SIKESTON -- Whether a first-time cook of a Thanksgiving turkey or a pro whose been in charge of the holiday bird for years, chefs may feel comfortable in knowing there's always a helping hand, just a phone call -- or click -- away during holiday food preparation time.
Marty VanNess, supervisor of the national Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which is open now through Christmas, said they receive calls from college students, newlyweds and even senior citizens.
"For some reason mom isn't around, or they're first-time cooks so they call and ask us questions about cooking their turkeys," VanNess noted.
Last year Butterball Turkey Talk-Line received 8,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone. VanNess said she's talked to people from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska and even Germany from an Army base, who are inquiring about cooking a perfect turkey.
In addition to Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, several other turkey hotlines or Web sites are available to answer consumer questions about holiday food preparation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry hot line is open year-round and from 7 p.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. Bessie Berry, manager of USDA Meat and Poultry hotline, said they usually receive one call after another on the holiday.
"Each year somebody has always forgotten to take the turkey out from the freezer. That's common," Berry recalled.
Butterball's most frequently asked question is how to thaw a turkey properly, VanNess said. Putting a turkey in the refrigerator is one of the two ways to thaw a turkey, and the length of time it's left in the refrigerator depends on the weight of the turkey.
"A 10- to 18-pound turkey may take three to four days to thaw out in the refrigerator. A larger turkey may take longer. We estimate one day for every four pounds of turkey," VanNess said.
The other safe method of thawing is to put the turkey in its original wrapper in the kitchen sink filled with cold water, VanNess stated. With this method, it takes about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. The average 12-pound turkey takes about six hours, and once the turkey is safely thawed, it will keep in the refrigerator for two to four days.
Another top question by consumers is how much turkey they should buy for the family, VanNess said. While it varies, Butterball estimates 1.5 pounds per person for generous servings and leftovers.
And of course everyone wants to know how to cook a turkey.
According to VanNess, Butterball recommends the open pan roasting method when preparing a holiday turkey. To do this, place the thawed or fresh turkey, breast up on a flat rack in a shallow pan, 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Then brush or rub skin with oil to prevent the skin from drying and to enhance the golden color. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer deep into the lower part of the thigh muscle, but not touching the bone, and place the turkey in a preheated 325-degree oven.
When the breast is at 170 degrees, and the thigh is at 180 degrees, it's done, VanNess said. And if the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing should be at 165 degrees when done, she added.
Once out of the oven, let the turkey stand 15 minutes to make carving easier, Berry suggested. Dine leisurely, but don't leave the leftovers out longer than two hours to avoid the multiplying of bacteria, she advised.
Family and Consumer Science instructor Joyce Lawfield of New Madrid County Central High said there are tons of different preferred methods of cooking a turkey, but one of the main things she stresses with her students is to be careful with the stuffed turkey.
"What many people want to do is make the stuffing the day before, which can be dangerous because of bacteria growth that can occur from the stuffing," Lawfield explained.
Always prepare wet and dry ingredients separately, Berry advised. Assemble the ingredients just before putting it in the turkey, she said.
"Those who have bad experiences cooking a turkey probably do so because they used the wrong cooking method," Lawfield said. "If cooked properly, the turkey will be moist and delicious. However, almost everybody has a turkey disaster story."
Since working for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, VanNess admitted she's encountered several unique Thanksgiving turkey stories.
"One call was from a man whose (pregnant) wife went into labor while they were cooking the turkey," VanNess recalled. "They took the turkey out of the oven and put it in the refrigerator. When they came home a couple of days later, they wanted to know if they could still cook it." VanNess said she explained to the man the interrupted cooking method is not recommended because it runs the risk of bacterial growth.
In its 23rd year, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line has regulars who call each year inquiring about preparing their bird for the holiday, VanNess said.
Over the years, VanNess has coached holiday chefs during crisis calls that generally result in a lot of saved family Thanksgivings.
"I've even helped callers make gravy from turkey drippings." VanNess laughed: "They're the ones graduating from turkey to gravy."