Help, we're stuffed: Turkey Hotline comes to rescue of panicked cooks in need of Christmas culinary advice

Today and tomorrow, millions of amateur chefs will muddle through the ritual of cooking a turkey. What if it all goes wrong? Clementine Logan dials for advice...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

What do you do if your turkey recipe tells you to "stuff the neck end" and you have no idea which end is which? Or if you're ready to cook your stonking great bird and suddenly find it won't fit into your modestly sized oven? Rest assured you won't be the only one wrestling with a big bird this Christmas. For many cooks, turkey is a one-off, only ever eaten at Christmas. Many more, let's face it, never roast anything at all for the rest of the year round.

So thank heaven for the Turkey Hotline, a team of advisors on call right up to Christmas Eve today, ready to answer calls from panicked people in need of some quick culinary advice. The hotline, courtesy of the British Turkey Information Service, has received hundred of calls in the last week alone and today will be the busiest day of all. The most common questions amid the deluge of calls relate to cooking and defrosting times and, yes, how to cook a bird that's too big for your oven – more of us are buying supersize birds, apparently. (The answer is that you should either cut it in half and cook it in two batches, or take off the drumsticks and cook those separately – who'll have to know? And the neck end, by the way, is at the other end from the feet.)

Callers can rest assured that the turkey hotline team has heard it all before, so there's no need to be embarrassed. One advisor recalls a classic from Christmas past: "A man rang up at 4.30pm on Christmas Eve asking when would be a good time for him to take a 25lb turkey out of the freezer." The polite response from the turkey team suggested inviting guests over for turkey on Boxing Day instead. Another wanted to know if it was OK to par-cook the turkey before whipping it into the car for a 100-mile journey to his mother-in-law's house, where he intended to finish it off (only if you want a divorce, the advisors suggested).

Others want to know why they can't enjoy turkey eggs for breakfast. (Turkeys, it seems are very slow layers, producing only around a dozen eggs a year – though you could try your luck at the farm gate.) Reassuringly, festive culinary ignorance is not UK specific. America's "Butterball turkey-tips hotline" first swings into action in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Its team of advisers must first graduate from Butterball University – five days of intensive turkey training, for trainees who already have degrees in nutrition, food science or home economics. Over the two holiday periods, the hotline handles more than 100,000 calls, such as the one from the caller who wondered if it would be OK to thaw her turkey in the bath while washing the kids (erm, it's not), or the man hoping to speed things up a bit by cooking the turkey on the oven's cleaning cycle (sorry, no).

All tips and guidelines provided by the British hotline are thoroughly tested and approved by the Food Standard Agency (FSA), with an experienced home economist on its panel of advisers. For anyone in a real flap, a text service is even available after 5pm on Christmas Eve, by texting "turkey" and the weight of your bird to 64446, to which an automated response with the correct cooking time and the number of hungry mouths it will feed is sent.

While the turkey hotline only recommends the traditional, tried-and-tested method of "roasting the turkey in the oven", they have heard that people are experimenting more this Christmas. Serving up a roasted brined turkey could be an exciting alternative. Nigella Lawson and Martha Stewart are among those who favour this method – it comes out wonderfully moist, they say. You can find a recipe if you search online. Pick from an array of aromatic ingredients to sprinkle into the salty potion, which will infuse the turkey with a subtle flavour of its own: approximately six bay leaves, coriander seeds, dried juniper berries, black peppercorns, and fennel and mustard seeds.

Alternatively, TV chef Phil Vickery recommends poaching your turkey in a stock of white wine, water and chicken stock cube, covering it with foil so it steams through nicely, and then finishing it off in the oven for a couple of hours. Details can be found at Itv.com.

Call the turkey hotline on 0800 783 9994, or visit britishturkey.co.uk

Sage advice: Tips for successful cooking

Don't wash your turkey – washing the bird can actually spread harmful food poisoning bacteria where they can linger for days. Bob Martin, food safety expert at the FSA, says "It isn't possible to wash off germs that cause food poisoning with water. But all germs will be killed if you thoroughly cook your turkey."

Avoid the common error of partially defrosting your turkey. When it is completely thawed there won't be any ice crystals inside the cavity of the bird. You can also test it with a fork to check whether the meat still feels frozen.

Celebrity chefs may not be able to agree on how long a turkey should be cooked for but they do agree on the average cooking temperature, which should be between 180 and 200c. For time guidelines, go to Britishturkey.co.uk.

Foodsafety.gov recommends that you always make sure whole turkeys reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Use a meat thermometer to measure the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. A cooked bird's juices will run clear.

If you're reheating turkey always make sure it is steaming hot all the way through before you eat it. This also applies to other leftovers. And don't reheat more than once. Ideally, try to eat, cook or freeze your leftovers within 48 hours.

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