Turn Wild Turkey Into Terrific Table Fare

By Mark Goodwin | April 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2005

Is there a more perfect game bird than the wild turkey? Most Missouri hunters would say no. Calling in a strutting tom provides more thrills and challenges than almost any other kind of hunting. Hunters know that you have to do a lot of things right to fool a gobbler.Given the effort and expertise required to bag a wild turkey, there's no reason to stop doing things right when it comes to preparing your wild turkey for the table. If you take care of your perfect game bird-- even if it is a mature gobbler--it can produce near perfect table fare.

Quick Cleaning

Your first decision will be whether to pluck or skin the bird. Plucking the bird is better if you plan to smoke or roast it whole. However, plucking is time consuming and sometimes difficult, even if you scald the turkey to loosen the flight and tail feathers.

Plucking is particularly difficult in the fall. Most birds are molting then, with new feathers emerging from soft feather sheaths. These growing feathers often tear when you try to pull them out, leaving portions of the feathers and sheaths in the skin.

Skinning is the easier first step toward converting a wild turkey to food. It also leaves open a number of cooking options that will not dry out the bird.

To skin a turkey, hang it up by its feet and snip off the wings at their elbows. Cut the skin at the tail to remove the fan, then, using your fingers, pull down on the skin. You'll have to work it around the legs and wings, but it should pull away easily. Pull the skin down to the neck and then cut through the neck to detach the skin and head.

To remove the entrails, cut a T-shaped slit between the legs, just below the lower tip of the breastbone. Reach in and pull out all internal organs. The heart, gizzard, liver, and intestines come out easily. Make sure that you also remove the lungs, which are tucked tightly against the ribs and the kidneys. These are tucked into two spaces on each side of the spine in the lower back.

Use a garden hose with a pressure nozzle to wash out any small pieces of entrails that may remain in the body cavity. Under gently running water, remove small pieces of feathers that might have stuck to the meat during the skinning process.

Salmonella contamination may occur when a turkey's intestinal contents come in contact with the meat. A nice part of harvesting wild turkey is that you can control every step in the processing. By being careful when you remove the entrails, you can eliminate any chance of contaminating the meat with the bird's offal.


The breast is the prime cut of meat on a wild turkey. Not only is it delicious, but turkey breast is easy to prepare. To prepare it for cooking, use a sharp knife to remove both slabs of meat off the breastbone.

To fry wild turkey breast, cut the meat across the grain into fingersized strips. Soak these in milk or buttermilk, then roll the strips in a mix of flour, seasoned salt and pepper. Proper seasoning is essential to good eating. Take a pinch of the seasoned flour between your fingers and taste it. If it has a distinct flavor of seasoned salt, with a hint of pepper, you've got it right.

Heat about 1/3 inch of oil in a fry pan to about 375 degrees. Place floured turkey strips in the oil and cook until the strips brown on one side, about 5 minutes. Turn the strips over, being careful not to knock off the batter, and reduce heat to 275 degrees. Cook until this side browns, about 10 minutes. The last minute or two of cooking, turn up the heat to crisp the coating.

You can also deep fry the breasts by dropping them into 375 degree oil. When the strips float, they are done.

Remove the turkey strips from the oil and place on a double layer of absorbent paper toweling.

Smoked Turkey

Proper seasoning is also important when smoking the turkey breast. Dozens of recipes for meat rubs are available on the Internet. My favorite is a mix of 1/4 cup lemon pepper, 1 tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 teaspoon each of dry mustard and paprika and 1/4 teaspoon of onion powder. Sprinkle and rub the mixture over both sides of the breasts until all are well covered, then refrigerate the breast in a covered container for 8 hours or overnight.

Before smoking, cover the turkey breasts with strips of bacon. Use toothpicks to hold the bacon strips in place. Use bacon pieces to fill in where the strips don't cover. The bacon will keep the outer layer of breast meat from browning and drying out during the smoking process.

Place both breasts on a smoker equipped with a pan that holds water above the coals. This will provide moist heat. Stick a meat thermometer into the middle of the thickest part of the breast. When the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees, the turkey breast is done. Cooking typically takes about three to four hours. Do not cook the turkey to the 180 degree temperature recommended for domestic fowl. That much heat will dry out wild turkey meat.

When the meat is done, remove the bacon from the breasts and wrap the breast halves in several layers of aluminum foil. Then wrap them in a bath towel and place them in a small cooler. This allows the meat to retain moisture while it cools. When you are ready to serve, cut the meat into 1/2-inch strips across the grain.

Making soup

Some hunters simply cut the breast from a wild turkey carcass and throw away the rest. What a waste! Although the remaining meat may be a little too tough for most tastes, it makes a great base for flavorful soup. Here's my favorite recipe:


1 turkey carcass with thighs and legs

2 (14.5-ounce) cans of chicken broth, plus water to cover

2 (8-ounce) cans of tomato sauce

1 large onion (finely chopped)

5 stalks celery, chopped

2 bay leaves

2 large carrots, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic salt

1 tbs. fresh ground pepper

1 tbs. parsley

1 tbs. thyme

1 1/2 cup frozen peas

8 ounces of fine egg noodles

In a large soup pot, add finely chopped onion, two celery stalks, chopped bay leaves and chopped garlic clove. Remove the legs and thighs from the carcass so they fit better in the pot, then add carcass, legs and thighs, along with chicken broth, tomato sauce, garlic salt, ground pepper, parsley and thyme.

Add water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 2 hours or until you can easily insert a fork into the drumstick meat. Strain broth into another pot, removing the vegetables and carcass. You may have to strain twice. Return strained broth to soup pot.

Remove meat from the legs, thighs and carcass. Chop meat into fine pieces in a food processor and add to broth. Add remaining chopped celery, return to a boil and simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. Put sliced carrots in 45 minutes before finishing and 8 ounces of fine egg noodles 10 minutes before finishing. Just before serving, add frozen peas. Flavor, to taste, with seasoned salt. This soup, served with a grilled cheese sandwich, makes a tasty meal any time of year. triangle

Showcasing Turkeys

There's more to a tagged tom than just good eating. For example, you can easily convert the spurs into an eye-catching display. With a hacksaw, cut through the leg, just above and below the spur. Use a pocket knife to pry off the scales and scrape off any connective tissue. Use a small drill bit to remove any marrow, then string the spurs on a piece of rawhide. Alternate with beads of your choice. The necklace looks great at a black-powder rendezvous, or your can hang your spur collection from the rear view mirror of your vehicle or on a wall as a reminder of memorable hunts.

Many hunters use turkey feathers for wing and tail displays. If you have enough of these, offer the feathers to local Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations. They often use turkey feathers in craft projects.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler