Divine Dinner Party

Cooking a Wild Turkey:
Time to Get Crazy (or Wild. Get it?)

If you're cooking a wild turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas (or just because you've got a hunter in the family), yay for you. Wild turkeys are fresh, firm, slightly gamey, and absolutely delicious. Too bad for them, I guess. If you've never cooked wild turkey before, don't sweat it. Cooking a wild turkey is not so different from cooking a domestic (i.e. Butterball) turkey.
Help this Poor Wild Turkey!

The wild turkey is a close cousin to the domestic turkey. More like a brother, maybe. Both of them have the unfortunate (for them) trait of super tastiness, and are identical in lots of ways. The main differences between wild and domestic turkeys are body shape and flavor.

We're all familiar with plump, full-breasted domestic turkeys (hey, they're Rubenesque). Wild turkeys don't have that. The breast of a wild turkey is sunken, which allows them to fly. So while the breast meat is firm and juicy and seriously tasty, there's not as much of it. You should also expect the dark meat to be slightly chewier than that of a domestic turkey.

When they're raised the same way, there's little or no taste difference between girl turkeys (hens) and the boy turkeys (toms or jakes). (I wonder if it works the same for people.)

Okay, background done. Let's get cooking.

Wild Turkey Cooking Tips

Below you'll find a few tips to help you plan cooking a wild turkey.

Consider cleaning methods. If your wild turkey is completely fresh-- that is, just killed (probably by a member of your family!) still feathered and still, well, head-ed, you'll need to clean it. How the turkey will be cleaned depends on how it will be cooked. So pick a recipe before your manly hunters bring the bird home. (See below for wild turkey cleaning instructions.)

A wild turkey, alive and in the wild

Bear in mind your guests. Most people who try wild turkey for the first time love it. But if you're cooking a wild turkey for the first time and have finicky guests, make sure to warn them. Some people are turned off by the slightly gamey flavor.

Plan for a mess. If you have a freshly-killed bird and plan to roast, smoke, or fry it, you'll need to pluck the feathers. It's going to be messy, so you'll need to set up a place outside, or try to feather-proof your kitchen.

Choose the right recipe. While a wild turkey can be cooked just like a regular turkey --most turkey recipes taste great when cooking a wild turkey-- it can also be good to pick a recipe specifically intended for cooking a wild turkey. Lots of recipes out there are created with that gamey-er flavor in mind.

Looking for recipes for cooking a wild turkey? Check out our wild turkey recipe page.

Cleaning a Wild Turkey: Skin 'em or Pluck 'em

Do not read on if you're at all sensitive to the wellbeing of dead turkeys. It's gory stuff!

If you're going to be cooking a wild turkey that's been freshly-killed, you'll probably be in charge of cleaning it. In all honesty, I think the person who actually kills the bird should clean it --seems fair, doesn't it?-- so if you didn't kill the bird, my advice would be to try to get out of the wild turkey cleaning.

Easier said than done, right?

If the responsibility of cleaning does fall to you, here's how to go about it. There are a several different ways to clean a wild turkey. But before knowing which way you'll do it, you have to pick a recipe. That is, you'll have to know if you're going to be cooking a wild turkey with the skin on --as in with roasting or frying-- or the skin off.

Skinning a Wild Turkey:

The easiest, fastest, and least messy way to clean a wild turkey is to skip the feathers altogether and just skin it. When you do this, though, you'll have to plan to cook the turkey in foil or in a closed baking bag-- regular methods won't work. To skin a wild turkey:

  1. Hang the bird by his feet at a comfortable level to work with. The feet should be about 12 to 18" apart.
  2. Take off the fan (some people like to keep this pretty set of feathers) by cutting the skin away.
  3. Either at the elbow or the second joint, cut off the turkey's wings.
  4. Get your fingers under the skin at the tail (where you cut off the fan) and pull it, working it off around the wings, all the way up to the neck. (This is the hard part.)
  5. Cut off head at the neck, cutting off collected skin.
  6. Open the turkey and remove all the bits and entrails.
  7. Cut off the turkey's feet at the knee or the second joint.

Plucking a Wild Turkey:

If you're going to be cooking a wild turkey and need to keep the skin, you'll have to pluck it-- never a fun job. You can try to pluck the turkey dry but it'll probably be difficult to get the feathers loose enough to pull out. To make plucking easier:

How to Pluck Pin Feathers on a Wild Turkey

  1. Heat a large pan or washtub of water to about 140 degrees F (some people say boiling water is best, but most think 140 degrees is optimum).
  2. Dip the turkey into the hot water several (about 10-15) times. This both loosens the feathers, and makes them easier to handle-- damp feathers won't go flying around your kitchen and up your nose.
  3. Pluck the body of the turkey down to its legs, wings, and neck.
  4. Cut off the wings (don't try to pluck the big wing feathers-- they're pretty stuck in there), the head, and the feet.
  5. Open the turkey up and remove the entrails.
  6. Wash the bird inside and out with cold water.
  7. Check for any pin feathers and pull out.

Want some more ideas for cooking a wild turkey (or a plain ol' Butterball)?

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Cooking a Whole Turkey
or Some Drumsticks?

Free Holiday Turkey Recipe Guide to How to Cook a Turkey

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