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The Secrets Behind the Butterball Hotline

The national hotline’s codirector shares her tips on the perfect Thanksgiving turkey—and the most hilarious calls she has fielded.

Butterball Talk-Line experts train at Butterball University in Naperville.   Photo: Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune

Butterball’s national hotline, based in Naperville, has helped more than 50 million home cooks avoid turkey disaster since 1981 with its Turkey Talk-Line. The huge endeavor now comprises more than 50 cooking experts, and it runs every weekday in November and December from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (1-800-BUTTERBALL). Codirector Nicole Johnson spills some of its secrets. 

I’m sure everyone who works the hotline has favorite calls from over the years. What’s yours?

I started working for the Talk-Line in 2001, and I’d gotten married the weekend before Thanksgiving. We postponed our honeymoon until January. I answered the phone on Thanksgiving and a lady was whispering. Sure enough, she was a newlywed who had her in-laws in the dining room, and she’s whispering to me on the phone from the kitchen, totally scared because she wanted to impress her new in-laws. I was able to relate. We hear a lot of cute stories. There was also the dad who needed to bathe his twins and was on turkey-thawing duty, so he decided he was going to multitask and throw them all in the tub at the same time.

Your most common calls involve thawing. What are your best tips?

People either think that it doesn’t take much time at all, or they think it’s a really long process. But just remember: If you’re thawing in your fridge, it’s 24 hours for every four pounds of turkey meat. We will get phone calls, believe it or not, on the day before Thanksgiving or even Thanksgiving Day where people have totally forgotten to start thawing. If you have a really big turkey, that could be a problem. So we just walk them through a faster method, which is the cold-water bath method. [Fill a sink or cooler with cold water, submerge the turkey breast-side down, and replace the water every 30 minutes. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to thaw.]

How do you break it to someone gently that the turkey is unsalvageable?

If it’s a food safety issue, we give them all the facts, and then usually we don’t have to tell them to throw it away. If someone’s forgotten a turkey in the back of their car for days, which has happened, they can make that decision on their own.

What has changed over the years for the Talk-Line?

We get a lot more males calling now. A lot of times they call on cell phones from the grocery store, and we talk them through it from start to finish. A lot of our calls are a couple minutes, but I’ve had calls that have lasted for more than an hour, where we’re walking callers through every step and they’re taking notes.

Do you have time to prepare your own Thanksgiving meal between your job duties?

Everyone helps, even my 11-year-old son, because I work an eight-hour shift. I’ve been working at the Talk-Line since before my kids were born, so that’s all they know.

What’s it like on the day of?

On Thanksgiving we open as early as 6 a.m. and we usually field over 10,000 calls. We serve soup to our staff that day because everyone’s voice is so hoarse.

What’s the biggest Thanksgiving meal disaster you’ve experienced personally?

My mom always hosted Thanksgiving for my dad’s big Irish-Catholic family, about 40 or 50 people, so she cooked one turkey in the kitchen and one in our oven downstairs. One year someone forgot to turn the downstairs oven on completely. I remember a bit of disarray. My mom still blames my dad; my dad blames my mom. We do get calls like that—a husband and wife “discussing,” if you will. If you’re on speakerphone right out of the gate, you know it’s going to be a good call.

Lightning Round

Fried or roasted?

Nothing gives off that aroma in your house like that roasted turkey—shallow pan, no lid.

Dark or white meat?

I’m a white meat fan, which is good because my husband is a dark meat fan. A lot of people think they should have the white because of the calories or the protein. But if you look at a three-ounce serving, really there’s only a very minute difference in calories. They’re both healthy, low-fat choices.  

Is brining necessary?

Is it necessary? No. Can you do it? Absolutely.

Should you cook stuffing inside the bird or separately?

My mom has always done it inside the turkey. You want to make sure, if you do put the stuffing inside turkey, to increase the cook time.

What’s your giblet advice?

A lot of people ask about giblets. They always kind of giggle about them. A lot of times, people will forget to remove them from the body cavity. They’ll call halfway through and say, “Oh my gosh, I forgot the giblets, what do I do?” We say not to worry. Butterball knows that can happen, so it encloses the giblets in a food safe bag. Would they be edible at this point? No. You just want to wait until the turkey is done and remove them. But they’re not going to harm your turkey in any way. My mom—and I know lot of people—will put them in salt water on the stovetop and simmer them, chop them up, and use them in stuffing. I never knew my mom did that until a couple of years ago, but she says it’s where the flavor comes from.

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