Wild turkey is my all-time favorite game meat. It’s easy to cook, it has plenty of rich flavor, and it’s just about impossible to beat fried turkey nuggets dipped in spicy barbecue sauce. Oftentimes, wild turkey meat is very hard-earned. You wake up at 3 a.m. morning after morning, calling at unresponsive toms, until one morning a gobbler breaks and comes strutting into shotgun range. There is nothing more satisfying than that.
So after a hard season of turkey hunting, you just might want to get every last scrap of meat off your bird. In the video below, my turkey hunting buddy Josh Dahlke does a really nice job demonstrating the basic butchering process on a wild turkey. With most of the birds I shoot, I follow the exact same process Josh uses here.
But sometimes, I want more than just the breasts and legs. Some turkeys are killed on hunts that are more meaningful, and I want to savor every bite as a way of making that hunt last just a little longer. That means taking the giblets, the wings, and bones.
A quick example of what I’m talking about … earlier this spring I scouted a piece of public property that was about an hour from my house. One evening I drove out to roost birds, and unknowingly set up too close. I watched a tom strut at 100 yards and then fly up into an oak tree about 70 yards from me. His hens roosted even closer. Not wanting to blow all the turkeys off their roosts, I waited until dark and then crawled my way out, luckily only spooking two hens. By the time I got home it was 10:30 pm, and I was up again at 3 a.m. to get back on the tom in the morning. Sure enough, I called that old gobbler off the limb and into shotgun range, and then missed—twice. I wanted to give up for the day, but instead I gave myself a little pep talk, ate a granola bar, drank some coffee out of my thermos, and then made a long walk through some thick woods that nobody else had been hunting. After a few hours I struck a tom and then called him in to 15 yards. This time, I didn’t miss. Here’s how I got all the meat available out of that turkey.
I’ve been using the Havalon Talon to butcher my wild turkeys this this year. The interchangeable blades are nice because you can use the fillet version to peel out the breast meat and the heavier serrated blade to cut through joints (without dulling your fillet blade). Alex Robinson
Everyone takes the breast meat from their turkeys. But not everybody gets all the breast meat they should. The key to leaving no meat on the bone is to use an ultra-sharp, flexible blade. You don’t want to use your thick deer hunting knife for this job. The breastbone has curves and angles that you need to work the blade around. It’s more like filleting a fish than quartering a deer. Also, the breast meat on a turkey goes up much higher on what I’d call the shoulder of the bird. Make sure you peel back the skin all the way up to the wing to ensure you don’t miss any of that golden meat.
The Drumsticks and Thighs
The leg meat on wild turkeys can be juicy, tender, and delicious, as long as you treat it right. Here’s a more detailed take on how to butcher and cook turkey legs, but the actual act of pulling them off your bird is pretty simple. Skin down to the knee joint and peel away the skin from both sides of the leg. Then press the leg away from the body until you pop the hip joint. Then cut from the inside of the leg, separating it from the body. You should never have to saw or break bones while butchering your bird. Simply cut through the joints. Press your blade through the middle of the knee joint (this is where a stouter hunting-style blade comes in handy) to remove the foot from the leg and you’re good to go.
I’ll be honest: the wings take a good amount of work. After you’ve removed the breast meat, pop the wing joint by pushing it away from the body (similar to how you did with the thigh) and cut the wing off the body. Now, you can separate the two parts of the wing. Imagine the two types of the chicken wings you get at a bar—the drumette (which is shaped like a drumstick) and the flat or wingette (two little bones and meat in the middle). Separate these two sections by popping the joint and cutting through it and then get to plucking and skinning. Pluck off the small feathers and use your knife to cut away the big primary feathers. What you’ll end up with what looks like over-sized chicken wings, but unfortunately you can’t cook them like oversized chicken wings. Wild turkey wings are tough. I once tried to sous vide the wings for six hours and then fry them … and even then they were too tough to enjoy (though the flavor was great). I recommend crock potting these (along with the drumsticks from the legs) until the meat gets tender and falls off the bone. There’s a surprising amount of meat on the wings, and they’re worth working on if you’ve got the time and determination.
Read Next: A Recipe for Wild Turkey Dumpling Soup
Now for the organs. I do this part last so I don’t get any guts on the other cuts of meat. Carefully slice into the bottom of the body cavity (below the breast bone) and then reach up and grab the gizzard, heart, and liver. The gizzard is a big, firm ball that’s full of pebbles or gravel (known as grit) and helps the turkey digest its food. This organ takes a little bit of prep work before its ready for the fryer. First, carefully slice open the gizzard and remove all the grit and the thick layer holding them. If you’ve seen the Netflix series Stranger Things, this layer kind of looks like the Demogorgan’s head. If you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, it’s that super-tough liner inside the gizzard itself. Rinse the meat thoroughly and then peel away the gray inside tissue and the outside silver skin (using a sharp fillet knife). When I do this, I end up with two hunks of firm read meat. I’ll slice these into thinner chunks and also slice up the heart and liver and soak it all in milk overnight. Then I mix them in flour, cornmeal, seasoning, and fry them until they’re crispy. Serve with hot sauce. The heart and gizzard meat is very mild, with the gizzard having a little bit more chew to it, but in a good way. Both are delicious. The liver, well, it tastes like liver.
Trendy health and culinary people are all excited about bone broth these days. Well, bone broth is essentially the same thing as stock, and you can make it pretty easily with the bones from your wild turkey.
The big-ticket items here are the neck, which you can skin, and the keel bone (or sternum) which will be exposed after you remove the breast meat. You can also take the thigh bones, which are stout on big toms.
Stock is a key ingredient for soups and stews, and it’s pretty cool to use to use homemade stock for a wild turkey stew, all from the same bird. If you decide to cook the bird whole Thanksgiving-style, use the remaining carcass for soup. That truly utilizes every bit of meat including those two little ‘tenderloins’ on its backend.
Your turkey hunt may be over, but this bounty of meat and bones will give you the chance to relive it again and again.