Wild turkey different than domestic bird; cooking process also varies
If you are lucky enough to have a wild turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you will have a bird that is better for your health than a domestic bird. I’m not knocking the tame variety, because I’ll be eating one.
In Kentucky, the wild turkey has made a wonderful comeback and undoubtedly wild birds will be found on a numbr of tables this week, but most people like the Junkers will be eating the domestic variety.
So what’s the difference between wild and domestic turkeys?
According to the national Wild Turkey Federation, the domesticated turkey, which most Americans eat every year for Thanksgiving, isn’t as healthy as the one that hunters pursue in the spring and fall.
Most pen-raised turkeys live on ground feed and are given antibiotics to keep them healthy. They’ve also been bred to have more breast meat, meatier thighs and white feathers.
Wild turkeys, on the other hand, feed on acorns, grasses, fruits and plants, which provide them with natural vitamins. And because they forage for what they eat, wild turkeys have less fat content than their domestic cousin.
“It’s no secret wild turkeys, like any wildlife, tend to search for more nutritional food until they find it,” said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, National Wild Turkey Federation senior vice president of conservation programs. “They prefer acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries.”
Pen-raised turkeys grow faster than their wild relatives because modern production methods have sped up the time it takes for tame turkeys to mature. In just 18 weeks, male turkeys can reach a market weight of 35 pounds. Wild gobblers are only five pounds at that age and not nearly plump enough for table fare. You might say wild turkeys are slow grown in the woods, which means that what you’re eating is all-natural, not some frozen food that’s been raised for mass consumption.
“It’s definitely much healthier to eat wild turkey,” said Chef Albert Wutsch, director of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. “Wild turkeys aren’t given dietary supplements or bred for a specific color and flavor.”
Just as there are genetic differences between wild turkeys and the tamed variety, there also are differences in the way they are cooked and prepared.
“One of the most meaningful ways to share in nature’s bounty is by sharing the fruits of the hunt with friends and family," said Rob Keck, head of the NWTF.
It is important that wild game is properly field dressed and frozen. Amy Minish, registered dietician in Alabama, says an important first step is to field dress the wild turkey----—or remove its internal parts—soon after the bird is killed. Doing so helps prevent bacteria from spreading to the meat. She also recommends cooking the turkey at an internal breast temperature of 160 degrees.
“If you remember nothing else, remember the flavor of game meat depends partly on how it was handled in the woods, how it was hauled home and when it was cleaned,” said Keck. “Many who have eaten wild turkey and think it’s too gamey have likely tasted meat from a poorly field dressed bird.”
Traditionalists say no turkey is fit for the table without its skin, so years ago, turkeys were plucked by hunters or camp cooks after a long day in the woods.
Actually, the decision about whether to skin or pluck really depends on how you plan to cook the turkey. For methods that can dry out the meat, such as roasting, the skin should be left on to seal in moisture. Plucking, rather than skinning, also reduces the risk of freezer burn.
But if skinless is your choice, consider deep-fried wild turkey; the meat will be moist and tender.
Tips for deep-frying your wild turkey can be found in the NWTF’s Wild About Turkey & Morecookbook: In the cookbook, NWTF volunteers have shared their favorite turkey recipes; many are like heirlooms that have been handed down for generations.
Also included in the cookbook are ways to bring your game from the woods to a warm kitchen, steps that include field dressing your bird to giving new life to leftovers. Several pages are devoted to the history of turkey hunting, a pastime rich in tradition that began long before settlers came to America.
Wild About Turkey & More can be ordered by calling 1-800-THE-NWTF or order online at www.nwtf.org.