BBQ Turkey Legs

5 from 4 votes
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barbecued turkey thighs with asparagus and mashed potatoes
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Sometimes everything just works perfectly.

Friday I was out again with my friend RJ from Northwind Outfitters. This time we were turkey hunting, a rarity for me. Turkeys don’t thrill my blood the same way ducks do, although I can understand the allure. RJ said he thought we’d have a good chance at this ranch he knew in Contra Costa County, so I took him up on the offer.

Up at oh-dark-thirty I was, and in my truck by 4:10 a.m. A full Thermos of coffee downed, I was awake by the time I rolled into the ranch at 6 o’clock. RJ was there, too. I got out of the truck to shake his hand when we heard gobbling. Close.

“Get your stuff on!” RJ said. Gobbling already? Must be the full moon.

We were at the base of one of those sweeping green hills that make California’s Coastal Range so pretty. Wide open grass, with a smattering of oaks near the crest of the ridge. RJ’s plan was to hike up to the ridge, set up a turkey decoy or two and wait for the birds to come down from their roost tree.

But with the moonlight so bright, and the turkeys obviously so close, we decided instead to set up just a a few hundred yards from the tuck, at the base of a tree that stood at the bottom of the grassy hillside.

RJ stuck a couple decoys in the ground. I nestled myself against the tree, shotgun at the ready. I brought “tinkerbell,” my little Franchi veloce 20-gauge over-under, loaded with some Hevi-shot No. 6s. Not exactly textbook turkey weaponry, but hell, I figured it’d do the job. RJ started calling, making clucks like a hen turkey.

We didn’t have to wait long before a turkey flew down from the roost tree. A pack of five others waddled after him in single file. Right toward the decoys. Had we hiked up that hill like RJ had initially planned, they surely would have seen us and flown away. He’d made the right call.

I have to admit it was pretty cool to see all these birds approaching the decoys at a dead run. I stayed motionless as the first turkey slowed down and walked right past me at about 15 feet. He was definitely a male — in spring, you can only shoot male turkeys — but he was pretty young. His colleagues waddled past. So close I could smell them; they smelled like dirty chickens.

Then something happened. All the turkeys bunched up. It is illegal to kill more than one turkey per day in California. And while it would be cool to get a double, I could lose my hunting license with such a shot. One bird in the bunch definitely had a long beard, which meant he was the oldest male. But he was directly in front of another bird. Probably how he got so old.

It only took a couple seconds, but finally one separated himself by a few feet. I’d set my top barrel to fire first, and I aimed it just above his head. I wanted to avoid plastering him with shot when he was only about 15 feet away. BOOM! The bird went down like he’d been hit with a hammer. The others stood around, startled. Had it been legal, RJ and I could have killed them all. But we just stood up instead. The turkeys got the message and ran off.

Hunt over.

A dead turkey, ready for plucking
Photo by Hank Shaw

I looked at the time: 7:25 a.m. Well, that was quick! I picked up the bird; RJ and I think it weighed something like 18 pounds in the feathers. For the beard-watchers out there, it’s beard was just under 5 inches. With so much daylight left, I figured I’d take care of the turkey right away.

You can age turkeys like you would hang a pheasant. You can also wet-pluck a turkey the way you would scald a chicken, but a turkey’s skin is far stronger than a chicken or pheasant’s, so dry plucking is a better option in my opinion. Dry plucking a turkey is simple — the tough skin means you will not likely tear it — but it took me 45 minutes to pluck this bird. He looked good when I was done.

Crazy shape, eh? Incidentally, my plan succeeded: The turkey had several hits to the head, and one in the back that went through some important artery. But that was it. RJ said I got lucky. I think he’s right.

Hank Shaw holding a plucked wild turkey
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Now I know everyone loves their whole roast turkeys, but I don’t. I prefer to cook the breasts one way and the legs, thighs and wings another. And I make turkey broth with the carcass. Here’s a test for you: Ask someone you know which part of a chicken or turkey they like best — breast meat, or thighs and legs? My money is that anyone who chooses thighs likes food, anyone who like breasts counts calories. I am a confirmed thigh man.

So that’s what I cooked first. BBQ turkey legs, thighs really, as they barbecue better, with a maple-bourbon sauce. It is as awesome as it sounds, and it was a perfect way to end a perfect spring day.

barbecued turkey thighs
5 from 4 votes

BBQ Turkey Legs with Maple Bourbon Sauce

This recipe works with either domestic or wild turkey. I've found that of all the animals with a wild and domestic equivalent, turkey is the closest in flavor. A good heritage breed turkey is very similar to a wild one. But even a butterball would work well here. They key is low and slow. This is barbecue, not grilling. Set your grill up where the fire is on one side of the grill, and the turkey thighs are on the other. Cook the turkey, flipping and painting with the BBQ sauce, every 15 to 30 minutes until the meat wants to fall off the bone. This should take between 2 to 4 hours, depending on how old your bird was; and old tom could take 4 hours.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 10 minutes


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 turkey thighs
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon molasses (for color)
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • Tabasco sauce to taste
  • Smoked salt (optional)


  • Get your grill ready as described above. Coat the turkey thighs in the vegetable oil and salt well. Lay them skin side down on the cooler side of of the grill. Cover and cook until the meat is just starting to fall off the bone, flipping every 30 minutes or so to paint with the maple-bourbon BBQ sauce. Let the turkey cook without sauce while you make it.
  • Once the turkey is on the grill, make the sauce by sauteing the grated onion in the butter for a few minutes. You don't want the onion to brown, but you do want it to cook enough to lose that raw onion smell and flavor. This should take 5 minutes or so on medium heat.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Boil this down by 1/3. Adjust for heat and salt. If you want, puree the sauce in the blender. I prefer to puree my sauce because it will be thicker that way. Return it to the stove top over very low heat. Stir from time to time.
  • When the turkey is done, shift it to the ho side of the grill, skin side down, for a few minutes to caramelize the sauce. Paint with a little more BBQ sauce right when you serve.


Serve with a veg and starch. Since it's spring I chose mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Oh, and beer is my choice here, not wine.


Calories: 482kcal | Carbohydrates: 46g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 19g | Saturated Fat: 13g | Cholesterol: 31mg | Sodium: 226mg | Potassium: 551mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 39g | Vitamin A: 433IU | Vitamin C: 7mg | Calcium: 102mg | Iron: 2mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!


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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Just made this for the first time last night. Thighs out of the freezer from a wild jake I shot this spring. This was amazing!

    1. Ryan: Hilarious. I am actually barbecuing wild turkey thighs on my Traeger Timberline tomorrow. The plan is to brine them overnight, then do a light spice rub. Set the Traeger on Super Smoke to about 225F, then let it roll. I am guessing it will take about 3 hours or so to get nice. I plan on using pecan wood, but that’s just what I have in the hopper right now.

  2. Shot my first turkey last spring, and it’s been in the freezer ever since ?. I’m going to thaw it out and give this a try!
    I’ve heard that a smoked wild turkey is awesome too. Any ideas on that?
    Heading out for another hunt next month, so gotta get this baby cooked up!

  3. Do you have a recommended temperature for the grill? I don’t want to dry the thighs out.

  4. I just tried this with the thighs from my spring gobbler. I don’t have a grill at the moment so I attempted to use the oven. Somehow I decided that 300 degrees for the 2-4 hours would be appropriate (this was my first time trying to bbq in the oven). Needless to say they ended up resembling bbq flavored shoe leather. However, I wasn’t about to waste perfectly good turkey thighs, so I powered through it. Now my teeth hurt. Anyway, what temperature and time would you recommend for the next time I try this in the oven?


  5. I can’t wait to try this! I was lucky the first weekend of the season and have been looking for a recipe for the thighs. What do you think about pressuring the thighs of an old bird for a few minutes to reduce the grilling time?

  6. The door is wide open for making a pun on the burbon. Did you use Wild Turkey, Hank?

  7. Mark: They sure did. The key is to cook them very slowly. Another bit of insurance would be to brine them over night before you BBQ them. Use 1/4 cup kosher salt to 4 cups water. Dissolve salt in water, then submerge the turkey thighs in them.

    If you want a recipe for turkey legs, try my Turkey carnitas recipe, where you slowly braise the legs, pull all the meat off, then crisp up the meat in lard or butter.

  8. I’ve never been able to use wild turkey legs and thighs for anything other than stock/soup. too many tendons, and gets tough too quickly.. your turkey thighs remained moist and tender on the grill?

  9. ‘Talking’ with turkeys is a pretty unique experience in hunting. Sounds like you had a good guide who set it up just right. Hope you enjoyed it. I just called in and shot a couple toms in the Texas hill country and look forward to firing up the smoker and giving this recipe a try.

  10. Great story and recipe as always Hank. Thanks for the turkey inspiration, I’ll be out next weekend after one of these guys here in Colorado.

  11. My daughter and Hubby are going on their first turkey hunt in a couple weeks here in Ohio. I can’t wait to use this recipe for the thighs. I usually do something in the oven with turkey, but you have inspired me to try the grill.

  12. Thigh girl myself. Can’t wait to go on my first hunt and get a turkey! This would be a delicious recipe to celebrate!

  13. Stephen: No, I don’t think brining is a bad idea at all. But with this bird I had not problem keeping it moist. Brining is better with the breast meat, in my experience.

    JR Young: The grill temp swung between 300 and 350 degrees.

  14. What is your guestimated temp on your grill? I grilled up a bird yesterday but went with a low direct heat since I had a hungry toddler and got started late.

  15. Being new to the turkey gig, I’d have to agree that he looks like our home raised bird. Except ours was 40 pounds dressed. We halved him before baking. I like your idea of barbecuing the parts separately.

  16. Damn, that is some seriously efficient hunting! I am a firm believer in brining my turkeys–do you think brining the thighs would add or detract from the flavor? Congratulations on a successful hunt!

  17. He doesn’t look too different from my homegrown heritage birds. They’re not good for roasting whole either. I’ll keep your thigh recipe in mind. I like to stir fry the breasts.