Hunting in North America mostly takes place in the fall and winter, but there is one main exception: wild turkey. Wild turkey seasons are ending in the South and Southwest and will continue through June elsewhere as the highlight of the spring hunting season.
If you’re going to partake in the pursuit, now’s the time to do it: turkey populations are booming in much of the country, thanks to a decades-long conservation effort that has led to open seasons in 49 states; only Alaska lacks one. But while you might have seen some clever turkeys who have learned to live in hunting-free suburbia, getting a real wild turkey—like hunting any animal—is challenging.
If hunting a wild turkey isn’t in the cards, buying a heritage turkey will be your next best option, as it’s been illegal to buy wild turkey meat in the United States since the North American Model of Game Management made commercialization of wildlife a crime in 1918.
When you are lucky enough to bring one home—either by hunting it or procuring a heritage bird from a specialty butcher—you’ll want to do it justice. Here’s how that’s done.
Sourcing Your Turkey
You can get very, very close to a wild bird by buying a heritage breed like a bourbon red or a Narragansett. Check to see if your local farmers’ market sells them—you might need to reserve a bird for later in the year, though, since they grow slower than industrially raised birds.
If you do decide to hunt wild turkey, you’re only allowed to shoot males in the spring (both males and females are hunted in the fall in states that allow it). Males have a beard—a long cluster of hairlike feathers on their chest. A small number of female turkeys grow a beard, and those, too, are legal game. This beard is your cue for how to cook your bird, should you bag one.
Jakes Versus Old Toms
A short beard usually means the turkey is young, a “jake” in hunter’s parlance. That’s not so fantastic for serious turkey hunters who are looking for old toms, more mature birds (also called “longbeards” or “rope draggers”), mostly for the challenge. The oldest toms can live to be four years old if they survive being hunted each spring. They be wily.
Jakes are fantastic if you are, like me, a meat hunter. Unlike old toms, younger jakes can be plucked whole—just pull the feathers out; there’s no art to it. Their skin won’t be leathery, and the meat won’t be overly tough, although remember that wild turkeys work for a living, so they’re not going to look like the fat, couch-potato birds you buy at your local mega mart. Wild turkey meat is darker and tougher, but it has good muscle tone, which means that you’ll need less of it to fill you up.
The breasts are narrow, too. Almost all farmed birds—even some heritage breeds—are double breasted, which means they were bred to have a wide, meaty breast. This feature isn’t terribly helpful in the wild, where you need to flee your enemies or fly high into a tree to sleep at night.
Old toms are best skinned, since that leathery skin is not nice to eat even after cooking for a long while. Every so often you’ll find a fat one, and you can mince and render its skin to make schmaltz, like you would for a chicken. But this is rare.
How to Cook Your Turkey
Rather than cook it whole, I tend to break down my wild turkey into component parts—it’s exactly like breaking down a chicken, only larger. Each part has wonderful potential in the kitchen.
Let’s start with the breast, the money cut for most people. Because a wild turkey’s breast is so narrow, it’s hard to cook with the skin on. If I haven’t already, I pull that skin off and fry it in a little butter or oil until crispy, then either eat it as a snack or put it in a tortilla for crispy turkey-skin tacos.
The breast is shaped like a teardrop—thick at the round end and thin at the pointy end, which tapers toward the tail. Because those ends cook differently, I like to slice the breast in half horizontally, leaving me with a thin, trapezoidal cut and a fat, football-shaped cut. The thin part works very well pounded thinner as cutlets in recipes like turkey Parmesan, turkey Marsala or piccata, or Wiener schnitzel. The thick part can be sliced lengthwise to make more cutlets, or you can poach, roast, or smoke it whole.
The wings, thighs, and drumsticks are a bit more interesting.
In most cases, you’ll need to do the “two step,” meaning tenderizing the pieces by gently cooking them slow and low in a liquid before finishing with another method. (Cook them in water and you can make a quick batch of turkey broth.)
Once tender, wings are epic soaked overnight in your favorite sauce, then smoked, grilled, or broiled until that sauce caramelizes. It’s basically the world’s largest buffalo wing. Thighs–and I always separate thighs from drumsticks–make phenomenal barbecue, braises, or, if you shred them, tacos.
Remember how I said that wild turkeys work for a living? Well, it’s more accurate to say they walk for a living. Several miles a day, actually. So the drumstick tendons are bone-like and will never break down. The answer to this problem is to slow cook the drumsticks until the meat falls off the bone—anywhere from 90 minutes for a jake to up to four and a half hours for a really old tom—then shred it away from those nasty tendons. Once shredded, wild turkey legs make excellent carnitas or can be simmered in your favorite barbecue sauce.
Finally, don’t forget the giblets! Wild turkey giblets are every bit as good as store-bought, so go ahead and make your grandma’s famous giblet gravy. Or mince them fine and make Cajun dirty rice. Or add them to the stockpot with the carcass. Or, if you’ve been really successful and have brought home several turkeys, make a liver pâté to impress your friends.
Author of five cookbooks, Hank Shaw is former chef a who writes about foraging, fishing, and hunting at the James Beard Award-winning website huntgathercook.com.