Reprinted from the Apr/May 2003 issue.
I know some of you have been or will be out flipin’ arrows at turkeys this spring. I still intend to cover doing breads and deserts in a Dutch oven but thought I’d take a slight detour and help you prepare those turkeys that you may arrow. We will focus on a couple of methods for cooking the bird outdoors: deep frying and Ultimate roasting.
I do not have any experience chasing turkeys with the feathered shaft and very limited knowledge doing it with lead, although I gained enough experience last year to write a book on what not to do. I have tried for four years to draw a tag in Utah with no luck. A friend of mine assures me that my elk/grousing prowess can be transferred to hunting turkey. Despite his confidence in me, I thought I’d spend a couple years chasing them with a shotgun before I graduated to a bow and arrow. Turkey targets sit at a slant. That isn’t normal (normal being horizontal). It’s one of the worst targets for me on a range. If I struggle hitting that stationary thing in the vitals, I can imagine the issues I’d have with them jiggin and bobbin around like they do. I’ll get a McKenzie turkey to add to the deer in my backyard for practice. In the meantime, I’ll spend some time with other hunting methods before I graduate to my recurve.
It wasn’t until about four years ago that I saw a turkey in the wild. Turkeys are doing well in the West. I was hunting in southern Utah, sitting in a makeshift ground blind overlooking a grass flat and water hole. It was early in the morning and I was fighting off sleep. I kept hearing this funny purring sound; it was getting closer and closer. I thought it was a grouse. All of a sudden up on a log ten yards to my right jump these two jake turkeys. Then the whole flock showed up putting and purring around. These two jakes just kept walking up and down the log asking for an arrow. Problem was turkey season wasn’t open. I really wanted to trim one off that log. While sitting there I got this idea.
I was a member of the Northern Regional Advisory Council at the time as a Sportsman’s representative. Myself, along with eleven other members of various interests groups, were charged with the responsibility to get feedback from the public on wildlife issues in a public forum setting. We then passed that information to the Wildlife Board so they could set policy. I had a good relationship with the Upland Game Coordinator for the Division of Wildlife. I knew he was proud of his turkey program and loved those birds. At the next meeting he ask me how the bowhunt went. After a brief overview I said, “Hey, what are those big, ugly blackish colored birds with red heads that look a little like a buzzards down there in southern Utah? They didn’t taste half bad after a couple hours in the Dutch oven.”
You should have seen the blank stare on his face. I’m sure he was thinking, “I’m not sure I wanted to hear that. A public servant, for wildlife no less, just admitted to poaching and eating a turkey. What am I to do with this?” I finally told him I was just kidding so he’d take a breath. There is a possibility that this event has something to do with my inability to draw a turkey tag in Utah.
While attending the National Wild Turkey Convention in 2002, I learned that a lot of turkey hunters don’t care for wild turkey as table fare. I found this a bit odd. I have deep fried many domestic turkeys but when I ask around if this is the way to do a wild bird everyone said, “Wild birds are just too dry to be helped.” I heard the old standby recipe that instructs one to nail the turkey to a slab of board, put it in the oven at 350 degrees for two hours, toss the bird and eat the board! I did pick up a recipe from one ole boy that sounded like it made sense to me. He called it Chicken Fried Turkey. You could call it “a lite fry” if you’re counting calories.
1 boned wild turkey breast cut into four patties
1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon garlic salt
2 cups of oil
1/2 cup of thick cream
Deep fry thermometer
A 13″ cast iron skillet (he was adamant about the skillet)
Using a meat mallet, hammer the patties to half their thickness pounding both sides. In a large skillet add and heat the oil to 375 degrees. In a bowl beat the two eggs and then stir in the cream and garlic salt. Dip the patties in the batter then coat them in the flour.
Place them in the hot skillet (oil at 350 degrees…use a deep fry thermometer) and cook eight minutes per side.
I tested this recipe with domestic turkey breasts and used a meat thermometer to bring the inside patty temperature to 165 degrees. It was dang good. Soaking in or injecting marinade would be a variation of this recipe. On old toms try soaking the breast patties in a little lemon juice before battering. You can wrap your pounded patties up in plastic wrap and use an injector to place moisture and flavor into the meat. You wrap it up in plastic wrap to keep the injector from over-spraying.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on preparing turkeys. Most heat sources used are the “pop in a roaster and then in the oven heat source.” In recent years roasting bags have entered the market and they produce a nice bird. Birds in the barbeque have some merit but if not wrapped in foil or a roaster bag they cook dry. Deep frying turkeys, which has its roots in the South, has become very popular over the last five years and is slowly leaking across the nation as an alterative to preparing birds. Some of the advantages to this method are speed, a different taste, and you free up your oven to prepare other things. It is also something unique that is being adopted by campers as something novel to do while camping. Some of the down sides of this is the expense of the oil, straining and storing it after use, clean up and the constant surveillance of the hot oil so it doesn’t over heat or get spilled. Some people are just repelled by anything done in oil.
The Ultimate Roaster is a new innovation that offers people another option to cook turkeys. While it features all the moisture left in the bird as deep frying does, it gets rid of the hassle and expense of oil. If you are a cook you will most likely end up enjoying all methods of preparing turkeys outdoors.
Having this article in mind, I did come up with a couple of wild turkeys this past year. I had to beg one of them off my brother. I wanted to deep fry one that I would inject with a marinade. Unfortunately, we blew the picking of each bird and they ended up skinned! As I’ve stated before with cooking, just forge ahead. I got on the phone with CeeDub “Butch” Welch of ceedubs.com. Butch is an old turkey skinner from way back. I asked him what I did wrong with the picking of the bird. The water needs to be 180 degrees not 212. The bird can only go in for 30 to 45 seconds, then pick immediately when it cools to the touch. I’d given the turkeys the Canada goose treatment.
