Let’s face it: Wild turkey legs, wings and to a lesser extent thighs can be unbearably tough, and the tendons are often as tough as bone.
The answer? Braise them. For a long time. Eventually, the meat will get tender, and you then pull it off the bone. You can do all sorts of things with that meat, but my go-to is to make wild turkey carnitas.
I am guessing you’ve eaten carnitas made with pork before. If you haven’t, it is a Mexican dish where you braise the meat in a nice broth until it gets tender, then brown it on one side only in some lard or vegetable oil. The result is both tender and crispy, which is genius. There’s a reason it sells out at Chipotle every day…
Some versions of carnitas are essentially confit — they cook the pork or whatever slowly in lard. This is also excellent, but it requires an awful lot of lard. I prefer to follow the braising method that Diana Kennedy uses in her excellent cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico.
You can of course use other meats here, too. I’ve use the legs from geese a lot, and it works great. Pork is traditional, pheasant is fine, and if you are blessed with a bear with good-tasting fat that would also work. And you can do it with venison, but I prefer a similar technique called barbacoa for here.
If I can give you one piece of advice here, it is to take your time. Turkey will get rubbery and nasty before it submits and becomes smooth and luscious. If you need more water, add more water. This recipe will require at least 3 hours of your time, maybe more if you are cooking an old Tom. Be patient. It’s worth it.
Why? Not only because the meat will blow you away with how good it tastes, but also because so many people toss out the legs of a wild turkey. I know dedicated, life-long turkey hunters who were raised to believe that wild turkey legs — thighs and drumsticks, not to mention wings — were inedible.
This is simply not true. In fact, the thigh is my favorite part of a turkey, and, once you strip the meat off those awful tendons, the drumstick meat is almost as good.
Give this recipe a go if you find yourself with a wild turkey. Please. You’ll be shocked how good it can be.
I of course use wild turkey here, but a domestic turkey will work just fine. You could also use pheasant, an old chicken, a guinea hen or just go full-on traditional and use pork shoulder. Once you braise the meat and pull it off the bone, it will keep in the fridge for a week. Crisp it up before you serve it. Once you make this, the finished carnitas will keep for a week in the fridge. I usually reheat it in a frying pan with a little oil.
- 2 skinless turkey legs plus wings, or 2 turkey thighs
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed (optional)
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed, cracked
- 1 tablespoon cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon oregano, Mexican if possible
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 3 dried small chiles, such as an arbol or Thai
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 tablespoons lard or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Juice of 1/2 an orange and 1 lime
- Salt the turkey well and put it into a Dutch oven or large lidded pot, add all the herbs, spices and enough water to just barely cover the meat in the pot. Cover and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone. Don't worry, it will. Eventually. A jake or domestic turkey will be tender in about 90 minutes to 2 hours, and old tom might be double that.
- When it is tender, remove the turkey from the pot and let it cool. Shred with two forks or your fingers. Discard the bones and any tendons. You can store the meat for up to a week at this point.
- To finish, Add the lard to a frying pan and brown the meat as much as you like. I like a mix of soft and crispy. At the very end, drizzle in about a tablespoon of honey and the citrus juice. Mix and serve. I serve this as part of a taco plate. But you can eat it any way you like it: Sandwiches, ravioli filling, a topping for rice, in a burrito…
I prefer this in soft tacos, with the traditional accompaniments: limes, onions, maybe a hot sauce or two, roasted chiles and cilantro or parsley. A homemade salsa verde is a great sauce here.