The holidays are coming up, and while literally anytime can be turkey time, there is nothing more festive than a Christmas or Thanksgiving bird that you went out and harvested yourself. That being said, if you try to put a wild turkey on your holiday table cooked like that frozen ice cube of a turkey you defrosted from the store, it will ruin the dinner. Store bought turkeys are a completely different beast. Well, okay, they are the same beast, but they cook very differently.
What Makes a Wild Turkey Different?
Just by looking at a plucked and cleaned wild turkey, you will note some distinct differences that will affect how it is cooked. Here are a few differences between a store-bought bird and its free-running brother.
- Wild turkeys are typically smaller and drier if not cooked with care
- Skin can be more rubbery
- Leg meat is filled with tough tendons
- Flavor can vary with age or diet
How to Cook a Wild Turkey
Most hunters just end up harvesting the white meat (breasts) of a bird and leaving pounds of otherwise perfectly good meat in the field because they don’t know how to cook it. There are so many different things that can hurt a wild turkey during the cooking process that leaves many hunters to not even try to whole roast a bird.
Since wild turkeys live an active life, they are tougher, have less fat, and end up much drier. However, the only reason most store-bought turkeys end up so moist is because they are pumped full of salt water. Essentially, the same moisture can be kept in a whole roasted wild bird by soaking it in a brine overnight before cooking, then basting with ample fat while cooking. The brine helps moisten and flavor the meat, retaining a good bit of moisture, while the fat will help crisp up some otherwise rubbery skin. Remember to brine and cook with great aromatics and meat flavoring herbs like onions, garlic, rosemary, and thyme. The herbs will help to cover up any gaminess that was left over.
- 1 gallon vegetable broth
- 1 cup sea salt
- 1 tablespoon crushed dried rosemary
- 1 tablespoon dried sage
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon dried savory
- 1 gallon ice water
- In a large stock pot, combine the vegetable broth, sea salt, rosemary, sage, thyme, and savory. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently to be sure salt is dissolved. Remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature.
- When the broth mixture is cool, pour it into a clean 5 gallon bucket. Stir in the ice water.
- Wash and dry your turkey. Make sure you have removed the innards. Place the turkey, breast down, into the brine. Make sure that the cavity gets filled. Place the bucket in the refrigerator overnight.
- Remove the turkey carefully draining off the excess brine and pat dry. Discard excess brine.
- Cook the turkey as desired reserving the drippings for gravy. Keep in mind that brined turkeys cook 20 to 30 minutes faster so watch the temperature gauge.
When whole roasting a wild turkey, no matter how low and slow you go, you shouldn’t even try to create a moist leg. There are so many tough tendons; it will never be like the legs of a pampered store bird. The best option is to take them off, boil or slow cook them until all that great meat falls off and make some shredded turkey tacos or turkey noodle soup. Those tendons will never soften and break up, so making some juicy shredded meat is really your best option.
On that note, don’t fret that you might be short on dark meat. Unlike store birds, wild turkeys, aside from the breasts, are almost all dark meat. Save the breasts for those white meat eaters and everyone else can enjoy the rest of the bird. There is one part of a wild turkey that does match up with its store-bought brother, though – the thighs. Out of any part of both turkeys, the thighs are the most similar bits in flavor and texture. So if you have someone who is a bit peeved that you aren’t defrosting a massive butterball, dish them out thigh meat.