How to cook a wild turkey

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Video can you eat a wild turkey

Let us show you how to cook a wild turkey, step by step. Wild turkey is more flavorful than domestic turkey but you need to know how to cook them!

Wild turkey with oranges and fresh herbs.

We absolutely love wild turkey. They taste nothing like a domestic turkey. They really have a much better flavor than their domestic cousins. The huge BUT… here is that you need to know how to cook it, since it has less fat than domestic turkeys.

Domestic turkeys usually have water or a salt brine injected into the meat. This dilutes the turkey flavor severely.

How to prepare your bird

  • Field dress your bird immediately. Remove crop, and innards.
  • Save any organs that you will use. Giblet gravy is awesome!
  • Rinse bird.
  • Pluck. Important Note: Always pluck your bird while it is still warm. The feathers will come out much easier and you will get less skin tearing. You will need a plucking attachment for drill or a good pair of mechanics needle nose plier to remove the stubborn pin feathers. (we don’t generally pluck the wing tips. They are a total pain and there isn’t much meat on them anyway. You may have prop the bird straight with slices of onion, orange or lemon for even cooking.
  • Wash bird well after dressing it and dry it thoroughly.

To brine or not to brine

We have cooked wild turkeys both ways, brined and not brined. An unbrined turkey can be as delicious when cooked correctly. The two keys are to use butter or olive oil to baste the bird while you are roasting, adding flavor with fresh herbs and aromatics and most importantly, do not overcook!

When we don’t brine, we always fill the cavity with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, a quartered onion, a broken celery stalk and carrots and a whole orange and/ or lemon. Just poke holes in the orange and lemon with a skewer and as the orange gets hot, the juice from orange will squirt out and flavors the inside of the meat and also keeps it moist..

Brining usually provides a more consistent outcome. The meat comes out tender and juicy.

The brining process serves a couple purposes. First it tenderizes the meat do to the effect of the salt and citrus on the tissues. It breaks down some of the tough connective tissues.

Secondly, brining seasons the meat of the bird better than just rubbing salt and spices on the skin.

There is lots of debate whether to brine your bird or not. Some suggest that brining, because it increases the water content of the individual cells will render the bird less flavorful. This is fair. It does increase the water content of the tissues but it also does a great job seasoning the meat, so that is the trade off.

We would never suggest brining a regular domestic turkey because there is already water added to them (increasing the weight and how much you are paying), so you will end up with a flavorless bird. If you buy fresh from a farmer or organic, fresh in the store, then they will not have added water, so it would be ok to brine them.

How to thaw it

If you have previously frozen your turkey, make sure that you thaw it thoroughly. To thaw turkey, place it in a large container, in case of drips. Place it in the back on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, where it is the coldest. Turn the bird once a day so that both sides thaw. Thaw a large 15-20 pound turkey for a minimum of 5 days, up to 8 days, if needed.

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If you have cut up your turkey into pieces, it will probably take 4 or 5 days to thaw thoroughly.

What you need for brined turkey

  • turkey – cleaned, dressed and plucked. It needs to be cooked with the skin on so you have to pluck it. (unless you use a roasting bag, but the skin will help retain moisture in the meat.)
  • water – plain tap water will work, if you like the flavor of your water. If not, use bottled water.
  • kosher salt – I prefer coarser granules like Diamond brand or even Morton’s, which are larger still.
  • sugar – you can use white sugar, brown sugar or turbinado sugar
  • fresh lemons – halved
  • fresh oranges – we like juice oranges, halved
  • onion – just quarter the onion.
  • black pepper – freshly cracked or whole peppercorns will work
  • herbs – use dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, bay leaf and /or sage.
Ingredients for brine. See recipe for details.

How to brine it

You can cut your turkey into pieces, if you’d like but we do recommend plucking and leaving the skin on. Remove the legs from the carcass at the joint. Separate the breasts from the carcass by running a sharp knife very close to the breast bone and following the bone down, so that you don’t remove a lot of the meat. Lastly, separate the thigh from the joint and cut the cartilage with your knife. (Be sure to keep the carcass to make homemade turkey stock.)

  1. Add salt, sugar and water to a large saucepan. Heat until the salt and sugar dissolve in the water.
  2. At this point add the citrus, onion, pepper and any herbs that you’d like to add.
  3. Allow the brine to come to room temperature. Then refrigerate.
  4. Place turkey in a cooler, a large bucket or pan or anything else that it fits in. If you keep the turkey whole, you will need a large container that the turkey will fit in. If you cut your turkey into separate pieces, you can pick a smaller container. (Whole turkeys generally require 3-4 times the recipe written below)
  5. Pour brine over turkey. If brine does not cover the turkey, you must turn the bird every 12-24 hours. Turkey can be brined for 24-72 hours for best flavor.

What you need if you choose not to brine

Use these additional ingredients to roast your brined bird too.

  • turkey – cleaned, dressed and plucked. It needs to be cooked with the skin on so you have to pluck it. (unless you use a roasting bag, but the skin will help retain moisture in the meat.)
  • kosher salt – I prefer coarser granules like Diamond brand or even Morton’s, which are larger still.
  • fresh lemons – halved or fresh oranges -halved
  • onion – just quarter the onion.
  • celery – 1 stalk
  • carrot – 1 large
  • orange or lemon – we like juice oranges. Poke holes in the skin of the orange with a skewer or fork.
  • herbs – fresh herbs like parsley, rosemary, sage or thyme are great to flavor the bird.
  • black pepper – freshly cracked is best
  • butter or olive oil
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How to roast not brined turkey

You can roast the turkey essentially the same whether it is brined or not.

  1. Dry bird both inside and out with paper towels. Preheat oven to medium heat. 325°F /165°C
  2. For unbrined birds – rub the inside of the cavity and the outside of the skin with oil or melted butter. Then generously rub in salt and pepper to both inside and outside.
  3. Poke holes in lemon or orange with a metal skewer or long tined fork. Place in cavity.
  4. Add rough chopped onion, carrot and celery to cavity. Then add sprigs of herbs.
  5. Bend the wings backward and place them under the thigh so that the turkey will sit straight in pan.
  6. Truss legs together with kitchen twine.
  7. Place turkey in a roasting pan with a rack. or if you don’t have a rack, place sliced onion pieces on the bottom of the pan to hold the turkey straight.
  8. Roast turkey in the oven, basting every hour or so with butter, oil, or the pan juices, once they have formed. If the breast skin looks like it is getting too brown, tent the top with foil.
  9. Roast bird until internal temperature of the thighs measures 160°F / 70°C.

Tent the bird with aluminum foil. Let turkey rest about 30 minutes. In the first 10 minutes the temperature will rise to 165°F / 75°C.

***Cook whole wild turkey about 10 minutes per pound.

How to cook a wild turkey (brined) in the oven

  1. Rinse inside and outside of turkey with cold water. Dry bird both inside and out with paper towels. Preheat oven to medium heat. 325°F /165°C. Allow bird to air dry for about 30 minutes.
  2. Rub skin and cavity with oil or melted butter. Lightly rub salt (use very little salt) and pepper onto skin and in the cavity.
  3. Poke holes in lemon or orange with a metal skewer or long tined fork. Place in cavity.
  4. Add rough chopped onion, carrot and celery to cavity. Then add sprigs of herbs.
  5. Place turkey in a roasting pan with a rack. or if you don’t have a rack, place sliced onion pieces on the bottom of the pan to hold the turkey straight.
  6. Roast turkey in the oven, basting every hour or so with butter, oil, or the pan juices, once they have formed. If the breast skin looks like it is getting too brown, tent the top with foil.
  7. Cook bird until internal temperature of the thighs measures 160°F / 70°C.

Tent the bird with aluminum foil. Let turkey rest about 30 minutes. In the first 10 minutes the temperature will rise to 165°F / 75°C.

***Cook whole wild turkey (unstuffed) about 15 minutes per pound.

Step by step photographs of the process for roasting wild turkey. See details in recipe below.

How to grill it

We often cook our Spring harvested turkey on the grill in the summer months for a special cookout.

If you would like to grill your turkey, instead of roasting it in the oven, follow the steps above, except preheat only half of your grill to medium low heat. (try to keep it under 350°F/ 180°C).

Place the bird on the grill on the opposite side that the burners are on. This is called indirect grilling. Protect the side of the bird that is closest to the lit flames with aluminum foil. You may have to turn to the bird 180 degrees half way through the cooking process to achieve an even cook.

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***Cook whole wild turkey (unstuffed) about 15 minutes per pound.

Pro tips for your success

  • Weigh your dressed bird before proceeding with recipe.
  • If you are brining the bird, make sure you turn it every day so that you get even brining.
  • Dry off the inside and outside very well with paper towels to achieve a crispy skin!
  • Do not overcook the meat! Remove it from the oven at 160°F/ 70°C.
  • Important Note: Wild turkeys are tall and slender compared to domestically raised birds, which have been bred to be short and squat. You must use the bottom rack in your oven to place the bird on. Carefully watch the breast which will be close to the top of your oven. Tent it with aluminum foil after it is sufficiently browned and baste the top well!
  • Use an instant read or a wireless meat thermometer. I used this Meatstick Mini that I was gifted and it worked like a charm. (affiliate link) We tested this thermometer and it performed well alongside another wireless meat thermometer that we have used for a while. It’s small size and the lack of additional hardware to make it work was much easier to set up than our other brand.
  • Tent the bird with aluminum foil and let rest for at least 30 minutes.
  • Don’t stuff a wild turkey because it takes longer for the bird to cook through, so you’re in danger of overcooking the meat. Cook your stuffing in a casserole dish and fill the cavity with aromatics.
  • Carve your breasts against the grain of the meat.
  • Breast meat and leg meat are usually done in approximately the same amount of time. legs and thighs may take a few minutes more to cook but not very long.)
  • Since wild turkeys work much harder for survival from predators and to locate food sources, the legs can be tough. We like to finish to thigh and leg meat in the crockpot on low for a few hours and then pull the meat for tacos, enchiladas, sandwiches, soups and stews.
  • Note: The thigh and leg meat of a wild bird is generally much darker than that of their domestically raised cousins. The color more resembles venison steaks so don’t be alarmed by the color difference.

What to serve it with

Serve the most tasty turkey you will ever make with homemade gravy (use chicken stock or turkey stock if you don’t have enough pan juices to make pan gravy), mashed potatoes, green beans amandine, roasted butternut squash, cranberry sauce and rolls for a classic Thanksgiving feast!

What you need

  • Roasting pan
  • cutting board for meat
  • chef’s knife
  • plucking attachment for drill
Overhead view of roasted turkey.

These wild turkey recipes will be your new go-to for Thanksgiving! You will never buy another frozen domestic turkey. I promise.

Hopefully, you are now an expert on how to cook a wild turkey. If not, and you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!

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I hope you enjoyed the recipe today!

Enjoy. And have fun cooking!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>