Turkey hunting can take you through the complete spectrum of extreme emotions. From zero to hero, then back again. Just when you thought the gig was up, and your opportunity was fading, you connect on the spring gobbler of your dreams. After the high-fives, texts, and immediate calls to buddies are over, and a heaping plate of pancakes has been eaten, you should be thinking about what you’d like to do with your bird. Well before the celebration even, you might consider just how you’d like to preserve the memory, and prepare the meat.
The good news is that you usually have a few hours, especially if the weather is anywhere south of the 50 degree mark. Even in summer-like temperatures with an afternoon-killed bird, you’ve got a bit of time to decide how you’d like to prepare your bird. In any scenario, keep him in a cool, shaded place, out of direct sunlight. In most states, you’ve been required to legally tag him by now, but you also need to register that bird for your state fish and game department. This is a crucial, and legal step, don’t forget to do it as wildlife managers rely on self-reporting of these statistics to help determine tag numbers and success rates.
If the weather is warm and you won’t have time to process the bird for a bit, at least remove the internal organs by making a small slice between the rear tip of the breast bone and the vent. Reach in with your hands and remove the entrails, being careful to fully remove the heart, kidneys, intestines, and pesky lung matter. Usually the lung bits nestle between the rib bones towards the front and bottom portions of the chest cavity, so it pays to run your fingers like a rake down the gaps of these ribs to pull out all the lung matter. Especially if you’ll be cooking the bird whole, you’ll want this step done well.
For me, the road forks at “to pluck, or not to pluck.” An adult wild turkey sports somewhere between 5,000 – 6,000 feathers, and if you’d like to roast, smoke, or otherwise cook your bird whole, you’ll get the chance to pull out all of them. I can tell you from hard-won experience that plucking a turkey is never as bad as you last remembered it, and goes quicker than you might expect provided you do so in the “sweet spot”; a period of time that persists one hour after kill time, and no more than 2-3 hours later. Pluck too soon after you kill the bird and you tend to rip the warm skin when trying to pull multiple feathers. Pluck too late, and you’ll find that more of the pin feathers stay with the turkey, making for a poor looking bird with inedible skin.
Of course you can always scald a turkey to make plucking go more quickly. This process involves removing the head and wing sections of the bird while you heat a large cauldron of water anywhere past 150 degrees or so. At that temperature, you can soak the bird a good 20 or 30 seconds, but if you use boiling water, a couple seconds in the bath is all you’ll get before you start to cook your turkey. Good kitchen gloves allow you to handle the hot bird and help with maximum feather removal. I’m not a huge fan of scalding the bird, mostly on account of the extra materials and time it takes. I’ll admit it probably does a better job than just my claws alone can, but I can do a reasonable job in quicker time without too much hassle overall.
My process for plucking starts by timing it correctly, between one and three hours after the kill, and starts with removing the tail-fan, beard, and spurs for momentos. To properly remove the tail-fan, collapse it and hold near the base above the vent. It’s somewhat independent of the rest of the turkey’s body. Grasp near the base, then slice between the vent and tail-fan base, then down to the backbone, being careful to leave some skin (with feathers). It’s fine to come up the back a bit, as some of the nicest feathers for display come from there. Pull the beard slightly, and cut just behind the waxy and fatty base, leaving just ¼ inch of that trim attached to the beard. For the legs, straighten them, then cut the front of the knee joint and straighten firmly until you feel it dislocate. Cut and remove the entire foot from here.
The tail-fan needs some careful attention and fat removal around the base of each feather, and there are some great online tutorials for this step alone. Borax is the preferred preserving agent I use, and feet, beard, and fan each get a liberal dose while they sit and dry atop some cardboard in my garage for a few weeks. Take a little bit of extra time here and you’ll always have options, but do it poorly, quickly, or both and you’ll find that bugs will get the best of your bird.
Remove feathers by the neck of the bird working back towards the breast and back. I like plucking up to the wing joint before removing it. Straighten the wing, then cut the webbed skin toward the open part of the joint before breaking it by hand. From here, the knife does the rest of the work to fully remove the wing. Continue until all feathers have been removed, and have a goal for this thing to be as pretty as a store-bought bird. Remove any bird shot just below the skin, and if you haven’t already removed the entrails, do so now. Lots of clean water is now required to wash your bird, inside and out until it runs fully clean. If you have the opportunity to put it in some salty water and refrigerate overnight, it’s a good option. My mother always preferred this with poultry and usually the salt both drew out blood and slightly brined the meat.
Of course you’re not required to pluck a turkey. Especially when I’m traveling to hunt, it’s simply more convenient to pull back the skin and slice out the breasts. The innermost portions of are the “tenders” and have a long, sinewy tendon that starts up near the wing joint and continues through the length of it. I like to leave that tendon connected to the bird and slice the tenders off of it, both sides contain some of the choicest meat on the bird. These are prime candidates for immediate cooking. The legs come out easily by splaying them outward to dislocate the hip joints, then cutting between and down to remove the whole leg and thigh portion.
Whole birds I wrap in freezer paper (several layers), tape up, and label well for the deep freeze, while breast meat I like to put in two layers of freezer bags. Remember to label well if you are freezing, as different cuts deserve different treatment. Breast meat cooks up very well, though definitely benefits from a brine of any sort to help retain moisture in the meat and add flavor. The leg meat works really well when braised, especially in a crockpot. Whole birds smoke very well, and can be roasted like your Thanksgiving turkey, but again, benefit from a stint in brine and continual basting.
If all of this sounds like a lot, it can be, but the trick is to keep grinning. Realize you’re among the lucky few who get to tag one, and take your time as you enjoy the process.