Cooking turkey is a unique endeavor because it tastes virtually the same whether it’s wild or domestic. Now before you start yelling, I’m talking about a heritage breed, free-range turkey—not the sad butterballs you see in your freezer section. A good, well-raised “Gucci” turkey—they can run you more than $100 in specialty stores—is pretty much the same as a nice jake or young tom. But like most of us, I’d much rather hunt for my dinner than buy it in a store.
That said, you’d think hunters and home cooks would be way more comfortable preparing wild turkey than, say, grouse or goose. Sadly, that’s not been my experience. Most turkey hunters I know skin and breast their birds, leaving the best part in the trash. What’s the magical bit being tossed, you ask? The thighs. I’ll trade turkey thighs for breasts any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Thigh meat has way more flavor than breast meat, and when barbecued it’s my single favorite way to cook turkey—wild or domestic.
Skinned or plucked, there’s a whole lot more to a gobbler than the breasts. What follows is my BBQ turkey thigh recipe, plus a few other wild turkey recipes your momma didn’t make on Thanksgiving.
- The real key to this recipe is to cook the turkey thighs low and slow. This is barbecue, after all, not grilling. You want a moderate fire on one side of the grill and the turkey thighs on the other. Just practice a little patience and you’ll be rewarded. Believe me, it’s well worth the wait.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-4 turkey thighs
2 cups ketchup
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
¼ cup butter
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste
4 chopped garlic cloves
1 cup chopped onion
Salt to taste
1. Get your grill ready as described above. Coat the turkey in the vegetable oil and salt it. Arrange the thighs skin side down (if you plucked your bird) on the cool side of the grill. Cover the grill.
2. Once the turkey is cooking, make the sauce by cooking the onion and garlic in the butter until soft. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Bring to a simmer and cook down by a third. Add more chili powder and salt to taste. You can puree the sauce in the blender if you want; I personally like a smoother sauce. Return the sauce to the stovetop over very low heat.
3. After the turkey has cooked for 30 minutes, turn it and paint with the BBQ sauce. Repeat this process until the meat wants to fall off the bone, which will take 2-4 hours, depending on how old your turkey was. When the turkey is about ready, move the thighs to the hot side of the grill for a few minutes to caramelize the sauce. Coat the thighs with a little more sauce right when you serve.
(Photo by Holly A. Heyser)