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Butterball Turkey-Talk Line

Talking turkey (and stuffing and gravy) with the folks from Butterball U.


Marty Van Ness already knows how she'll be spending much of this Thanksgiving, and it won't be in a kitchen—her husband will be cooking their turkey. Instead, Van Ness will be helping thousands of other Americans prepare their bird for the grandest meal of the year.

"On Thanksgiving Day, we get thousands upon thousands of calls from across the nation and a lot of calls from U.S. military bases overseas," she said.

Van Ness is one of the scores of representatives manning the phones at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, the toll-free consumer help line that has assisted nearly 50 million callers since 1981. Van Ness has been on the phone—off and on—for 22 years, beginning in 1984. Between calls, Boise Weekly asked her for some of her best turkey tips and some of the craziest calls to the hot line: 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372).

What kind of qualification does someone need to turkey-talk?

Most of us have some kind of food or nutrition background. We all attended Butterball University and we're chefs, nutritionists or...

Wait a minute. Butterball U? Do you have school colors or cheerleaders?

It's a pretty intensive course where we learn the details of all of the methods of cooking turkey: open pan in dry heat; covered pan in a roaster; oven-cooking bags; and electric countertop roasters, grilling and deep frying. We examine everything from choosing the turkey in the store to thawing to cooking to leftovers. No, we don't have cheerleaders but we have some cool jackets.

I'm presuming that thawing a turkey is a common conversation.

But now we sell a fully frozen turkey, pre-stuffed, that you pop right in the oven. It takes six to eight hours, depending on the size.

Are you saying to put a frozen turkey in the oven?

Yes, the pre-stuffed ones. You don't want to thaw it. It goes right into the oven.

I'm presuming that the Butterball hot line started with modest expectations.

In 1981, Butterball started taking calls from the public.

We had six or eight home economists with some rolodexes and they were shocked at how many calls they got. I joined a few years later. Today, not only are we talking on the phone, but we're live-chatting and communicating via email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

If someone is calling you on Thanksgiving, my guess is that they're in a panic.

You better believe it. We have to talk them off the ledge.

And is that because they haven't thawed the turkey yet? What can they possibly do?

Several years ago, we started experimenting by cooking frozen turkeys. We tried different temperatures and I found that it took about an hour longer and that's not that big a deal. But here's the important part: You have to keep the oven closed—you can't keep peeking. When it's starting to really cook up, you grab some oven mitts and tongs and remove the neck and giblets. Get those out so that the internal part of the turkey can get done.

I'm stunned to hear you say we can put a frozen turkey in the oven.

You need to be patient and flexible with your serving time. And you need an accurate meat thermometer because it's going to look and smell done before it's fully done. The thickest part of the thigh—and you want to measure both thighs—has to be 180 degrees.

But ideally, you want us to thaw the turkey, right?

Absolutely. You have to keep your turkey cold when you're thawing. If you're doing that in the fridge, it's one day for every four pounds.

And how about deep frying?

Fifteen years ago, we used to cringe when we heard that. But now there are electric countertop fryers with no flame and easy instructions. But if you do have an open flame, turn it off once the oil has reached the proper heat. Then lower the turkey. If it overflows, you've got a mess but not a fireball. Then turn the flame back on when it's safe.

And gravy?

Punch it up. When my husband is carving the bird, I take little shreds of turkey meat from the carving board and put that in the gravy. Here's the real secret: potato starch. Not potato flour, but potato starch. It makes a beautiful, velvety gravy. It's even a little glossy.

What are the crazier questions that you've heard on the hot line?

A couple of years ago, a gentleman said, "I want to thaw my turkey. How should I set my dial?" I said, "The dial on what?" He said, "The dial on my electric blanket, which is wrapped around the turkey." Oh, don't do that. By the way, you always want to keep the turkey cold when you're putting it in the oven. I got another call from a guy who said, "I have to get a gravy recipe. I just got divorced and my ex-wife got the gravy recipe in the settlement."

Are you working on Thanksgiving Day?

Of course. I'll be home by late afternoon and my husband will be cooking the turkey.

And your favorite stuffing?

Carrots, celery and onion. No meat. I like to do part cornbread/part traditional [bread] and add some cranberries, pecans and a little orange zest.

Thanksgiving can't come soon enough.

And we'll keep taking calls until Christmas Eve. Call us anytime if you want to talk turkey.