The most critical part of enjoying the fruits of your labor is now upon you, and the next steps you take may decide whether or not your successful hunt results in a delicious meal.
In nearly all cases, the very first thing you must do is tag your turkey. Follow all the rules, fill out the tag, and attach it to the bird as your local laws require. Simple mistakes at this stage can result in your turkey being seized and your hunting privileges suspended, so don't mess around. You are responsible for knowing the laws and following them to the letter.
Do You Have to Clean the Inside of a Turkey?
Now that your turkey is tagged, you want to get the bird field dressed as soon as possible. Delaying the process of field dressing is one of the most common reasons for wild turkey meat to spoil, and there is nothing worse than wasting the time, money, and energy you put into hunting because you waited too long to clean the carcass.
Field Dressing a Turkey in Minutes
The good news is that field dressing a turkey is simple and fast.
The first thing you'll do is lay the turkey on its back with the legs spread toward you. Feel the breast down the center toward the body cavity until you feel a hard point. Using a sharp knife, carefully pierce through the skin and make a cut toward the anus of the bird. Be extremely careful not to allow the knife to cut into the intestines because the contents can spoil the meat.
Once the tip of the knife has reached the anus, feel inside with your fingers until you find the intestine. Hold the intestine in one hand and carefully make a circular cut around the anus, again being careful not to cut too deep. Once the cut is complete, gently pull on the intestines and remove the stomach and organs.
It is a good idea to have a large plastic bag, a small tarp, or some other container to catch the innards. Many people will harvest the liver, kidneys, and heart for making giblets gravy, frying it up as a snack, or using it for dog food or fishing bait. Don't waste anything that you don't have to waste. Not only is this an environmentally sound practice, but it is also the best way to respect the life of the animal.
Either remove the head or sever the neck back to the spine to remove the esophagus completely. Be sure not to puncture the crop when you do this. Continue to use your hands to remove all of the organs from the body cavity.
If you have fresh water available, you can rinse the body cavity to clean out any remaining bits and flush away possible sources of bacteria. Ice can be used to pack the cavity to help drop the temperature quickly.
Never hang raw meat in the sunshine or leave a fresh carcass in the truck. The feathers of a raw turkey will cook the meat in the sunshine and spoil your kill.
The trick is to get the temperature down as quickly as you can to prevent spoilage.
Plucking and Cleaning a Wild Turkey
The next step is to pluck the turkey or skin the turkey. We prefer plucking to preserve the skin which cooks up to a wonderful crispness and holds most of the fat on a wild turkey. Plucking is tedious, though, and can be very frustrating when the skin starts to tear.
The trick to plucking a wild turkey easily starts with bringing a large pot of water to a rolling boil. A propane burner and a large stock pot are the best way to do this, and it should be done outside for safety and to prevent your wife from going crazy over the mess you are about to make.
We like to use a large work table or a separate cutting board that has been sanitized with food-grade sanitizer or liquid chlorine bleach to remove bacteria and prevent foodborne illnesses.
Use a piece of wire or rope or specially-designed hooks to grasp the turkey by the feet. Carefully lower the bird into the boiling water. You don't want to leave the turkey in the water for very long since you are not cooking the meat – we have found that seven Mississippi's is about perfect.
Remove the raw turkey and begin grasping the feathers in small clumps. Use a short, jerking motion against the direction the feathers naturally lay to pull them out.
We usually start at the back and work around to the breast. If the feathers are still difficult to remove, you can immerse the bird in the water again, but only for a few seconds.
Once all of the large feathers are off, use a pair of needlenose pliers to remove the tiny pin feathers that remain. We typically don't bother getting too detailed on the areas near the wing tips, but make sure to get all of the pin feathers in the pits below the wings and between the body and thighs.
Rinse the turkey in cool, clean water when you are done, and place it in the refrigerator to prevent foodborne illness.
Skinning a Wild Turkey
Some people prefer to discard the skin, either because they don't care to eat it or because the feathers simply won't come out without tearing it. In this case, removing the skin is the easiest option.
Start at the beard and use a sharp knife to cut around the base of the feathers, lifting the skin up as you make the incision. Cut the skin to the neck cavity, then use your fingers and the point of the knife to carefully work the skin back from the breast, around to the back of the turkey, then down and over the thighs and legs. Cut off the feet at the knee joint and pull the skin the rest of the way off.
Once skinned, rinse the raw turkey in clean, cold water and put it in the refrigerator. Pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture. If you are freezing or storing the bird, be sure to follow proper procedures to prevent cross-contamination from harmful bacteria.
How Do You Prepare a Turkey Before Cooking?
One of the most important steps to prepare a turkey before cooking or cleaning is to completely sanitize kitchen surfaces, cutting boards, the roasting pan, and any other surface that will come in contact with the raw turkey.
Raw poultry is one of the leading causes of food poisoning. Hot soapy water should be used to clean the kitchen sink, dishes, utensils, and any other things that will come in contact with the raw turkey. Don't forget to wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling the turkey.
Before you start cooking a turkey, make sure it is completely thawed. Hundreds of people each year end up in the emergency room because they try to deep fry a frozen turkey. Don't use warm or hot water to speed up the thawing process, either. This can lead to bacteria growth that causes food poisoning and can cause cross-contamination because of particles that get spread onto cooking surfaces.
A great tip for good results is to cook a brined turkey directly in the oven for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Brining helps enhance the juiciness and slow cooking in the oven prevents drying out, a common issue with wild turkey that is lower in fat than a domestic turkey. Measure the internal temperature of the turkey at the thickest part of the thigh as it cooks. The right temperature for perfectly cooked wild turkey is between 165 and 170 degrees. We tend to go to 172 degrees for a little extra protection at the risk of drying the breast meat out a little.
If you prefer a smoked turkey (you already know that's our personal favorite), make sure to follow Scott's Maple Chipotle Turkey Recipe.
Tips for Safe Cooking
A common mistake that people make is to allow other food items to come in contact with surfaces that raw turkey has touched. Even being near these surfaces can be harmful with fresh produce that isn't going to be cooked since bacteria can be airborne.
Wash cutting boards completely before and after they touch raw meat of any kind and make sure to wash your hands with hot soapy water every time that you touch any surface that has been in contact with raw poultry.
Set yourself up for success when you are cooking a wild turkey by following proper food handling procedures, cleaning the turkey inside and out, and making sure that utensils and surfaces are clean before and after handling raw meat. Hunting wild turkey is one of the great American pastimes and it is made all the more special when your turkey is perfectly cooked.