Turkey hunting was one of our favorite pastimes and we used to spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy simply getting ready for the hunting season to finally open. When it did, we would bundle up and head out in search of the perfect tom to dress our table. While we don't get to go out too often anymore, we still highly recommend it.
In Ohio (as with many states) bag limits for wild turkey are ridiculously small, making this once-common game bird a delicacy each season. Even though this delicious meal is something we don't get to eat every day, knowing the health benefits, nutrition, and safe handling of wild turkey meat is good information that might even make your next delicious roasted wild turkey taste better than it already does.
Just the Facts: Wild Turkey Meat vs Domestic Turkey
Wild turkeys feast on a varied diet that includes anything from seeds, acorns, and nuts to lizards, snails, and worms. This might not sound like the most appetizing feast to you and me, but for a turkey, the wild ones eat the best. Domestic turkey feed simply attempts to recreate the menu of wild turkey. The differences in diet are similar to what you find when looking at the nutrition of wild hogs vs domestic ones.
The biggest difference between wild turkey meat and domestic birds is in the fat content. Wild turkeys spend most of their lives moving from one place to another, flying up to roost in trees at night and avoid inevitable predators, giving these birds a more lean meat.
While domestic turkeys technically have more protein due to their controlled diet, they are also much higher in fat content because they don't get as much exercise as their wild cousins.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of turkey breast meat contains 29 grams of protein and 7 grams of fat. The same portion of wild turkey breasts offers 25 grams of protein but just 1 gram of fat. Darker meat from thighs and legs has even less fat but slightly less protein.
Both wild turkey meat and domestic turkey meat contain many important vitamins and nutrients so don't worry about whether or not wild turkey is good for you. It's more important to focus on learning the optimal way to cook the perfect wild turkey.
Best Ways to Cook Wild Turkey
Here is a little secret – one of the main reasons that wild turkey and regular turkey taste different is because of how they are cooked. Domestic turkey that you buy in the store is typically injected with salt water which adds weight and increases the juiciness, helping to prevent the finished bird from being too dry. Wild turkey, already significantly lower in fat, doesn't have the benefit of brine injection and tends to dry out easily.
With that in mind, you will want to adjust how you cook wild turkey to get the best results. When done right, wild turkey is the most delicious of game birds.
The key to properly cooking wild turkey starts from the moment you kill the bird. It is important to field dress the bird as soon as possible. Start by removing the innards and crop. Don't forget to remove the gland at the base of the tail while you are at it. Pluck the feathers while the bird is still warm. You'll use short, swift tugs to remove the feathers a few at a time. If you wait until the bird has cooled, you'll likely end up tearing the skin quite a bit and that is simply a waste. Thoroughly wash and dry the bird before putting it in the refrigerator. Like any game animal, you want to complete this process and get it in the cooler as quickly as possible.
Brining wild turkey is one common method to help prevent the bird from drying out while cooking. Brine allows you to add herbs and flavors that enhance the finished flavor. Cooking an unbrined wild turkey is a bit of a challenge, but the results are awesome. The trick is to use plenty of butter or olive oil to prevent drying out. As a bonus, butter and olive oil will help wild turkey taste good and finish tender. Make sure to check out our favorite brine recipe for smoked turkey.
Wild turkey can also be done in a slow cooker to help improve juiciness. It isn't our favorite way to do it, but using a slow cooker will give you predictable results, especially when cooking wild turkey breast or skinny birds with strong muscles that taste dry.
No matter the cooking method you use when cooking turkey, you'll need to aim for an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. Take the measurement in the thickest part of the thighs. It is often best to separate the breasts from the whole bird when cooking because they will cook faster than other parts and can dry out. The cooking process you use should be carefully monitored to prevent overcooking.
What Does Wild Turkey Taste Like?
You are likely to hear lots of people tell you that wild turkey tastes nothing like store-bought birds. They are right, but that also doesn't tell you much about what wild turkey actually tastes like.
Think of it like this – wild turkey tastes more like turkey gravy, whereas store-bought turkey tastes like a package of sliced turkey breast on sale at the grocery store.
Wild birds aren't necessarily gamey like many types of wild meat, but it also depends on what the birds are eating.
Fall turkey and spring turkey also don't taste the same, but fall is the best time to bag a bird for Thanksgiving turkey.
Wild turkey breast meat is darker than domestic breast meat and has a lot more intense flavor, in part because of the lack of injected brine. Wings are bigger because of the birds' powerful flight abilities and the unique taste is simply better than a store-bought bird.
Ready to Try It This Season?
The chance to eat wild turkey doesn't come around all that often, so you should treat the chance with respect. Wild bird was once one of the most common things that Americans ate, but these days, strict limits make the chance to savor these delicious game birds a unique opportunity.
But we'd say it's totally worth the time and effort spent preparing for the hunting season, scouting our favorite spots, and gearing up for the hunt. A properly cooked wild turkey is one of life's simple gifts that we believe should be savored and appreciated.
If you manage to bag one, don't forget to try out Scott's classic maple chipotle turkey recipe.