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Butchering and cooking tips for wild turkey: “Braising the Wild,” Jack Hennessy

Turkey legs on the grill.
Credit: Jack Hennessy

This week in “Braising the Wild,” Jack Hennessy breaks down handling a wild turkey. Wish I had read/known this several years ago when I did a wild turkey for Thanksgiving.

“Braising the Wild” is part of the expanded outdoors coverage in the Sun-Times’ Sports Saturday.

The best way to reach Hennessy is on Instagram at @WildGameJack.

Here is “Braising the Wild” for this week:

Butchering and Cooking Tips for Wild Turkey

Several years ago I knew a fellow hunter who praised the culinary prowess of his wife but exclaimed, despite her best efforts, her roasted wild turkey tasted like shoe leather. He blamed the bird. Still to this day, every time I butcher a spring gobbler, I think of this remark, and how wrong he was to place the fault on such a delicious bird.

The biggest mistake hunters make with larger wild birds is not butchering and cooking parts correctly. These are not domestic, overweight pen-raised birds who have never worked a hard day in their life. Wild birds travel great distances for food and you can see it in their lean leg and wing muscles. Because these muscles are tougher, the require more attention when cooking. Here are some key points when butchering and cooking wild turkey:

1. Wings, thighs, and legs are the hardest-working parts on a bird and should be separated from the breasts when cooking. I never recommend roasting a whole wild turkey under any circumstance. Once the breasts are perfect, the wings and legs are dry and tough. These tougher parts require “low and slow” cooking methods, usually a low braise for a few hours then a sear. Next week I will share one of my techniques on smoking legs (spoiler: it takes 14 hours or more to get those legs tender with my method).

2. Wild turkeys have tenderloins. Most hunters don’t know this. Tucked behind the thick breast meat is a separate, smaller slab (about the size of a pheasant breast). The muscle striations are different and the meat is incredibly tender. On any bird, I always recommend separating the tenderloin, as they are their own cut of meat and deserve to be cooked separately.

3. Save your giblets. Look up Hank Shaw’s video on cleaning a gizzard if you don’t know how. Turkey gizzards and livers are huge and taste great when soaked in butter milk overnight then fried. The turkey heart is fantastic. I cut in half and trim off any excess fat then salt and pepper, cook to medium-rare in either olive or peanut oil or even bacon grease.

4. Other parts like the neck, backbone—even the tail section—can be saved and turned into stock or simmered then picked apart for gravy.

5. I always recommend brining wild birds. A good brine infuses flavor and helps retain moisture when cooking. Always make certain to thoroughly rinse off the brine before cooking.

6. Any tough wild-game meat, from any animal, will eventually yield tender textures when cooked correctly. Give it time, remember the mantra “low and slow”, have faith, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

Any questions, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram: @WildGameJack.