How to Cook and Prepare Turtles
Preparing turtles for a recipe isn't an innate skill most people carry with them – continue reading to learn how to safely handle your catch and turn it into a tasty meal
Have you ever caught a snapping turtle while fishing? Many anglers would answer that question with a resounding “Yes!”
Sometimes a snapper latches onto your stringer full of fish. Other times, they take your bait and get hooked. Almost always, they cause consternation for those who catch them because of those powerful snapping jaws and long sharp claws.
If you use care in handling them, however, you can turn that turtle into dinner the same way my grandmother did. I remember well the snapper soup she served as the first course for Sunday lunches – a rich, meaty broth steaming in a tureen. Grandma ladled the soup into bowls, and adults at the table added a little glass of sherry, a tradition dating back more than 100 years.
Snapping turtle meat can be used in a wide variety of other delicious dishes as well, everything from a fried turtle entrée to Cajun dishes and scrumptious toppings for rice or toast.
We have two snapper species in the United States: the common snapper (Chelydra serpentina) and alligator snapper (Macrochelys temminckii). The one to eat is the common variety, which lives in ponds, marshes, lakes and slow-moving streams throughout the eastern two thirds of the United States, from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast and from the Great Lakes south to Texas and Florida. Full-grown individuals average 8- to 12-inches long (length of the shell) and weigh from 10 to 35 pounds. A few grow even larger, to 40 pounds or more.
The alligator snapper grows much larger. Hundred-pounders are fairly common in some areas, and one captive specimen weighed a whopping 249 pounds. Most spend their lives on the bottom of rivers, sloughs and oxbow lakes where they use a pink, worm-like “lure” on their tongue to attract the fish they eat.
While both species are good to eat, populations of alligator snappers have been depleted by overharvest and habitat destruction in many areas, and because the species is slow to mature and reproduce, all states within its range – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas – limit harvest to protect it. Common snappers usually are fair game; alligator snappers are not. That’s why you need to know the difference.
How can you separate the two? Look at the upper shell. On common snappers, it’s rounded and almost smooth. The alligator snapper’s shell has three rows of spiky-looking raised ridges. You can also see the difference in the shape of their heads from above. The alligator snapper has a triangular, pointed head, while the common snapper’s head is more oval.
Check local regulations regarding the harvest of snapping turtles before catching and killing them. Laws vary widely from state to state. You’ll certainly need a hunting or fishing license for taking turtles, regardless of where you live, and you’ll need to know legal harvest methods, seasons and bag limits.
Handle With Care
All snappers have a vicious temper, hissing and striking with true reptilian speed. They often raise up on their legs, mouth wide open and lunge to attack. If a turtle’s traplike jaws latch onto a living target, it’s said the turtle won’t let go until it thunders. This is just a myth, but a human with a finger or toe in its shearing beak might believe it. Snappers are best handled by grasping the hind legs, the rear edge of the shell or the tail while keeping those hooked jaws well away. Beware their long, sharp claws, too.
Preparing Your Catch
Butchering a snapper properly requires practice, but there’s no reason you can’t jump right in and try it yourself.
First, use a .22 handgun or rifle to shoot the turtle in the head. Use great care in doing this so the bullet doesn’t travel where you don’t want it to. Then carefully sever the head while using long-handled pliers to hold it. Hang the turtle neck down and allow to bleed out.
Next, use a heavy knife to cut through the junction between the upper and lower shells. Crowding the overshell very closely, cut it free, detaching the ribs from the upper shell with a cleaver or hatchet. The feet are then removed, and the legs and neck skinned. Remove the bones, and all fat and white connective tissue. You’ll be left with pieces of white and dark meat ready to cook.
Many people prefer turtle simply rolled in flour and browned in hot grease. But since you’ve gone to all that trouble catching and preparing your turtle, why not try some more extravagant recipes.
Turtle Sauce Piquant Recipe
Serve this Turtle Sauce Piquant Recipe over rice or with a side of cornbread. (Keith Sutton photo)
Catching snapping turtles can cause a little anxiety while fishing, but if you can pull through and prepare them properly, they can make a delicious sauce.
- 1 stick butter
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped celery
- ½ cup chopped green onions
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 (10-ounce) can Ro-Tel green chilies and tomatoes
- 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
- 2 tomato paste cans of water
- 1 pound andouille or smoked sausage, sliced
- 2 pounds turtle meat
- Creole seasoning
- Cayenne pepper
- Worcestershire sauce
Click here to get full recipe.
Grandma's New Jersey-Style Turtle Soup Recipe
Caught a snapping turtle and not sure what to do with it? Follow this turtle recipe to turn it into a delicious soup. (Keith Sutton photo)
This warm and flavorful turtle soup recipe will make you feel like you're right at home at Grandma's!
- 2 ½ sticks unsalted butter, divided
- 1-2 pounds turtle meat, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 cup minced celery
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 ½ teaspoons minced garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ½ cups tomato purée
- 1 quart beef stock
- 1 tablespoon each salt and black pepper
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- Dry sherry
Click here to get full recipe.