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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Recipe Rating


  1. Amazing recipe. Probably my favorite thing I’ve ever made (or eaten) starring a wild turkey. I pulled out the cooked orange chunks (not the peel) and the onions and fried that up with the meat for the taco filling. Some fresh cilantro, onion, and fresh squeezed lime over the top is all you need to make the most incredible tacos. Makes me want to go and harvest another bird.

  2. I’m considering making this with beaver, but wondering what kind of stock you’d use with it. We’ve loved this when made with wild turkey legs!

  3. This dish has become a STAPLE in our household. It’s usually our go-to meal when we have company over. We love it!!! I have one question: I see the nutrition info at the bottom, what is the serving size for the nutrition info? About 6oz? 4oz? Can you help me out with that?

    1. Katelyn: I am actually not sure. That nutrition info should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s made with an automatic generator. I think my servings are around 6 ounces.

  4. I’ve made this many times with pheasant legs and recently made it for the first time with wild turkey legs. It is awesome and has made the legs of all of my upland birds my favorite part to eat. Excellend!

  5. Hank –

    What was the reason for modifying your original recipe from the “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail” book?

    How would you say the taste compares between the two preparations?

    1. Tahla: Recipes evolve. I currently cook the legs in lard or other fat or oil, instead of braising them in a broth. It’s closer to real carnitas in Mexico. This recipe uses a lot less fat, and has great flavor, but it’s not quite like Carnitas in Michoacan.

  6. My dad used to tell me, “you might as well throw the wild turkey legs out because they’re so tough”. Well, I’ve learned my lesson!! These turkey carnitas were just perfect! Cooked them in a crock pot for 4 hours and then let them cool and pulled them before putting them in the hot iron skillet with some lard…..absolutely delicious. I will NEVER throw away a wild turkey leg again! As usual, Hank does not disappoint!

  7. I live in a rural area in Michigan. During the winter the farmers around here do bar game tournaments. Every player has to bring a dish. I brought this. They laughed at me telling me the legs are inedible. Well after they had Hank’s recipe, all legs are saved! Not to mention I threw in local wild ramps and they were blown away!

  8. this looks great. my son just got his first turkey and i think we will try this. would it be OK to freeze the legs and thaw them later to make this recipe?

  9. This recipe was fantastic and the best way to get use of our spring turkey legs. I will make this every year and some. What a delicious meal.

  10. Would this recipe work in a slow cooker? if yet, what setting and how long?? thanks man, love your site!


    1. Chris: yes, but I can’t really tell you settings. I generally use it on high, because that’s a simmer on mine, and at least 8 hours. Like, put in before you go to work, eat when you come home.

    2. I made this recipe over the weekend. 8 hours on low in the slower cooker worked great.

      REALLY great recipe.

      Thank you!

  11. Made this for the last couple of years with my Spring turkey. Did one with skin on and one with skin off, but did not notice a huge difference. Any recommendations? I did not remember to sear the skin on first.

  12. Fantastic!! My favorite way to use wild turkey legs. It’s also great with pheasant, pork and left over roast beef.