As Wild Turkey populations continue to expand throughout the US, the popularity of turkey hunting continues to grow. However, one practice that is somewhat disturbing to me is that many turkey hunters only de-breast the birds and tend to discard the rest of the carcass. This practice is roughly equivalent to cutting out deer backstraps and ditching the majority of the useable meat. In addition to the legs, there is surprising amount of dark meat on turkey and, being a dark meat kind of guy, I find the cut that many hunters discard to be my favorite parts of the bird.
But let’s back up for second and talk about plucking versus skinning a bird. Wild turkeys are a very lean bird and, as a result, the meat is quick to dry out. However, by taking the time to pluck your bird, you buy yourself a little extra fat, help the meat to retain moisture and, subject to opinion, of course, get an all- around better tasting meat as a result of your efforts. Dry plucking a wild turkey generally takes about 45 minutes. You can steam or dunk your bird in hot water, like you might a chicken, which will make this task a little easier, though I generally just dry pluck the birds.
After you pluck your bird, you’ll need to butcher it. I cut my birds into legs (thighs attached) breasts, wings, and main carcass. I also keep the liver and heart which are delicious (Giblet gravy, anyone?)
Breast Meat: Most turkey recipes center around breast meat and there are plenty of them out there. Steve Rinella has a great one that is simple and delicious: Turkey Schnitzel . Other popular recipes for turkey breast involve deep frying them, stuffing them (substitute turkey stock for chicken stock!), baking them, and grilling them.
Legs and thighs: Turkey legs are tough and full of spindel, however, if you braise them, they will breakdown into some amazing servings of dark meat. Personally, the legs are my very favorite cut of Wild Turkey. You do have to pick through them carefully for spindel, but it is a task well worth the reward. (the amount of discarded turkey legs is nothing short of shameful). Jesse Griffith’s excellent book “Afield” has some great braised turkey leg recipes. The You Have To Cook It Right blog recommends that you confit the turkey legs, which sounds delicious.
Wild Turkey Carnitas (Hank Shaw)
BBQ Wild Turkey Thighs (Hank Shaw)
Carcass and feet: I cook these down for stock and generally yield 2-5 pounds of meat after it is all over with. We often use this meat for Gumbo (pictured left). Turkey stock can be frozen and used as a substitute for chicken stock in most any recipe (Gumbo, Turkey Pot Pie, Soup, Stew, etc. come to mind). Many hunters preserve the feet and spurs as trophies, which if fine, however, I personally do not find much gratification in that. Turkey feet are full of gelatin and a great contribution to rich and nutritious stock. I cleanse them in vinegar first.
A couple of pounds of Turkey meat that came off the carcass after cooking down for stock. -great for Gumbo, Tacos or Carnitas.
Wings: The wings, especially of older birds, are a little tough and do not have a whole lot of meat, but I do save them for a deer camp meal each Fall. Roasted, these may not be the best cut to serve to your non hunting friends, however, any hunter worth his salt, should have a little tolerance for giving their teeth a bit of a workout in order to consume their quarry. For tender meals, confit and braising are best. You could just throw them it with the turkey legs if using either of those methods.
Can I roast, smoke, or fry a whole turkey Thanksgiving style? Unfortunately, Wild Turkeys are not well suited for this task as the legs take considerably longer to cook than the rest of the meat. You could, however, remove the legs and cook (roast, fry, or smoke) them separately for a longer period of time and then place them with the whole turkey at serving time.
Feathers: I am not really into tail feather mounts. I enjoy the pursuit of turkeys as much as anyone, but, let’s face it… at the end dof the day its a big chicken that lives in the woods and is difficult to kill. I give the feathers to a traditional archer who uses them as arrow fletchings.
Happy Hunting! -GoCarnivoreChristian