Domestic and wild turkeys actually have very little in common — one was bred for the table and the other evolved to escape predators. No, the wild turkey is in a category of its own, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great on the plate. It just takes a little different care, from the field to the table, to ensure you’re getting the best experience possible. Here’s a definitive guide on how to care for your bird once you pull the trigger.
First in the Field
The average body temperature of a turkey is in the neighborhood of 107 degrees, which happens to be deep in the danger zone of bacteria growth. While that temperature begins dropping seconds after you drop the bird, it doesn’t cool very rapidly, especially on a warm, spring day. That’s why it’s important to jump-start the cooling process by opening the body cavity in the field. This is especially critical if you’re on a run-and-gun hunt with a buddy and plan on toting the turkey through the woods for the rest of the day.
The two most common places where meat starts to rot are next to the interior of the body cavity — the guts — and the crop. Both of these places are not only filled with bacteria, but they also hold heat the longest. Unless you’re close to the truck and planning on cleaning the bird within the hour, make a cut big enough for your hand under the turkey’s sternum and reach in to remove as many of the organs as possible. Be sure to get up into the windpipe as well, and then remove the crop. I also like to lay the bird on its back and press outward and down on each thigh. That pops the hip — another high-heat area — out of its socket and helps initiate cool-down.
Some folks advocate rinsing the body cavity with water right away, but I generally don’t. Bad bacteria grows even faster in moist environments, so I typically wait until I get back to the truck where I can either put the bird in a cooler of ice, or pack the cavity with ice to cool it down quickly on the ride home. Another thing I rarely do is stuff a big gobbler in my vest’s game pouch, which tends to bake the bird in its own feathers. Instead, carry an over-the-shoulder strap and expose the bird to the cooling effects of the wind on the walk out.
Plucking Vs. Skinning
There’s a pretty good reason why that Butterball in the grocer’s freezer is plucked, and it’s not just for looks (though a pretty appearance is definitely a selling point). Between that thin skin and the meat of the bird is a nice layer of fat. That fat is what makes a store-bought bird so moist, and adds to succulent flavor. Unfortunately, most wild turkeys, save for the occasional barnyard bird, don’t have much fat protecting the meat. This lack of fat not only dictates how you cook a big, spring gobbler, but also how you should clean it.
Not many hunters nowadays pluck their wild turkeys, mostly because it’s not an easy job. If you want a nice presentation for Thanksgiving dinner, then by all means pluck away. That skin not only browns up nicely, it also protects the meat a little bit during high, dry cooking methods such as roasting. However, skinning is generally the preferred method.
If you do decide to pluck, there are a few things you can do to make it less difficult. (Notice I didn’t say easier. There is nothing easy about plucking a wild turkey.) First, suspend the bird from its feet so it hangs about to the middle of your torso. A rubber glove, the kind used by dishwashers, can provide a firm grip on otherwise slick feathers. With one hand grab a few feathers and use the other hand to hold down the skin as you pluck the feathers from the body. If you don’t, you risk tearing the thin skin. If you pull downward, against the “grain” of the feathers, they tend to pull out easier. Dunking the turkey in a simmering tub of water can help, but I usually find that just creates a wet mess, so I tend to dry pluck. Use a pliers to pull the difficult wing feathers. Once you’ve got the bird naked, run a blowtorch over it quickly to singe away any remaining pinfeathers, then rinse the skin well.
Where plucking a wild turkey can take upwards of an hour, skinning cuts that time by 30 to 45 minutes. By the end of a season, I can usually have a bird skinned and in pieces in about 10 to 15 minutes.
First, make an incision right about at the sternum and cut the skin up toward the head for an inch or two — just enough to get your fingers in there. Grip each side of the cut and pull outward. The skin should peel off easily, like a banana. If you hit a tough spot, work your fingers under the skin, or if necessary, use your knife to cut away the viscera.
Expose the entire breast from the wishbone to the sternum, then work the skin down around the thighs and drumsticks. Remove the feet by running your knife around the skin, then cutting the tendon just under the knee. This should pop the knee free, allowing you to twist the foot completely off.
Now you can either pull the breast off whole or de-bone the meat. To do the latter, run a sharp knife down both sides of the keel bone, which runs down the center line of the breast. Stay as close to the bone as possible. Cut down the front of the breast at an angle along the wishbone. The breast meat should pull away easily as you fillet it off the ribs, leaving you a large chunk of meat. Don’t forget the tenders, which are separate muscles that lay along the length of the breast between it and the keel bone. Repeat on the opposite side.
Don’t Leave the Legs
Wild turkeys have big thighs and legs that carry a lot of meat, making them well worth saving. A lot of hunters think the legs are tough and too full of sinew, but by using the right cooking method, they are delicious and versatile.
To remove the leg quarter, press down and outward on the inside of the thigh. The hip bone will generally pop out quite easily, leaving the thigh attached to the carcass by just a thin layer of meat that is easily cut through with a sharp knife. Once the quarters are removed, you can either leave them whole or break them down into thigh and drumstick portions.
