Springtime in Montana is such a wonderful welcomed time, especially after a long cold winter. There’s nothing like a spring in the west when there is warmth in the air, the birds are chirping, and everything- I mean everything, is green. The daylight is longer, the air warmer and it’s the transition between winter and summer which around here could be one month or one day. There is still lots of snow up high in the mountains, the creeks are running high and fast, and the toms are strutting and of course, gobbling. No better time to cook wild turkey!
The forests and fields are green and full of new sprouts of asparagus, spinach, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, mushrooms, and so much more. What compliments freshly harvested turkey meat more than the vegetables that are sprouting up right along with them? Pairing spring turkey along with spring bear and all the other fresh, sweet, tender shoots is what “From Field To Table” is all about. Imagine all the fantastic, colorful, flavorful, plate combinations that are possible by eating your own locally sourced foods.
One of the most basic common culinary rules regarding menu development is to purchase your produce locally in season. It only stands true, this is when the products are the easiest to obtain, most available, highest quality, and least expensive. For example, during spring, a menu choice might include sautéed turkey with morels, wild onions, and fresh spinach, tossed with pasta, and cream sauce. Whereas in the fall a menu choice could be roasted venison, glazed root vegetables, served with smashed potatoes, complimented with a fruit sauce. This is exactly what “From Field To Table” is all about.
Spring mushrooms compliment the flavor profile of wild turkey, they are the most available, highest quality, and least expensive at this time. I don’t forage for many wild mushrooms but morels are very easily identifiable. Spring mushrooms are most available at farmer’s markets as are all other new-growth vegetables and herbs. Other mushrooms that are sometimes overlooked include Wine Cap, Turkey-Tail, Wood-Ear, Oyster, Shaggy Manes, and many more. There are many similar mushrooms that can get you very ill. Pair up with someone that has the foraging skills and knowledge of harvesting safe-to-eat mushrooms.
Wild vs. Domestic Turkey
When you cook wild turkey, it is more flavorful than domestic turkey because the wild bird is more active, and actually fly, which means the muscles are worked more resulting in higher oxygen content and leaner, darker meat. The more the muscle works the more flavor there is, for example, the leg and drum of a domestic turkey has more flavor than the breast. It is darker because of the oxygen content and works harder. A duck is all dark meat because it is a bird of flight. The domestic cousins of wild turkey have been cross-bred to provide a higher yield, have enlarged breasts, are pumped with brines, etc. The bone structure of wild and domestic turkeys are almost identical, but the size of the muscles, moisture content, and color of the meats are much different. Due to the fact that wild turkey breast is lean, it very easily becomes dry if overcooked.
How to Cook Wild Turkey
I prefer to field dress, breast, remove thighs and drums, and age in refrigerator for at least 48 hours, then freeze or prepare and cook. I place the thighs and drums in the freezer until I’ve acquired enough for a meal or appetizer or enough to test and sample recipes. The breast is tender, thus this requires dry cooking methods which include stir fry, sauté, pan fry, deep fry, broil, grill, and roast. Turkey breast is also an excellent choice for moist cooking methods such as boiling (simmer) and poaching. The breast is so versatile it works great for white braising (fricassee) and white stews (Blanquette). The most important step when processing is to remove the fascia off the outer surface of the muscle. This fascia is what makes the meat tough, contort out of shape, and make it taste gamey. This can be done before or after freezing, brining, or marinating but must be done before cooking.
When cooking an entire turkey breast I prefer to brine and bard, especially when smoking. Barding means to wrap in fat to help retain moisture by basting the meat as the fat renders while cooking. These two techniques can make one hundred percent difference when preparing the whole breast. The majority of commercial farm-raised turkeys are brined before you purchase them. This is done to maintain a moist finished product. So why not do the same for our wild birds? Brining does not always have to be associated with salt. It is the addition of moisture and/or oils to enhance flavor and retain moisture. Creams, butters, oils, all compliment this white delicate meat. Our objective is to compliment the flavor of the turkey, not overcome or mask the flavor. The sauces and ingredients should be delicate with mild flavor profiles, similar to cooking veal. Although you can always utilize your turkey with strong flavor profiles such as a stir fry and braised dishes such as Coq au Vin.
Now, when you cook wild turkey legs and thighs are another story, they are much more robust with flavor and require much longer cooking times. Our cousin David is a turkey fanatic, he hunts Jersey and PA and ends up harvesting more than two toms each spring. He takes all those legs and thighs and freezes them until he gets enough to prepare a large batch. I like to brine and cook, pull meat off tendons and bones, and make a large batch of turkey hash for breakfast at camp. You can also smoke the drums/legs and eat meat on a stick like you see the kids in Disney. You may pull the cooked meat to prepare pot pies. Thigh meat is good for braising, stir fry, grinding, and sausage.
I recently experimented with brines containing heavy alcohol content, which was a disaster. Too much alcohol will toughen and dry the meat, especially when using dry cooking methods. We live and learn! That’s why I used the buttermilk apple juice brine in the accompanying recipe. It moistens, sweetens, and tenderizes, the meat, it works great.
After resting large cooked pieces of meat, be sure to serve immediately. If you slice a smoked turkey breast or any other smoked game meat it is essential to serve immediately due to evaporative cooling. If you slice and let the meat sit on the cutting board, as the meat cools the moisture will evaporate and result in a dry piece of meat. So if you need to slice ahead, reserve some of the jus (juices from cooking) or broth, slice and place the meat in the jus to keep it hot and moist.
These skills are demonstrated and emphasized at our events. Come join and dine with us soon!