June 03, 2021
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My friends and I learned to turkey hunt before the age of the internet. Back before outdoor television programs and before turkey hunting DVDs and VHS tapes. I was in middle school when the first turkeys were released near our farm through a joint venture between the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Before that, any exposure to wild turkeys came in short trips down South where we might see a small flock strutting in a field as my family drove through Alabama or Georgia. Or on a trip to the western end of the state where a small population existed at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a sprawling chunk of timber situated between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
Just a few years after those first releases, the turkey population was deemed strong enough in our area for the first open season. None of us had spent much time chasing turkeys, so we eagerly flipped through outdoor magazines and listened to cassette tapes by Ben Rogers Lee and Dick Kirby in our trucks on the way to and from school.
Amid increasing protests from teachers and other students, we’d practice our calls in the school hallways, partly because we enjoyed the way the acoustics made them sound and partly because we enjoyed the reaction they got.
Luckily for us, those earliest seasons were easy as far as turkey hunting goes. Those first birds had never known hunting pressure. The population was still scattered enough that the mere suggestion of a hen yelp would cause a gobbler to come investigate from great distances. We still had a lot to learn about turkey hunting—about sitting still, being patient, not shooting at a bird that looked so big at 60 yards that we knew he must be in range—but we slowly started to kill a few turkeys.
We all deer hunted back then, and the thought of killing a deer and leaving most of the meat in the woods, taking only the choicest parts, would have been completely unthinkable to us. For some reason, though, we didn’t bat an eye at conventional wisdom of the time that said the only part of a wild turkey worth eating was the breast meat.
Unfortunately, that same attitude exists still today. Every spring, I spend time in camps or talk to other hunters who are under the impression that the breast meat is the only thing edible on a turkey. They are wrong. There’s a lot of good food on the rest of the bird.
Legs & Thighs
The largest part of the bird that too often gets left behind is the leg/thigh combo. A lot of you are reading this and asking what’s so unusual about eating legs and thighs? After all, they do make up about half the meat on a wild turkey and might be even more delicious than the breast meat. But every year I see and hear about hunters leaving them behind with the carcass.
To save these tasty parts, simply pluck or skin them, whatever you did for the breast meat. To remove the legs and thighs from the carcass, lay the turkey on its back and press down on the legs, popping the joint. Then just use your knife to cut them off at the joint where the thigh meets the backbone. I prefer to keep the legs and thighs attached and freeze them in pairs, with both leg/thigh sides from a turkey in one package.
While the meat is rich and delicious, the leg and thigh do contain a lot of connective tissue and cartilage. Cook them low and slow—either at a light simmer, a braise, or in a slow cooker — until the meat falls from the bone. Pick out everything that isn’t meat. Use the meat in turkey barbecue, turkey soup, tacos, you name it. Legs and thighs will make the best pot of turkey and dumplings you have ever eaten.
Just like a chicken or a farm-raised turkey, the giblets, mainly the heart, liver, and gizzard, of a wild turkey not only are edible but also are delicious. The heart and liver don’t need any extra preparation to make them ready to cook, simply pull them from the bird as you skin. The gizzard takes a bit of extra prep work once you get home. A zip-style bag in your turkey vest makes transporting all three a clean and easy task.
Since wild turkeys are generally quite a bit older than their farm-raised cousins, the liver can be stronger in flavor. You can tame it a bit with an overnight soak in milk. Turkey liver can be added to sausage, stews, or gravies, but my favorite style of cooking is breaded and fried, then served with white gravy made from the pan drippings.
Turkeys don’t have teeth, so they need a way to break down the seeds and other foods they eat. That’s where the gizzard comes in. The muscular sack is located near the stomach. Gizzards are filled with small stones that grind and pulverize seeds and nuts as they pass through the turkey’s digestive system.
Before gizzards can be eaten, they must be cleaned. Start by removing any fat and loose tissue from the outer surface. Look at the gizzard and locate the shallow indentations that run down the center. Use a sharp knife to make a shallow cut along that line. Do not cut too deeply. Pull the gizzard open, exposing the stones and material in the center. Use your fingers or a spoon to knock away the loose material.
Rinse the gizzard under running water. You will notice a thick membrane in the center. Use your fingers and a knife to peel away the membrane, leaving only the clean muscle. As with livers, the preferred cooking method for gizzards is breaded and fried.
Turkey hearts need just a bit of trimming. Like deer hearts, they are perfect for grilling. Slice the hearts in half, marinate, grill, and serve on toast for an outstanding appetizer.
Back, Neck & Wings
While the back, neck, and wings of a wild turkey don’t offer a lot of meat, they do pack a bunch of flavor. They make great stock when oven-roasted with onions, carrots, and celery, then slowly simmered in a large pot of water for hours or, even, days.
Try saving the wings from several birds and smoking them for an hour or two. Then slowly braise them in beer or stock, covered tightly, in a 275-degree oven until the meat is tender. Grill them quickly to crisp the skin, then toss with your favorite chicken wing sauce.
Wild turkeys are true trophies, both in the field and on the table. Let’s give them the respect they deserve by utilizing every edible part. You’ll get many more meals from your bird and many more chances to relive the hunt.
Walter’s Wild Turkey Leg & Thigh BBQ Recipe
A hunting buddy who goes by the nickname “Walter” saves the legs and thighs from all of his wild turkeys to make a big batch of this BBQ for our deer camp each winter. It’s one of our favorite recipes for wild turkey legs and thighs. We start with the legs and thighs on the smoker for a couple of hours to build an extra layer of flavor and then move them to a slow cooker to simmer until the meat falls from the bones.
- 2 wild turkey leg/thigh quarters
- 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon of your favorite sweet and spicy BBQ rub
- 1/2 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce
- 1/2 cup chicken or turkey stock
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- Unless your slow cooker is large enough to hold them as one piece, separate the legs from the thighs by cutting through the joint.
- Heavily coat all sides of the legs and thighs with 1/4 cup of the BBQ rub.
- Place the meat on the smoker at 225–250 degrees for 2 hours.
- Move the turkey meat to a slow cooker and add the remaining ingredients, including the reserved tablespoon of the BBQ rub.
- Cook on high 3–4 hours or on low 6–8 hours until the turkey meat begins to fall from the bones.
- Gently remove the turkey legs and thighs from the pot and allow them to cool. Shred the meat from the bones, removing any bones, tendons, and connective tissue.
- Return the meat to the slow cooker and stir into the liquid left from the cook.
- Serve shredded wild turkey on buns for killer BBQ sandwiches.