I injected one skinned bird with an herb and butter marinade and let it sit in a refrigerator overnight. This allowed the marinade to travel through the meat structure. It was delicious and the drippings for gravy superb. The second bird I cooked, wasn’t injected because I wanted to compare the moisture content in the breast as it compared to a domestic bird. I found the wild bird to be slightly dryer when the breasts were cooked to the same temperatures. Both birds were roasted in the Ultimate Roaster and there was a notable difference in the moisture content over oven roasting.
The majority of turkeys deep fried or roasted are domestic birds. I contacted a distributor of domestic turkeys and asked them about the little pop up timer in the breast. This timer is designed to dissolve a salt crystal in the unit and pop up around 175 degrees to notify the cook that it is done. This is ten degrees over what many manuals on cooking recommend the safe zone to be on poultry. The distributors I contacted suggested that the thighs cook to 180 degrees or until juices flow clear. Now, if you can answer this question you win the daily double. How do you get the dense muscle and bone of the thigh to 180 while leaving the breast at 175? Well, the turkey distributors didn’t have an answer so don’t fret if you didn’t know. I’m not a math wiz, but I don’t think it happens. I think the breast gets to 190 while the thighs climb to 180, and that is why you have dry turkey breasts; they are overcooked. There are a couple of tricks you can use to bring temperatures along more consistently. I’ll share those in a minute.
The reason you get a moist turkey when you deep fry as compared to dry conventional oven roasting is due to moisture that is sealed into the bird by the hot oil. Some oil does permeate into the bird and this also keeps it moist. The thighs will cook slower when you deep fry because of the bone mass and muscle. Wild turkeys are less bulky than domestics, so it would stand to reason that during deep frying you would get a more consistent cook through. The Ultimate Roaster does what oil does but with heat under some pressure and convection air movement.
Preparing a turkey for deep frying or for the Ultimate Roaster is similar. If you have frozen the birds you must make sure they are completely thawed. Any frost slows the cooking time. If you choose to inject the birds with one of the many marinades on the market, allow them to sit in the fridge for 24 hours. Make a cut into the joint where the thigh and drum stick meet. Do not cut it completely away. This will speed up the cooking time in the thigh region. If the turkey has skin on it also make a cut down the upper thigh towards the back joint so the thigh can be spread open to allow the heat or oil to work around the area. This is really important when you deep fry. The bird has a tendency to shrink and tighten up in this area, this will slow your cooking time in this area and over cook the rest of the bird while you try to get the temperature up.
There are more deep fryers on the market than you can shake a stick at. Like anything else you get what you pay for. Expect to spend anywhere from $49.99 on a basic kit to $199.00 for a deluxe stainless set up. Burners are sold with the kits but you can also purchase just a pot. You will need a heat source capable of producing at least 30,000 BTUs of output to deep fry. The Ultimate Roaster you will find from $99.99 to $119.99 including the burner unit. Just the roaster, which comes with a diverter plate for use with the fryer high output burner you may already own, can be purchased for around $69.99. I won’t calculate the cost to secure a wild turkey in case you have a significant other that already questions the economics of your hunting. You can locate these cooking options at most sporting goods retailers in the U.S. and Canada.
Deep Frying Tips
Now that you have your cooking unit and turkey, read and re-read the manufacturer’s instructions before you put oil in the pot and add heat. Never allow the heat of the oil to go over 375 degrees. Make sure the bird is dry on the outside before you SLOWLY lower it into the oil. The oil temperature will fall off a few degrees bring it back up to 375 and cook for 3.5 minutes per pound of turkey. If you purchased a fryer with a basket in the pot instead of the standard stand, you’ll get more value out of it for seafood or corn boils.
Ultimate Roasting Tips
Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. This unit comes with a good recipe manual to cook everything from the turkey to beer can chickens and smoked ribs. You must burn the wax off the cast iron and season the outside of the oven like you would any cast iron. As the turkey roasts its drippings act to help season the inside of the oven as they splash around. I still prefer to go the extra mile and set a seasoning inside and out before I use it.
The manufacturer supplies a thermometer that you stick into the turkey breast and out through a hole in the lid. You simply watch the temperature and when it hits 170 it’s finished. Depending on the amount of heat you use you can complete them from 5-8 minutes per pound. I prefer to run around 7-8 minutes. This is a medium low setting on the burner provided in the roaster kit. Since this is a cast-iron pot you can also use charcoal. The unit has no legs so you set it on a trivet over the charcoal. I used 40 charcoal on the bottom and 32 on top. A 12 lb. bird finished up around the two hour mark. Remember the charcoal rules. I was at 4800 feet, no wind, and 50 degrees outside. There was that nice charcoal flavor to the bird because of the cone vents. It was really delicious. I use a meat thermometer and always double-check the temperature of my turkeys no matter what method I use to cook them.
Keep these new outdoor cooking options in mind for the upcoming holidays. I might suggest a couple of practice sessions before you go up against “Aunt Lilly’s” traditional holiday turkey. However, if your “Aunt Lilly’s” holiday best is like my “Aunt Lilly’s” you can most likely use the “board method” and the taste and texture will be similar.
Guy Perkins has spent a lifetime cooking outdoors, and even manages to fling a few arrows at big game around his home in Logan, Utah.