How to Cook a Wild Turkey

Northern-Comfort-CkBkSmTravel any highway or byway in the Adirondacks this fall and you’re bound to see wild turkeys, often in family groups of eight or more. They’re catching the season’s last crickets, foraging fruit, eating burdock seeds and nibbling grass. Some foods they love—acorns and beechnuts—are reportedly in short supply this fall but the enormous apple crop has been a boon.

I asked chef Stephen Topper, coauthor of The Adirondack Cookbook, for his advice on preparing this magnificent wild game for a holiday meal. “Domestic turkeys have much more bulk to them as they do not have to move around as much to find food. Wild turkeys are much leaner since they run and fly to escape predators.” he commented. “Because wild turkeys are so physically active, the muscles are not as tender as a domestic bird. I rarely cook whole wild turkeys for this reason—it is too difficult to get a fully cooked, juicy, tender whole roasted wild turkey. Also, it’s imperative to not overcook the bird.

“I like to marinate the breasts. Marinades are very versatile, so I tend to choose something that comes with the theme of the dish I am trying to make. Marinades are simply an acid, an oil and seasonings. Sometimes it’s wine, olive oil and herbs and sometimes it’s citrus juice, grape-seed oil and herbs and sometimes it’s vinegar based. The opportunities are endless.

“A slow cooker is perfect for the legs. Braising and stewing are pretty much the same process of using a low, slow, moist cooking method,” he said. Drumsticks from these athletic birds have lots of tough tendons so don’t expect to have a hunk of dark meat you can pick up and chew; taking meat off the bone for hearty soup is a good use.

“When I do cook whole wild turkeys I always introduce some fat, either by wrapping the bird with a lattice work of bacon or by basting continously to the point where it’s obsessive,” he said. Topper, a veteran of North Creek’s Copperfield Inn and now executive chef at Glens Falls Country Club, said, “Don’t get me wrong, I love eating wild turkeys… it’s just that you have to almost look at it as a completely different animal than a farm-raised bird.” 

Annette Nielsen, editor of the magazine’s two recipe collections, Northern Comfort and Northern Bounty, offered this about roasting a wild turkey: “In a word, brine. A standard salt/sugar brine works as a great tenderizer, necessary since these birds have less fat. I think the wild variety is more flavorful than anything I’ve ever had in terms of a store-bought bird.”

These recipes from Northern Comfort were originally published in Adirondack Life in 1971, and the Dutch-oven treatment here reputedly came from author Zane Grey.

Baked Wild Turkey

Let the dressed turkey hang for a night or two in the frosty air. Disjoint, turn in well-seasoned flour and brown in bacon fat in Dutch oven. Add a little water, cover oven and heap with hot coals, banking down so that coals will hold the heat. For a young bird, cook about 3 hours. Larger ones should be cooked longer, and coals kept hot.

Giblet Dressing

Giblets, cooked in water in saucepan for 20-30 minutes
1 cup butter
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup diced celery
3 cups ¼-inch cubes day-old bread
3 cups coarsely crumbled cornbread
1 cup browned, crumbled sausage
1 ½ cups walnut meats, chopped
¾ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 tsp sage
2 tsp summer savory
2 tsp minced parsley
½ cup dry white wine

Sauté cooked, drained and chopped giblets with onion and celery in butter gently for 5 to 10 minutes. Add bread, cornbread, sausage, walnuts and seasonings and mix lightly but thoroughly. Gradually add enough wine to moisten dressing nicely. Bake in a greased casserole dish for 30-40 minutes.

Local sources for The Adirondack Cookbook include The Bookstore Plus, Lake Placid; ADK Trading Post, Long Lake; Old Forge Hardware and Hudson River Trading, North Creek. Northern Bounty and Northern Comfort can be purchased from Adirondack Life’s store.


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