Bird Calls

We went to seven hot lines, asking questions for those who don't want to wing it for the big feast.


It's time to talk turkey.

Hot-line operators are standing by to answer your questions about preparing the Thanksgiving bird, but we found some will give you more complete answers than others.

We put seven consumer hot lines to the test, asking them questions about the best way to roast and carve the turkey and how to prepare it safely.

The hot lines we called were: Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, Perdue consumer help line, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hot Line, Foster Farms Turkey Helpline, Shady Brook Farms, Empire Kosher poultry hot line and Reynolds Turkey Tips Line.

Two of the hot lines - Reynolds and Shady Brook - had only recorded messages.

But everyone - from the matronly, well-informed Butterball representative to the automated voice at Shady Brook Farms - agreed on the basic safety advice: The turkey must be cooked until the breast has a temperature of at least 170 degrees, the thigh 180 degrees and the stuffing 160 degrees.

Although food-safety experts in the past have raised alarms about stuffing the turkey, the consultants who took our calls agreed that it's safe to do so, provided you do it right. The Butterball and USDA representatives explained that the stuffing should be cooked in advance and put in the cavity warm right before the turkey is placed in the oven.

The consultants disagreed somewhat on how long it's safe to keep a fresh turkey in the refrigerator. The Butterball and the USDA representatives said it's safe to buy a turkey on Sunday and keep it in the refrigerator until Thursday. The Perdue operator said a fresh bird should be kept in the refrigerator no more than two days. If you want to buy your turkey further in advance, she suggested buying it frozen and allowing it to defrost in the refrigerator before Thanksgiving.

The consultants also disagreed on whether basting is a good idea. The Butterball representative said that basting does no good; the juices just run off the skin. The Perdue and USDA operators and the Shady Brook automated service encouraged basting. The government consultant explained that basting helps flavor the turkey.

The Perdue consultant said simply, "I do it the way my mother did it." Perhaps not the answer from the training manual, but at least it seemed honest.

All of the hot-line workers suggested placing foil over the breast to help keep it moist while the rest of the turkey roasts, although some advised putting the foil on in the beginning and later removing it and others suggested putting on the foil when the turkey is nearly ready.

The Butterball representative was the only one to note taste differences between fresh and frozen turkeys, but that has more to do with the brand than the turkey. Butterball's frozen turkeys are injected with a basting liquid that comes in different flavorings. Its fresh turkeys are not.

Some of the consultants were more chatty than others. The Butterball representative shared in a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the dark meat. "Both my husband and I prefer the dark meat," she said. But while she offered her personal preferences, she was also the most knowledgeable, reporting the differences in calories, cholesterol and fat in dark meat versus white.

After pausing several times to validate her answers in the "turkey binder," the USDA representative finally put down the bird book and chatted about how she prefers to cook her turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

On the subject of which meat color contains more calories, she commented, "Fat is like people: It can be found anywhere."

The personable operator also offered a bit of reassurance to a nervous cook. "As long as you have the fixings to go along with it, no one will complain," she said.

The representative for Foster Farms seemed to be reading from a script at times. She answered questions quickly and concisely, but did not elaborate on her answers unless prompted to do so.

Although it was still early November, the Empire Kosher operator already seemed busy. At first an automated answering machine took a message. About 15 minutes later, a live operator called back. She quickly answered the first question and then, said, "You know what? Let me just send you this brochure."

At Reynolds, the prerecorded message provided two menu items from which to choose: "Please hit 1 for defrosting and 2 for roasting." Though no actual human was available for comment, the automated message did a fine job of explaining turkey preparation methods using Reynolds products.

Talking turkey

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line


Hours --9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST weekdays until Nov. 18 and Nov. 21 to 23; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 19 to 20; 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24.

Comment --Answered all questions thoroughly. She sounded like a patient grandmother explaining the pros and cons of various roasting methods.

Perdue consumer help line


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