Hunting in North America takes place primarily in the fall and winter, but there is one major exception: the wild turkey. Wild turkey seasons are winding down in the south and southwest and will continue through June elsewhere as the peak of the spring hunting season.
If you’re going to join the chase, now is the time to do it: Turkey populations are thriving across much of the country, thanks to a decades-long conservation effort that has led to open seasons in 49 States; only Alaska lacks it. But while you may have seen smart turkeys that have learned to live in the suburbs without hunting, getting a real wild turkey – like hunting any animal – is a challenge.
If wild turkey hunting 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 model game management company has made wildlife commercialization a crime. in 1918.
When you’re lucky enough to bring one home, either by hunting it or sourcing a heritage bird from a specialty butcher, you’ll want to do it justice. Here’s how it’s done.
Provisioning your turkey
You can get very, very close to a wild bird by purchasing a heritage breed like a red bourbon or a Narragansett. Check to see if your local farmer’s market sells it. You may need to reserve a bird for later in the year as they grow more slowly than industrially raised birds.
If you decide to hunt wild turkeys, you are 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 hair-like feathers on their chest. A small number of female turkeys grow a beard, and these too are legal game. This barb tells you how to cook your bird, if you bring one.
Jakes vs Old Toms
A short beard usually means the turkey is young, a “jake” in hunter parlance. It’s not so fantastic for serious turkey hunters who are looking for old toms, more mature birds (also known as “long beards” or “rope draggers”) primarily for the challenge. The oldest toms can live up to four years if they survive the hunt each spring. They are crafty.
James are fantastic if you are, like me, a meat hunter. Unlike older toms, younger jakes can be plucked whole – just pull the feathers out; there is no art. Their skin won’t be tough and the meat won’t be too tough, but remember that wild turkeys work for a living, so they won’t look like the big couch potato birds you buy at your local mega. market. Wild turkey meat is darker and tougher, but has good muscle tone, which means you’ll need less of it to fill you up.
The breasts are also narrow. Almost all farmed birds, even some heritage breeds, are double-breasted, meaning they were bred to have a broad, fleshy chest. This feature isn’t very useful in the wild, where you have to run away from enemies or fly high into a tree to sleep at night.
Old toms are the best flayed, because this leathery skin is not pleasant to eat even after a long cooking. Every now and then you’ll find a big one, and you can chop and to make one’s skin to make schmaltz, like you would a chicken. But it’s rare.
How to cook your turkey
Rather than cooking it whole, I tend to break my wild turkey down into its component parts – it’s just like decompose a chicken, only larger. Each piece 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 difficult to cook with the skin on. If I haven’t already, I take that skin off and fry it in a bit of butter or oil until crispy, then eat it as a snack or put it in a tortilla for crispy turkey skin tacos.
The breast is teardrop-shaped – thick at the round end and thin at the pointed end, which tapers towards the tail. Because these ends cook differently, I like to cut the brisket in half horizontally, leaving me with a thin, trapezoidal cut and a fatty football-shaped cut. The fine part works very well pounded like cutlets in recipes like turkey parmesan, marsala turkey or piccata, or Vienna Schnitzel. The thick part can be sliced lengthwise to make more cutlets, or you can poach, roast or smoke it all.
The wings, thighs and drumsticks are a bit more interesting.
In most cases, you’ll need to do the “two-step” process of tenderizing the pieces by gently cooking them slowly and at a low temperature in liquid before finishing with another method. (Cook them in water and you can make a quick batch of turkey broth.)
Once tender, the wings are soaked overnight in your favorite sauce, then smoke, broiled or broiled until the sauce caramelizes. It’s basically the largest buffalo wing in the world. The thighs – and I always separate the thighs from the drumsticks – are phenomenal barbecuecoals or, if you grate them, tacos.
Remember how I said wild turkeys work for a living? Well, it is more accurate to say that they walk for a living. Several kilometers a day, in fact. Thus, the drumstick tendons look like bones and will never break down. The answer to this problem is to slowly cook the drumsticks until the meat is falling off the bone – anywhere from 90 minutes for a jake to four and a half hours for a really old tom – then shred it away from those bad guys tendons. Once shredded, wild turkey legs make great carnitas or can be simmered in your favorite barbecue sauce.
Finally, don’t forget the offal! Wild turkey giblets are just as good as store-bought, so go ahead and whip up your grandma’s famous giblet sauce. Or chop them finely and make Cajun dirty rice. Or add them to the pot with the carcass. Or, if you were really successful and brought home several turkeys, make a liver pate to impress your friends.
Author of five cookbooks, Hank Shaw is a former chef who writes about foraging, fishing and hunting on the James Beard Award-winning website. huntgathercook.com.