Harvesting a wild tom is just the first step in having a traditional Thanksgiving turkey with your family and friends.
Depending on what age bird you harvested, you have many options for preparing your turkey. An older gobbler, or hen, tends to have extremely dark, tough legs and wings. Unlike domestic birds that see little activity in captivity, wild birds use their legs and wings daily, which cause them to become darker and tougher. Young birds do not have this issue, a young jake or jenny is one of the best tasting turkeys you will ever eat.
Since there is such a difference in the meat available on the different birds I’ll approach cooking them differently.
An old tom’s, or older hen’s, breast is generally the largest and tastiest piece of meat. Many hunters who have harvested either of these grand birds will just fillet the meat off of the breastbone and discard the rest. They are missing delicious leg meat, which, if prepared correctly, can be just as good.
To get your breast meat, simply lay the turkey on its back and pluck the feathers down the breast bone. Next, run your knife under the skin from the bottom of the breastbone to the top, much like you would to gut a big game animal with the blade pointed up. Once the skin has been broken, slowly peel it away to the wings.
Now take your knife and run it down under the breast meat on both sides of the breastbone, slowly filleting it off. You should end up with two large pieces of fresh turkey breast.
To cook the breasts it has always been suggested to marinate them in Italian dressing and honestly, I think it is the best way to do it. I wash them off, pat them dry then marinate them overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I fire up the grill and once it is nice and hot I lay my two breasts on them to cook. Remember this is wild game and will cook faster than store-bought meat. Cooking times will vary depending on their thickness, but I usually flip them after 5-7 minutes and find mine done to my liking by the 12-15 minute mark.
Plate the breasts up with your traditional Thanksgiving sides and enjoy a feast meant for a king, or a hungry pilgrim!
For the legs, with the turkey still on it’s back, grab a leg in each hand by the thigh and push down and out to break them free. Then take your knife and cut the knee joint on both. Then I start at where the knee was, where the feathers end on each leg, and slowly work your knife under the skin, with the blade up, to remove the feathers and skin from each leg. Once you get the cut up to the top of the leg, you can actually use your hands to peal the skin away. Once the leg is skinned out, you can usually just pop it off, if you can’t use your knife to cut any remaining connective tissue. Once you get one done, the second one will be a breeze.
The legs are best in a slow cooker and will take a lot of moisture and time to render them edible, but once done be prepared for a treat.
I lay my legs in the bottom of the crockpot then add onion soup mix and a creamy cheddar or mushroom soup to them. I also add water until the legs are covered in liquid. Then I set it on low for approximately eight hours and come home to a delicious meal. The meat will actually fall right off the bone and you will never throw a leg away again.
I have also prepared barbecued pulled pork and they make excellent sandwiches. To do this, I place them again in my crockpot and add a generous amount of barbecue sauce and diced onions. I also add water to ensure they are covered. Set the crockpot on low for eight hours and when I come home I’m ready to pull the meat right from the bone. Once the meat is thoroughly shredded I generally add a bit more sauce and serve it with pepper jack cheese on fresh rolls. Talk about heaven in your hands!
The Young Ones
If you have tagged a young turkey be ready for a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving! Young birds are amazing to eat and easy to prepare. Whether you like it deep fried or cooked in a traditional manner many of your store-bought turkey recipes will translate over to a wild turkey. Just be sure to add more moisture to the bird if you are roasting it.
To prepare your wild turkey for cooking you will need to pluck it, this is not only time consuming, but also messy. If you have never plucked a bird before be prepared for feathers everywhere. I like to get my deep fryer filled with water and get the water boiling hot. While the water is warming up I gut the bird. I make a slit below the anus and around it, then reach up and pull. Turkey entrails come out quite easily. Save the liver and the heart for giblets if you like to eat them. Then, I remove the head, the outer wing bones and the tail feather, but leave the legs on. They make amazing handles.
Once you get your water boiling, slowly and safely dip your bird into the water, the hot water will loosen the skin and actually allow you to remove the feathers quite easily. Once the bird has had a good dunking remove it from the water and start plucking. I start at the breast and work my way around the bird. Pull the feathers straight out and you will lessen the ripped skin. Once the feathers become difficult to pull again, give your bird another bath. Each turkey is different; some pluck quickly while others seem to fight you for every feather. Take your time and enjoy yourself.
Once your bird is plucked, I like to take hang it by it’s feet and slowly go over it with a lighter to remove the pin feathers, or hair-like feathers on the bird. Try to avoid burning the skin and your fingers when you do this. It is tedious, but will render a much better looking bird for the table. Once it is thoroughly cleaned, I remove the legs and take it in for another bath, just to give it a good cleaning inside and out.
Now slowly cut the neck off and trim the wings back. Your bird is ready to roast or deep fry.
So there you have it, a traditional Thanksgiving turkey is easier than you may have thought. Just be ready for everyone to ask for seconds and the name of the farm you bought your bird at this year.