

This year, Butterball is kicking things off early by giving away free "Comfort Calendars" from October 24 to October 26. The calendars function as a countdown to the feast on November 24, offering "24 days of expert advice and emotional support for an amazing Thanksgiving." Nolan gave us the inside look at Butterball's approach to encouraging home cooks everywhere.


The Takeout: How did you come to be a Turkey Talk-Line expert?

Bill Nolan: This is my sixth year on the Talk-Line. In our world I'm a little bit of a new guy—our average tenure is about 16 years. My background is culinary; I'm a chef by trade and am also a chef educator. I don't cook for money anymore, I'm past that. I do a lot of instruction and education. I'm one of the supervisors on the Talk-Line. We have a staff of about 50 people, all seasonal employees. It's a fun place to work.

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TO: When do you gear up for the season?

BN: We start the planning stage from the supervisors' standpoint in about June. Then it really gears up around September. Right now, we're in our really heavy training mode.

TO: Tell us about the history of Butterball's Talk-Line.

BN: We've been in business for 41 years. It started out with six home economists [and] grew from there. In 1981 it was a rolodex and a phone. It was antiquated. Now, of course, our reference materials are digital. You can text and email, and we're on Alexa. But the phones are still the heart of the Talk-Line. People want to talk to a human being. When you need help, you need help.

We hired our first male in 2013. Now there are six of us, and it's growing. You have to have a food background to work here. You need to have some real training and a degree in something food-related. We have dietitians, chefs, graduates of culinary schools, food stylists, culinary educators. We're all foodies in our own way, and we all bring some professional experience.

TO: So when a call comes in, is it routed to whomever would be the best expert?

BN: No, everybody should have the tools in their toolbox to answer the calls. They have the resources at their fingertips and supervisors to help if they need it.

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A lot of the questions are narrowed into a small area: How do I thaw my turkey? How big a turkey should I buy? And then it gets into the hand-holding or emotional support. Believe it or not, it's a lot of emotional support, because of the stress involved in the holidays. People get extremely stressed out. It's the day before Thanksgiving, their turkey hasn't thawed, and they're freaking out.

I always say: Lower the temperature. Not of the oven! We lower the temperature of the stress level and talk it through. Almost everything can be remedied. And if it can't be remedied, then you buy another turkey. Or you go out to eat. But 19 times out of 20, we can remedy the situation.

TO: Do certain calls come in waves?

BN: Yeah, it goes through cycles. First is, "Should I buy a fresh or a frozen turkey?" Then it goes into how to thaw. When we get in close, it's "How do I cook this turkey?" and then immediately following [Thanksgiving], it's, "What do I do with the leftovers?" People don't make turkeys all the time. That's what makes people not want to make a turkey [and what] makes them nervous about it, and then they need the hand-holding and emotional support.

TO: There's a lot wrapped up in Thanksgiving. I've hosted before, and I understand what you mean.

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BN: It's stressful! People ask, "How do I prepare?" I say: Make a checklist. If you have a plan, you can enjoy the day more. In professional cooking we have a term, mise en place. Have everything in its place. That's what it is. Have everything in its place and you won't have surprises. So then we're lowering that stress level.

TO: You said thawing is the number one question you get. Can you tell me the answer?

BN: There are two methods. The first is refrigerator thawing. You take the turkey, put it in the refrigerator, and forget about it for a number of days. A turkey thaws at a rate of four pounds per 24-hour period. So a 16-pound turkey will take four to five days. Once a turkey is completely thawed, you have four additional days in which to cook it safely.

We created this Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Comfort Calendar, and my favorite day on it is November 17: National Thaw Day. That's one week ahead of Thanksgiving. That's when you can put your turkey in the refrigerator to thaw it.

If people forget and don't put it in the refrigerator, then we recommend water thawing. In both methods, you leave it in the wrapper. Usually people put the turkey in their sink, breast-side down, in cold water. You need to change the water every 30 minutes. People ask why. It's a valid point—water is a commodity. But the reason we change it is that the turkey acts like a giant ice cube. The water in there will be colder after 30 minutes than it was when it came out of the tap.

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TO: Does the four-day window in which to safely cook the turkey still apply if you use the cold water method?  

BN: It applies for cold water. It'll still be partially frozen somewhere and it'll be water that's very cold. So it's safe.

TO: How do you know if your turkey is thawed?

BN: People ask if they can stick a thermometer in there and take the temperature. Well, then you've got a hole in your turkey, and turkeys get pretty juicy. So we say just give it a good massage. Feel it all around. The downside around the thighs and legs, the breast on the top. If you can feel that it's moving, it's thawed.

Worst case scenario, you look in the cavity where the neck is and there's a big chunk of ice. You can run cold water through that and it'll dissolve the ice. Second worst case scenario, you discover a big part that's still frozen. Make sure you have on hand an oven bag—you can put it in there, seal it up tightly, and continue the cold-water thawing method.

TO: What are your other top questions, other than those related to thawing?

BN: People say, "I don't have a thermometer! How will I know if it's cooked?" Really, you can't. And this goes into that mise en place: Have a thermometer. Make sure you have one or can borrow one.

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People will ask, "My [turkey] temperature is 160° Fahrenheit. Can I take it out of the oven, because people are here?" Poultry is not something you serve medium rare. It's not one of those foods.

We recommend 170° Fahrenheit in the breast for food safety, 180° Fahrenheit in the thigh. You can take it out early. A turkey is, as we know, a mass. You can safely hold that turkey for two to three hours by setting it off to the side, wrapping it in foil very tightly, and then put some clean kitchen towels over it to trap the heat in. Some people will drop it into a dry empty cooler. You will be amazed at how hot that turkey is when you take it out to carve it.

I'll sometimes even cook it ahead so I know it's done. Then you're not worrying.

TO: Tell me more about the Butterball Comfort Calendar.

BN: People can go online and put their name in to get a calendar sent to them October 24 through October 26. They're neat. You get a different hint every day, and there are a lot of cooking tips, but it's actually a lot of emotional support. Don't forget to breathe. Go read a book for 20 minutes today. We've been doing this for 41 years and provide a lot of emotional support to people, and we put our experience of those 41 years in the calendar.

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