In most of the country, turkey season is either well underway or over. And you’re stuck in a dilemma – how do you take that gobbler you shot and make it not only edible, but delectable? A meal worth sharing? Steve Rinella, host of MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel, knows how to turn wild game into top-shelf cuisine. Check out his tips for cooking wild turkey. (And if you're still in search of a bird, check out these tips for turkey hunting.)
On plucking. Plucking takes longer than skinning, but cooking the bird with the skin on helps retain moisture. It's important to note that when you buy a turkey at the store, they always come plucked, not skinned. But take your time. A turkey’s skin is very thin, so instead of taking huge handfuls of feathers at a time and risking tearing the skin, take a few feathers at a time by pinching them and pulling them straight out so the skin doesn’t rip. It takes more time, but is worth every second. When cooked, the skin gets a nice, crisp texture.
On brining. Wild turkey meat tends to be dry, so Rinella likes to soak it in a marinade or brine of some type. “For a whole turkey, combine in a large pot: 1 gallon of water, 1 cup kosher salt, 1/2 cup sugar, the juice from three lemons and a sliced onion," Rinella instructed. "Bring this mixture to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar, and then let it cool. Add the turkey to the chilled brine and let it soak for 24 to 48 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pat the bird dry with paper towels, brush it with olive oil and roast until it hits an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Let it rest for 10 minutes and then slice the meat thin. Brining a turkey before cooking it makes all the difference in the world. In fact, to me, it’s as important to the process of making turkey as shooting the turkey. A hunting license should say on it that all hunters must brine their turkey.”
On spatchcocking. Say what? Spatchcocking? Yep, we just taught you a new word. When grilling turkey, Rinella brines the bird and then spatchcocks it, which basically means removing the bird’s backbone so that it can be grilled flat. This gets more of the surface area of the bird directly over the heat for faster, even cooking throughout. It also significantly reduces the cooking time. It might be best to practice the method on a store-bought chicken or two before tearing into your turkey. But basically, using heavy-duty shears, cut along either side of the turkey’s backbone, and then pry the two halves apart, which will break the sternum in the process.
On grilling. For hunters who like grilling but might not want to cook the whole bird at once, the legs, wings and breast can be grilled individually once they’re plucked and brined. “After a bird is brined, there are many options," Rinella said. "Cutting the breast, the wings and legs, and grilling the individual pieces on the grill like you would chicken pieces on a grill is a quick and easy option."
On old-fashioned turkey dinner. “When cooking a bird the traditional way, I always pluck the bird and leave the skin on," Rinella said. "Then I truss the bird, which is tying the wings and the legs to the body with kitchen string. This makes the bird a compact little package that will cook evenly. Without the string, as the bird cooks, the legs and wings will splay out and the wings will pull away and dry out. I coat the bird in olive oil, which causes the skin to crisp quickly and retain moisture. After the skin is golden brown, I build a tent of tinfoil over the bird to help retain moisture. If I am going to stuff the bird, I typically use a citrus-based stuffing that will add moisture to the meat. Cooking a wild turkey is all about retaining and adding moisture.” Rinella cooks his turkeys in the oven at 375 degrees until the internal temperature is 160 degrees.
On slicing. Rinella suggests cutting across the grain. “Wild turkey can be a little chewy. One way to reduce the chewiness is by cutting super thin slices against the grain. After a bird is cooked, I often remove the breasts and cut them across the grain. The meat will be much tenderer than if you cut with the grain because when you cut with the grain, your teeth have to slice through muscle fibers. Cutting across the grain eliminates this problem.”
On field care. Your bird will taste like a nasty swamp rat unless you take care of it properly after the kill, regardless of how good of a cook you are. Rinella suggests gutting a bird as quickly as possible and removing the crop and all the fatty tissue above the breast, near the neck. The crop, the fat and tissue quickly breaks down and can add a bad flavor to the bird if not taken care of quickly. Work especially fast if it’s hot outside.
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