The wild turkey, which some years ago was endangered, has made a great comeback. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has, not far from my home, one of the largest wild-turkey farms in the country from which it has not only rejuvenated the stock which the Native Americans and early settlers knew here, but supplied many other states with stock for their own introduction or reintroduction programs.
The wild turkey, ancestor of our domesticated bird, is similar to it, discounting the modern addition of extra-heavy breast meat and injection-induced fat. After adding additional fat to the wild turkey, such as bacon or butter, any favorite turkey recipe can be followed. The wild turkey is generally more slender-bodied and longer-legged than its domesticated counterpart and its feathers are dark chestnut-tipped rather than white. The tail feathers, incidentally, are an excellent gauge as to the bird’s age and tenderness. Fan the tail feathers before plucking; if the tips are all even, it’s an older bird; if the two central feathers are obviously longer than the rest, it’s that years bird and prime eating.
As a general rule, turkey should be cooked thoroughly but not dried out. The largest wild game birds, a fully mature tom turkey, may be 30 pounds or a bit more. He’ll need a lot of care to make good eating.
Wild turkey, though considerably more flavorful than domesticated farm-raised birds, requires special treatment of the meat to improve it’s appeal. The meat will be rather dry without taking specific actions to keep it moist.
To moisten with butter, in consideration of the dry texture of wild turkey, you make sure that you slip your hand under the skin of the bird, separating the skin from the breast meat, but leaving the skin in place and intact. Slice dabs of chilled butter and spread them between the skin and breast meat. Use plenty. It’s also a good idea to add fresh sage leaves in there, and flavor with a little alcohol, such as brandy or bourbon. While the butter serves to moisten the meat, the liquor and herbs add considerable flavor.
To moisten with bacon you don’t need to separate the skin from the meat. Just cover the breast meat and wrap the legs with bacon before roasting. Make sure to gently prick the skin of the bird to let the bacon drippings soak through, moistening the meat. Depending on the bacon, this can add a smokey flavor.
Another way to impart flavor is to insert a peeled apple or a well-washed orange inside the bird, with fresh herbs.
Don’t overcook a wild bird. This will really dry it out. Baste frequently, and don’t be afraid to use some turkey broth. Normally, we recommend using the neck (cracked) and some of the giblets (not the heart or liver) with water, two small onions (studded with three cloves), fresh peppercorns (cracked), salt, celery, carrot (peeled) and fresh herbs to make a pot of turkey stock for basting. Just cook it gently on the stove top till it boils, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Keep it warm but not boiling. Make at least 1 1/2 quarts (2 quarts water).
You’ll love wild turkey, particularly for Thanksgiving.