BBQ Turkey Legs

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Slow smoked BBQ turkey legs are a great way to eat that part of the bird, whether it’s a wild turkey or farmed. Here’s how to go about getting the most out of these underrated cuts.

A barbecued turkey thigh on a plate with sauce.

Mostly when I talk about BBQ turkey legs I am referring to the thighs, but the drumsticks benefit from this process, too.

The reason is because the thighs only have the one bone in them, and none of those crazy tendons and ligaments that the drumsticks have — and those will never break down, especially on the barbecue.

What follows here are tips and tricks on cooking better BBQ turkey legs, and on how to use them.

First, separate them. Cut the drumstick from the thigh. This will matter a lot in the final product, because generally speaking, you will sit down to eat the thighs, but use the drumsticks in another recipe where they are slow simmer until the meat falls off the bone.

Doing this gets around those nasty ligaments. More on this in a moment.

Brine Thy Bird

It’s important to brine your BBQ turkey legs because this will keep them juicier as they cook. Because you’ll likely cook the drumsticks a second time in a soup or somesuch, it’s less important for them. But it’s vital with the thighs.

My normal brine is 1/4 cup kosher salt (I use Diamond Crystal), to 1 quart of water. Dissolve the salt in the water and submerge the thighs (and legs if you want) in the brine in the refrigerator overnight. When you’re ready to cook, just rins and pat dry.

BBQ turkey legs on the grill.

BBQ Turkey Legs Slowly

Slow is key here. You want your smoker or grill cool, like 200F to 225F. It will take time, so do this on a day off or a weekend. I’ve had old gobblers take 6 hours to get tender.

Here’s the thing: You can go one of two routes. You can cook your bbq turkey legs just until they’re done, with an internal temperature of about 160F, or you can fully barbecue them like a pork shoulder, which will take the meat close to 200F.

I choose the first route with jakes and farmed birds, the second with old toms.

For the drumsticks, if you want to actually eat them right off the barbecue, you will need to go the long, slow route, and you’ll still have to eat around the tendons and such.

Smoke and Gear

I do a lot of smoking on a Traeger, but any grill or smoker that will hold low temperatures is fine. If you’re using a gas grill, fire up one element and cook the turkey legs on the other side, grill cover down.

Soaking some wood chips, then setting them on an open piece of foil directly over the gas element will give you a bit of smoke flavor on a gas or charcoal grill.

Wood choice is up to you. I really like oak, maple, hickory or fruit woods. But it also depends on your sauce. In the maple bourbon sauce below, any of the aforementioned woods would be great. But in the picture above, I used a Chinese char siu sauce, and in that case oak is my preferred choice.

If you are going with a Southwest or Mexican sauce, mesquite is the way to go.

About those Drumsticks

Chances are you’ll have super tough drumsticks. That’s OK if you plan for it. Eat the thighs at dinner, then the next morning, use the drumsticks to make any of these recipes, where you simmer the drums slow and low in water or broth

If you liked this recipe, please leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating and a comment below; I’d love to hear how everything went. If you’re on Instagram, share a picture and tag me at huntgathercook.

BBQ turkey legs on the grill.
5 from 6 votes

BBQ Turkey Legs with Maple Bourbon Sauce

This recipe works with either domestic or wild turkey. The 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. The sauce below is just a suggestion. I like it, but you can use whatever sauce you like.
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

Ingredients 

OPTIONAL BRINE

  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1 quart water

TURKEY

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 to 4 turkey legs

MAPLE BOURBON SAUCE

  • 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)

Instructions 

  • If you are brining your turkey legs, dissolve the salt in the water and submerge the turkey in this overnight, or at least 4 hours. Rinse and pat dry.
  • Get your grill ready as described above. Coat the turkey thighs in the vegetable oil. Lay them skin side up on the cooler side of of the grill. Cover and cook until the meat reaches about 160°F, flipping every 30 minutes or so to paint with the maple-bourbon BBQ sauce. For the first 30 minutes, let the turkey cook without the 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 hot 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.

Notes

Wood choice is up to you, but oak and fruit woods are perfect here. Only use mesquite if you’re using a Mexican or Southwest style sauce. 

Nutrition

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.

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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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26 Comments

  1. Could this recipe be modified successfully with skinless turkey thighs? I have a couple thighs from a 3 year old tom in the freezer and didn’t keep the thicker, tougher skin with him being older.

    Thanks!

    1. Ben: Yes, but they might be tough. One option is to gently braise them — think of it like making some turkey stock — in salted water until they are tender, then slathering them with sauce and barbecuing for an hour or three.

  2. Made this on the treager. Wet brined the night before. Smoked at 225F for 3-4 hours till it reached 165F internally. Used pit boss champion pellets and a smoke tub. Rested for 15 minutes afterwards. My sauce was similiar, but not close enough to say I followed the recipe. While it tasted good, it was really tough. Thankfully the sides of asparagus and mashed potatoes made up for it. Next time I have wild turkey thighs, I will be braising them.