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. 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.
    Thanks!

  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?

    Thanks!

  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?
    RDK

  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.