Wild Turkey Leg Carnitas

4.99 from 57 votes
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turkey carnitas in a bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

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? Turkey carnitas. Simmering your drumsticks for a long time in fat or broth, then shredding the meat and serving it in a taco or burrito, or in whatever make you happy.

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…

Most versions of carnitas are essentially confit — they cook the pork or whatever slowly in lard. This is fantastic, 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 turkey carnitas 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.

A note on the recipe: I’ve updated it since I first published this recipe years ago. It used to have 10 crushed juniper berries, plus a tablespoon of cracked black peppercorns and a tablespoon of crushed coriander seeds. I not longer do that, but if you love the old recipe that’s what you’ll need to add. 

turkey carnitas in a bowl
4.99 from 57 votes

Turkey Carnitas

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.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mexican
Servings: 6 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 25 minutes


  • 2 to 4 turkey drumsticks, or 2 turkey thighs
  • 1 quart turkey or chicken stock
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons oregano, Mexican if possible
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • Salt
  • 5 tablespoons lard or olive oil


  • Set the turkey in a large pot, such as a Dutch oven, and add the turkey stock. Add enough water to cover the turkey, then all the remaining ingredients except for the lard. Bring to a simmer and add salt to taste. Cook gently until tender, anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours, depending on whether your turkey is store-bought, or, on the extreme end, an old wild tom. 
  • When it is tender, remove the turkey from the pot and let it cool. Shred the meat off the bones and, if using thighs, shred fairly fine -- remember this will be a filling for tacos or burritos. 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, so I lay the meat out in one layer and crisp just one side. 


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.


Calories: 510kcal | Carbohydrates: 16g | Protein: 48g | Fat: 28g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Cholesterol: 160mg | Sodium: 218mg | Potassium: 835mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 12g | Vitamin A: 73IU | Vitamin C: 13mg | Calcium: 89mg | Iron: 5mg

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. I have yet to actually try this recipe with turkey legs, but it is my favorite thing to do with Canada goose legs. I plan to spend some time in the turkey woods next spring, and I will definitely be trying this with turkey legs if I get lucky enough to bag a gobbler or two. Highly recommend!

  2. This is always my go-to recipe for introducing someone to wild turkey. Most folks love tacos, and this recipe will win anyone over. I still like to finish with orange and honey from time to time, however. Depending on the audience and my mood, i switch between finishing in lard or vaking in the oven to crisp ot up a bit. I went from never keeping the legs and thighs, to this being my favorite part of the bird. Thanks, Hank!

  3. I thought your earlier version also included putting some honey and orange juice on the fajitas at the end of the frying process, I still do that and think it adds a great flavor and finishing touch.

  4. While I was shedding the meat it was very dry, but after a night sitting in broth and a bit of sunflower oil, I made a taco today and they taste terrific! I live near endless taco truck options in Gulf Coast Texas, and these turkey carnitas rival the best of them!

  5. Loved it! Suggestion for making 2 recipes out of one, something we love to do when using a slow cooker or dutch oven: dump a bunch of other ingredients into the pot after removing the turkey and turn it into a soup. We added barley, pintos, some frozen mixed veggies, adobo, and meat from an already cooked chicken. Bam! Delicious soup!

  6. I made this with a pork shoulder I had in the fridge and OMG! It was so amazing. I did add the juniper berries and black peppercorns as with the previous recipe and used the 2% salt to meat ratio and since I was out of oranges I used a big lemon, rubbed it all down and flipped it every 12 hrs for 2 days prior to cooking. Hank you never fail to impress, thank you for this tasty recipe!

  7. I actually used my leftover legs and wings from a whole-roasted turkey I shot in May and cooked for Thanksgiving. I cut down the cook time a little bit (since they were already cooked, and honestly totally dried out) and they came out amazingly tender. This will be my new go to for turkey legs or leftover turkey!

  8. Didn’t have a turkey, so I used the dark meat from two old laying hens (about 4 years old), and two cottontail rabbits that were in my freezer. It was perfect. I let the rabbit meat summer for about 3 hours, the chicken took about 3 and a half. The next day I shredded it and crisped it on a griddle as I assembled the tacos.
    I can’t wait to get some more tough flavorful birds, wild or domestic, to make it again. Simple ingredients and preparation. Tons of flavor.

  9. I have two legs and two thighs defrosting for this dish as I type this! Can’t wait. Looking for clarification on one thing though – the legs I have are skin-on. Normally I would sear them on all sides before braising, but this recipe does not call for that. Should I leave the skin on and put the meat straight in the broth as instructed or remove the skin first? I get that the meat is seared to finish, but I’m just not sure if the skin being braised first will mess with it.

    Thanks! Love Hank’s recipes

    1. Anthony: I would skip the searing step at first, let the legs, simmer with the skin, then discard the skin later when you shred. It will make the broth it cooks in better, and you can strain and save that broth for other things.

  10. This recipe is legit! Incredible!! This is the ONLY way I’ll be making my turkey legs and thighs in the future. Thanks Hank!!

    1. Legit is right!! Almost TOO Legit… Wow, our first wild turkey (not an old weathered tom, whew) honored by this absolutely delicious and humble recipe – perfection for Cinco de Mayo! Thank you so much for sharing this recipe.

  11. Holy sh*t this is a good recipe. Haven’t looked through all the comments, but do you have any suggestions for what to do with leftover broth? I was thinking a pho style soup.
    Thank you!
    I used this recipe and your turkey breast nuggets recipe to do a bird and might not ever do anything else with every other turkey I shoot.

  12. This is probably the best thing I’ve tried for turkey legs and thighs. The turkey I used was a very old tom and it took about 5 hours to become tender, but the result was worth it. I used bacon fat to crisp the meat and it was a huge hit, even with the kids.

  13. A turkey leg and thigh, along with a couple of pheasant leg quarters that were in the freezer and it turned out amazingly well (as always)! Mixed with avocado and a little lime and ate the whole pan, just the two of us. Next up is the venison sauerbraten that is marinating in the fridge. Thank you Hank!

  14. Maybe my favorite recipe on the site. We raise turkeys and I happily cook entire 25lb birds in hotel pans and freeze the leftovers

  15. Great recipe! Also used it on a mule deer blade roast for the first time recently and it was even better than the turkey! 4 hours in the dutch oven at 300 degrees, then added some sauteed onions, peppers, and mushrooms to the mix in the final steps. Delicious!

    1. Very easy recipe to follow. The legs and thighs still seemed tough at 4 hours but they broke down nicely when checked at the 5 hr mark. The balance of savory and sweet is just right!

  16. I had tried wild turkey legs in the past with little success. Thank you so much for sharing this recipe! The carnitas were great! I used the leftover meat in burritos a couple of days late. The legs and thighs will no longer go to waste.

  17. This was absolutely deeee-lish! I did it in the crock pot on high for 8 hours and then crisped it up in the pan with a little oil as suggested and it made delicious burritos!

  18. Awesome recipe! This year I threw all the ingredients into a pressure cooker (Instant Pot) for 1 hour. It was enough, but an extra 15 min. might not hurt. Much better result than on the stove top, where last year I managed to run out of liquid and burn some of the meat. This way, plenty of broth left.

    To serve, I fry onions in a skillet with olive oil, add servings of meat and fry that, too. Then I add a ladle (maybe a couple of Tbs) of the broth, cover, and let the liquid finish cooking. Put the result in a burrito with avocado, cheese, rice, and black beans. Microwave (or broil) to melt the cheese and serve with salsa and tortilla chips.