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How to Clean and Cook a Wild Turkey
By Adam Pritchett, Wildlife Biologist
People have been hunting wild turkeys (Meleagris galapavo) for thousands of years. Early settlers in the southeast learned from Native Americans how to build calls and use them to mimic a female turkey. This assistance helped them become more proficient at killing turkeys. In Alabama, turkey numbers were depleted in the early 1900s. Protection and restocking efforts of the Eastern wild turkey in the 1950s resulted in an explosion of interest in turkey hunting. With over 50,000 turkey hunters in the woods during Alabama’s combined fall and spring seasons, there are plenty of novices who have a lot to learn about turkey hunting. If you’re a kid going on your first turkey hunt with your dad or a teenager wanting to try a new sport or even a father or grandfather whose going turkey hunting for the first time with a friend, here are a few tips on what to do if you get lucky enough to harvest one of those majestic birds.
There are many ways to clean a wild turkey. There may not be a right or wrong way, but here is an easy way for a beginning turkey hunter. First, flip the turkey onto its back, grab the beard as close to the turkeys body as possible and pull it away from the breast; with a knife, cut it loose. You should leave some skin around the base of the beard to hold it together. Depending on whether you are interested in eating the whole turkey or just the breast, there are a couple of options at this point. To cut out the breast of the turkey, take both hands and push downward on the turkey’s thighs to open up the legs to make it easier to get the breast out. Cut down the center of its breast, careful to cut the skin only. Pull the skin back on each side and this should expose the breast and breastbone.
The breast will come out in two pieces so pick a side to start on and start cutting along one side of the breastbone. Make sure to get as close to the breastbone as possible so you don’t waste any of the meat. You should be able to follow the breastbone and then cut around the edge of the breast and have one large piece of meat. Do the same for the other side of the breast and then dispose of what is left. Wash the meat and wrap it in freezer paper or vacuum wrap it and put it in the freezer until you’re ready to eat it. If you want to eat the turkey whole like most people do at Thanksgiving, then just simply skin the turkey without cutting out the breast, cut off its head and feet, clean out the intestinal cavity, and it’s ready for cooking.
Still another way to clean a turkey is to prepare a large pot of boiling water. The safest place to do this is outside. Make sure the pot is large enough to hold the entire turkey. Don’t fill it so full that when you put the turkey in the pot will overflow. After the water has come to a boil, dip the entire turkey in the hot water. This will scald the feathers and allow them to be plucked from the skin. Then simply pluck all the feathers out of the bird and cut off its head and its legs at the joints. Clean out the intestinal cavity and you have a whole turkey that’s ready for cooking and eating.
There are many different ways to cook a turkey and many different recipes. You can find many different books online or in a bookstore on how to prepare wild game. It can be cooked just like a traditional Thanksgiving turkey, baked in the oven and basted with your own secret sauce. Many people deep fry their turkey whole and say that it makes the meat moist. My experience has been that you can hardly mess up when cooking the breast of a wild turkey. One complaint I have heard from friends that tried to cook a bird was that the meat was tough. I’ve learned that if you take a sharp knife and slice off the outer muscle layer of the breast it will alleviate this problem. The outer muscle tends to draw up while the meat is cooking, making it harder to chew. Then just marinate or inject the meat with your favorite marinade and let the meat soak for a few hours in the refrigerator. Then remove and cook the meat with the method of your choice.
Turkey hunting is a fast growing sport in the Southeast that gives us a lot of new hunters in the woods in the spring. To quote a seasoned turkey veteran, “These are the good ole’ days in turkey hunting, so enjoy the many opportunities available for harvesting and tasting this majestic bird.”