Harvesting, Processing, and Cooking Wild Turkey

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By Jenny Underwood Few things are tastier than wild turkey; our family enjoys eating it yearly during hunting season. Now that our sons are old enough to hunt turkey, we are blessed with a lot more fresh turkey. But how do you process a wild turkey for optimal use? Are they the same as tame turkeys?

First, a wild turkey is not the same as a tame turkey you buy from the store. Most often, only gobblers (males) are hunted in the wild during the spring and are generally several years old. That means the meat is full of flavor, but you must handle it correctly or end up with a tough, chewy piece of meat.

Field dressing a wild turkey is similar to any poultry butchering. However, we like to remove the breast and save the legs and thighs separately. To do this, you will need a skinning gambrel. Wire the turkey’s legs apart on the gambrel. Then pluck off the breast feathers. After exposing the breast meat, start with a sharp knife at the breast bone in the center. Make your first cut staying right along the edge of the breast bone. Continue cutting the meat away until the meat comes off the breast bone in one large piece. You will repeat the process on the opposite side. To skin the leg and thigh meat, just cut through the skin on the leg until you can get your fingers between the meat and the skin. The skin will then pull away from the meat very easily by hand. Once you have all the skin of the drumstick and thigh, you can separate the thigh with the drumstick attached to it at the joint that connects it to the main body of the turkey.

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After you cut the pieces off the carcass, you may process them into smaller pieces to freeze or proceed with preparing to cook the turkey. To freeze:

  1. Cut the breast into small pieces and carefully remove any sinew. This sinew will never become tender so remove it promptly for the best results.
  1. Slice the breast thinly if you plan on frying it. If desired, you can use a meat tenderizer and pound the slices for even more tenderness.
  1. Slice it into small chunks (about 1-inch-by-1-inch) for stews, dumplings, pot pies, or canning.
  1. For grilling, slice it about ½ inch thick.

I leave the legs and thighs whole to make broth. I then place my pieces in salted ice water or a marinade (see marinade ideas further in the article).

Side note: check all pieces for stray shot pellets. Nothing ruins a meal like biting down on a hard piece of metal!

Buttermilk Fried Turkey Breast

  • 1 wild turkey breast, sliced thin, sinew removed
  • Buttermilk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon Cajun or chili seasoning (if desired, add more or less for spiciness)
  • 1-inch hot oil in a cast iron skillet or deep fryer

Allow turkey breast to marinate in buttermilk for 6 to 8 hours (or overnight). Combine flour, salt, pepper, and any other seasonings in a storage bag. Shake well. Heat your oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Shake off excess marinade. Carefully coat the breast pieces with the flour mixture. Do not overcrowd the skillet. Fry until golden brown on one side (about 2 to 3 minutes). Flip and brown the other side. Place onto plate with several layers of paper towels to drain. Serve hot or cold.

Alternate marinades instead of buttermilk are ranch dressing, vinaigrette, or Italian dressing. One breast will serve 6 with side dishes.

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Instant Pot Turkey Breast

  • 1 wild turkey breast, sliced thin, sinew removed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Vinaigrette (½ bottle)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Place wild turkey breast, onion, vinaigrette, and olive oil in an Instant Pot or another pressure cooker. Close pressure valve and cook on poultry setting for 60 minutes. Allow pressure to come down naturally. Alternatively, you may use ranch or Italian dressing instead of the vinaigrette. You may add 4 potatoes (cut into 2-inch-by-2-inch chunks), chopped carrots, and celery for a delicious pot roast-style meal.

1 breast will serve 6 with side dishes.

Smothered Wild Turkey with Gravy

  • 1 wild turkey breast, sliced thin, sinew removed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Water
  • Gravy
  • ½ cup flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy cast iron skillet (with lid), heat olive oil over medium heat until hot. Combine flour and spices in a storage bag. Add turkey breast, 1 piece at a time, to bag and coat well. Add to skillet. Crowd the pieces in the skillet. Lightly fry on one side. Then flip and brown on other side. Add about ½ inch of water to skillet, turn heat down to low, and cover skillet with lid. Simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, adding water as needed to prevent burning or drying out. After meat is fork tender, remove from skillet. In a measuring cup, whisk together flour and milk. Add to drippings from meat in the same skillet. Turn heat back up to medium or medium-high. Whisk constantly until it bubbles rapidly. Remove from heat and serve hot with smothered turkey, mashed potatoes, and hot biscuits.

Turkey Broth

  • 2 turkey legs and thighs
  • Water
  • 2 tablespoons raw apple cider vinegar
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, chopped
  • ¼ cup butter or olive oil
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In a pressure cooker, roaster, or crock pot, place all ingredients except water. Then cover turkey legs and thighs with water. If using a pressure cooker, close pressure valve and cook on poultry setting for 90 minutes. Allow pressure to release naturally. If using a countertop roaster or crock pot, cook on 275 degrees F (or low) for 12 hours until everything is fork-tender and the broth is dark and rich-looking. A pot on the stovetop can also be used, but you will need to keep adding water and simmer for 4 to 5 hours. Remove legs and thighs for other uses. Strain broth and either freeze, can, or store in refrigerator for use within 1 week.

BBQ Turkey Legs and Thighs

  • Shredded turkey meat removed from 2 turkey legs and 2 thighs
  • 1 bottle BBQ sauce
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 peppers (sweet), chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

In a heavy iron skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and peppers and sauté until tender. Add turkey and lightly stir-fry. Then add BBQ sauce, cover, and simmer on low for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve with hot rolls and crispy fried potatoes. Serves 6.

To prepare any turkey breast for pot pies, stew, or dumplings, cook your turkey in a pressure cooker for 60 minutes on poultry setting with 1 quart of water and 1 stick of butter. Or cook in a crock pot for 6 to 8 hours. Then add the turkey to your desired recipe.

Remember, if you properly prepare your wild turkey, you’ll wish hunting season came around a lot more often! So, clean the turkey well, cut into small pieces, and cook it in a way that retains moisture, and you’ll be delighted with the results.

Originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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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 >>