How to Serve a Wild Turkey for Thanksgiving

How to Serve a Wild Turkey for Thanksgiving

There is always debate over the best sides for Thanksgiving dinner, but there is no doubt that turkey is the centerpiece of the holiday dinner. If you’re planning on serving a wild bird instead of a butterball this year, there are a few things to consider.

Whole Bird versus Breaking it Down

Nothing is more iconic than a whole roasted turkey on a carving platter. But it’s really not an ideal way to cook a wild turkey, or for that matter, any turkey (unless it’s a really small one).

Turkeys are large birds, and because of their size, roasting them whole results in a lot of issues. Breasts, thighs, and legs vary in density and require different cook times and temperatures. By the time the legs and thighs are done, the breast meat is usually overcooked. This issue is common with domestic birds and even more pronounced with a lean, wild one.

That rope dragger you killed spent years evading predators, fighting other turkeys, and generally making a fool out of turkey hunters. Because of this, he will be leaner and tougher than any domestic counterpart. An overcooked butterball is pretty bad, but an overcooked wild bird is almost impossible to choke down.

By breaking down your turkey, you’ll be able to cook each piece at its optimal temperature and time. You can also mix and match how you cook each of the pieces. The broken-down bird will take up less space in your freezer, fridge, oven, and table. And it’ll taste better than any whole-roasted bird.

Break down your turkey into breasts, thighs, and legs. Save all the bones for stock or gravy. You can lump the legs and thighs together, but do note that the legs will take longer to cook than the thighs.

Brining and Cooking

I brine almost all the wild turkey I cook. They’re so lean you want to retain as much moisture as you can while cooking them. You can use a wet or dry brine, and while I prefer one or the other depending on the intended cooking method, either will work in a pinch.

My preferred cooking methods for turkey are sous vide and confit. After brining, I sous vide the breasts at 147°F for 90 to 120 minutes. The sous vide method cooks the breasts perfectly with maximum moisture retention. It’s the best way to cook turkey breasts, wild or domestic. Cooked to 147°F the turkey breast is opaque but has a bouncier texture and is much juicier than cooking to the traditional 165°F.

The legs and thighs get a dry brine, then are braised in duck fat for a few hours. The low and slow confit method will be deeply savory and ultra-rich from the duck fat. The meat will be dark, dense, and unctuous. The combination of sous vide and confit-cooked meats will present a nice contrast of taste, texture, and modern and classic cooking methods.

Additionally, both these methods are great for cooking ahead of time. You can sous vide the breasts, cool them down, and bring them back up to temp before serving without worrying about drying them out. The same goes for the confit—make it days in advance, let it cool down in the fat, and pop the legs and thighs in the oven before you want to serve them.

Sous Vide Turkey Breasts

  1. Dry brine the turkey breasts for 16 to 36 hours.
  2. Preheat sous vide to 147°F.
  3. Remove meat from brine, discard liquids, and place turkey breasts in vacuum bags individually. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of neutral oil. Add bay leaf and herbs to the bag as well (optional) and seal.
  4. Place sealed turkey breasts in water bath and cook for 90 to 120 minutes, or roughly 60 minutes per inch of thickness.
  5. Once cooked, remove from the sous vide. If you intend to reheat and serve at a later date, cool the breasts down in an ice bath and store in the fridge. If serving immediately, remove from bag, pat skin side dry and sear or broil skin side.

Confit Turkey Legs and Thighs

  1. Dry brine thighs and legs for 16 to 36 hours.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200°F and place the rack in the center of the oven.
  3. Remove thighs and legs from brine and discard liquid. Do not rinse off excess brine.
  4. Place thighs and legs in a dutch oven or thick roasting pan, cover with duck fat, and add aromatics of your choosing. I add a bay leaf or two, some rosemary, and a bulb of garlic, split crosswise. Cover with lid or foil and place in the preheated oven.
  5. Cook for 4 to 8 hours until fork tender. Remove from the oven, partially remove lid or foil and be sure to allow it to cool to easy handling temperature. If serving immediately, remove the turkey from the fat and serve whole or shredded. If serving later, refrigerate submerged in the duck fat, and reheat to a serving temperature of 200°F.

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