The key to creating palatable wild turkey legs and thighs is a long, slow cooking time at relatively low temperatures. Think slow-cooker or Crock-Pot, though I do mine in a Dutch oven. You’ll need to add some sort of moisture, which helps break down the muscles and sinew. Once the meat is cooked, it will shred easily, making it perfect for barbecue sliders, burritos and more. Just be careful to pick through the meat before serving to remove the tendons and small bones.
The breasts and legs aren’t the only edible parts of a wild turkey. There’s also the offal, or what the Brits call the wobbly bits. This can include everything from the heart to the gizzard to the liver, which are all delicious when prepared correctly. The carcass itself also holds a ton of flavor. Stick it in a pot, cover it with water and let things simmer to create a delicious turkey stock that’s the perfect base for turkey soup, turkey and noodles, turkey chili … you get the idea.
Fresh from the Freezer
Once you’ve got all of your turkey parts apart and rinsed, it’s time to preserve them. Canning is an old-school option, and one I would recommend for that leg meat because the high-heat process easily breaks down tough cuts. But the primary way to keep a wild turkey fresh is freezing it correctly, and that means preventing freezer burn.
Freezer burn — those gray areas of crystallized flesh — not only looks terrible, it tastes terrible, too. In the below-freezing environment inside your freezer, air is the enemy. Extended exposure to cold, dry air causes water molecules within the meat to come to the surface where they oxidize and form ice crystals. That’s why it’s important to seal meat in an air-free environment.
One way to do that is a combination of plastic wrap and butcher paper. Done correctly, with a tight roll that eliminates any air pockets, a butcher wrap can preserve meat for up to a year. However, a good-quality vacuum sealer such as Cabela’s Commercial Grade Models or, my current favorite, the Weston Pro 100, can protect meat from freezer burn up to five times longer than conventional storage methods. Plus, vacuum sealing not only protects your investment better than conventional bags, plastic wrap or butcher paper, it’s also faster and you’re not left with white packages of mystery meat in the bottom of the freezer.
In a Pickle
Wild turkey meat has a tendency to dry out quickly when subjected to high heat due to the limited amount of fat these birds develop. However, there is a technique that all but guarantees a moister end product, whether you roast, grill or fry your turkey — brining.
Brining is the act of soaking meat, in this case turkey breast, in a saltwater solution for a period of time, typically overnight, though as little as four hours works wonders. The salt in the brine breaks down proteins in the meat known as myosin, offering more space to absorb water and reducing the amount of shrinkage during the cooking process. The result is a tender, moister end product. Typically, I make my brine with a cup each of kosher salt and sugar dissolved in a gallon of water. Sometimes I add peppercorns, garlic cloves or other flavorings.
My secret to moist, delicious wild turkey breast is a brine you probably already have in your refrigerator — pickle juice. That’s right, the liquid used to make commercial pickles makes a great brine for poultry. It’s so good, it’s reportedly used by Chick-Fil-A to brine the chicken breasts used in their famous sandwiches. If you think about it, pickle juice makes a lot of sense as a brine. It’s typically made with water and salt, with vinegar, garlic and other flavorings added. The salt concentrate is high enough to break down the myosin in wild turkeys and create a flavorful, moist meat, whether you bread it and fry it or put it on the grill.
Forget that bland white bird you find at the grocery store. A properly prepared wild turkey is the real Pilgrim’s Pride, and the satisfaction of knowing you prepared it yourself — from the field to the fork — is the sweetest flavoring of all.
4 slices thick-cut bacon, sliced in half
2 wild turkey legs
1 lb. kielbasa, knackwurst or other good
smoked sausage, cut into 3-inch chunks
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 Tbs. kosher salt
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 bottle good dark beer
1 cup chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 large jar sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
Ground black pepper
Make a rub by combining kosher salt, brown sugar and paprika. Apply liberally to both sides of the turkey legs. In a large cast-iron Dutch oven, brown the bacon over medium-high heat. When the bacon is just crisp, transfer it to a plate. Add the turkey legs to the pot and brown each side. Transfer to the plate with bacon. Brown sausage in hot oil. Remove to the plate when browned on all sides.
You’ll want about 2 Tbs. of pork fat in the Dutch oven. Remove or add as necessary.
Lower heat to medium and dump in the sliced onion, along with a couple of pinches of salt and a liberal dose of fresh ground black pepper. Sauté, stirring often, until onions are translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in sliced garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add brown sugar and stir. Pour in half a bottle of beer. Drink the other half. Up the heat a bit until the beer starts to simmer and stir, loosening all the tasty bits from the bottom of the Dutch oven. Pour in the chicken stock and add bay leaves and sauerkraut. Stir well.
Return all the meat back to the pot, nestling the legs and sausages into the sauerkraut. Cover, lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 hours. Add more stock as necessary to prevent the dish from drying out.
Transfer meat, kraut and boiled potatoes to a large platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.