You’ve just shot a wild turkey. Now what?
First, discard any rumors you’ve heard that wild turkeys taste gamey and are tough as boot leather; nothing could be further from the truth and someone who spouts such nonsense hasn’t had a wild bird that’s been properly broken down or cooked. Wild turkeys are lean and fit from spending life in the wild–they’re nothing like a farm-raised, overweight, store-bought, fluid-injected bird. Optimizing the quality of a wild turkey starts once the trigger is pulled, and doing it properly results in some of the best eating game birds available to hunt.
Once a turkey is taken, get the carcass cooling. There’s no rush to field dress the bird unless it’s been hit in the body–most turkeys are head-shot. If continuing to hunt and fill another tag for a buddy or yourself, hang the bird in the shade or place in a cooler to get the meat cooling. If headed home or back to camp after your tag is punched, then get to work. You can pluck or skin a turkey. How you plan on cooking the turkey dictates how you’ll break it down.
Plucking a wild turkey is done when cooking the bird whole, usually deep-
fried, smoked, or in an oven bag. Keeping the skin on the bird helps retain moisture, which keeps the meat from drying out. The skin on a wild bird is thin and doesn’t have near the fat of a farmed turkey, so it won’t retain moisture the same way a pen-raised bird will. Be careful not to overcook a wild turkey, as that’s the number one reason they’re blamed for being tough. Since wild turkeys are active from the time they’re born, their muscles are much more developed than farmed birds. For this reason, try skinning your turkey, breaking it down into parts, then cooking those parts, separately. To skin and break down a turkey, start with the bird on its back. With your fingers, break the skin by the crop then peel it aside from each breast, all the way toward the tail. Peel the skin down both sides, to the ribs and wings, and work it over the legs. Pull the skin over the knees and sever the feet at the joint where feathers meet the pink skin–you may need to cut some of the pink skin around the joint. Next,
cut the skin where the wing joins the body and peel the skin away from the upper wing, severing at the outer joint. With a medium-sized fillet knife, cut the tail off below the vent, making sure to get below the base of the tail quills. Peel the skin away from the thighs, back, and shoulders, working it all the way to the neck. Remove the skin from as high on the neck as possible, as the neck is excellent in a stock. Remove any bloodshot and feathers that may have been carried into wound channels.
Next, cut open the gut of the bird, removing the liver, gizzard, and heart, which are also great for stock. Remove the entrails, making sure to get every bit of lung from the troughs created by the ribs and spine. Remove the crop and obvious sinew
Tissues on the outside of the carcass. Rinse the cavity and any meat that’s been contacted by gut contents or blood, with cold water until it runs clear. Now it’s time to break down your turkey into parts. With the bird on its back, press down on the legs until they pop at the ball and socket joint. Keeping the knife blade close to the carcass, removing each leg and thigh. At the joint, separate the leg from the thigh. Though both are excellent when slow-cooked, separating the two parts ensures they’ll fit in your slow or pressure cooker. Next, remove the wings at the large joint where they attach to the carcass. Cut the neck off at a joint close to the carcass. With the bird still on its back, run the knife blade against the keel, filleting away each breast. Gently pull the tenderloin away from the breast meat. Don’t worry about bits of meat left on the carcass, as it will lend more flavor to your stock.