April 11, 2016
By Hank Shaw
At Thanksgiving dinner, which meat do you reach for first: light or dark? I am an avowed leg man myself and have always had my eye on the turkey thigh. To me, there is no better part of the bird.
Sure, you might think that's true for the domesticated white "Butterball" turkeys. Wild turkey legs are inedible, right? Not true. Not even close to being true, actually. Wild turkey thighs are even better than store-bought turkey thighs. They're richer, more flavorful, and denser. They're just that good.
So how is it that people think otherwise? I suspect it's because plucking a turkey is a pain, and the skin on an old gobbler can get really rubbery, making all that work useless. Knowing this, most hunters just breast out their birds, leaving several pounds of meat in the field. What's going on, I bet, is that most hunters have never actually tried eating a wild turkey thigh.
I am hoping to change that, so walk with me for a moment.
Wild turkeys are not so different from domesticated birds — if you happen to get your hands on what I call the "Gucci" turkeys, the older, heritage breeds, very expensive birds that can run you $100 apiece. In fact, in the wild world I've found no closer comparison between a domesticated and wild animal than this. They are virtually indistinguishable.
That being said, a cheap supermarket bird is indeed a different beast. Its breast will be twice as wide and the drumsticks will be a lot more tender. But the thigh meat will be pretty close. My point is if you like thigh meat at Thanksgiving, you'll like it in a wild turkey.
Mind you, I am not talking about the drumsticks themselves, which on a wild bird are still awesome, but require long cooking in liquid until the meat falls off those horrific tendons, which will never, ever break down. Pulled, drumstick meat makes great BBQ or tacos.
Cooking a wild turkey thigh, on the other hand, is merely a matter of patience. It will be denser than a supermarket turkey because your wild bird worked for a living, and there's a good chance it was several years old — farm-raised turkeys are always less than a year old. How much patience am I talking about? Maybe an extra hour or so, nothing major.
I like my wild turkey thighs braised or barbecued.
Braising, if you're not familiar with the process, is basically cooking large pieces of meat in a little liquid, as opposed to stewing which involves bite-sized pieces of meat in a lot of liquid. Braised turkey thighs are fantastic; cacciatore is especially good.
Your other best bet is to barbecue them, and when I say barbecue I mean slow and low, not grilling. You'll want to brine your thighs first in a solution of ¼ cup kosher salt to 1 quart of water in the fridge for at least four hours, and up to overnight.
Then barbecue them slowly, painting every so often with your favorite BBQ sauce. You will not be sad if you experience turkey thighs this way.
Actually, you will be. You will be overcome with regret about all those thighs you left in the field over the years.
Barbecued Wild Turkey Thighs
I am a huge fan of South Carolina's mustard-based BBQ sauce, so I give you my recipe for that iconic sauce here. Feel free to use whatever barbecue sauce you prefer, though.
Stir the salt and water together until the salt dissolves. Submerge the thighs in the brine and refrigerate for at least 4 hours — or up to overnight. If not enough brine to cover 4 thighs, double it.
Set your grill up so you can barbecue, leaving one side of it clear of coals or otherwise off the heat. Remove the thighs from the brine and pat dry. Coat with a little vegetable oil and set them on that cooler side of the grill. Cover and barbecue no hotter than 230° F — I try to keep it cooler, like 180° F — for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a medium pot, saute the onion in the butter until it softens. Don't let it brown. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Let this simmer slowly while the turkey cooks for that first hour. If you want a smooth sauce, buzz it in the blender.
After an hour has passed, paint the thighs with the sauce and turn them over. Rearrange them if there are hot spots on the grill. Cover and keep cooking until the meat wants to fall off the bone, at least another hour and up to 3 more hours. Paint with more sauce every 30 minutes or so during this time.
If you want, finish the thighs on the hot side of the grill for a minute or two on each side to get some char. Paint one last time and serve.
4 turkey thighs
¼ cup kosher salt
1 quart water
A little vegetable oil
South Carolina BBQ Sauce
¼ cup butter
½ cup white or yellow
onion, grated on a box grater
½ cup yellow mustard
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1 bay leaf
Cayenne pepper and salt to taste
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