Wild harvest: Part 1 – wild turkey

Harvesting and preparing wild foods with food safety in mind.

April 21, 2014 marks the opening day of the spring wild turkey hunt in Michigan. Roughly 30,000 birds are harvested and presumably eaten annually. The majority of us have taken part in preparing a turkey from the store, but fewer of us have had the experience of preparing a wild turkey from the point of harvest to the dinner table. Many of the same food safety rules apply, but there are some other points to consider when handling wild game meat.

The first major difference is that wild turkeys must be field dressed. Field dressing is best done as soon as the bird is dead. Make sure to have a sharp knife, clean paper towels and a cooler with ice ready. Follow these tips for safe handling in the field:

  • Remove the entrails and crop of the bird first, as grains in the crop may start to ferment.
  • Wipe out the cavity with clean paper towel. Don’t use snow or surface water as it may contaminate the meat.
  • Do not pile birds in a mass.
  • After cleaning, put the birds on ice as soon as possible.
  • If keeping the heart and liver, put in a plastic bag and store on ice.

After transporting your bird from the field to home, it requires additional processing before storage. Make sure to wash your hands and clean and sterilize utensils before further processing. After skinning or plucking your bird, it can either be stored whole or cut into smaller pieces for storage. Many seasoned hunters recommend processing turkeys into smaller parts, like breast and legs,as they are  both easier to store and more versatile for cooking. Fresh turkeys can be stored safely in the fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below for up to two days, or in the freezer at 0 degreeindefinitely. For freezing, it is recommended that the meat is packaged tightly in heavy duty aluminum foil or freezer-grade bags. Don’t forget to label the packaging with the date and type of meat so you can identify it later.

Cooking preparation is much the same for wild turkey as for store-bought. Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator for 12-18 hours and cook within two days after thawing, or thaw the bird in the microwave and cook it immediately. Just as with cooking other poultry, Michigan State University Extension recommends meat be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Wild turkey can also be dried and made into jerky or canned for later use.

Many people who have tried wild turkey complain that it is tough and dry, and they often never cook it again. This is often the case when the bird is cooked whole, like a Thanksgiving turkey from the store. As stated above, cooking smaller, individual parts of the bird is often more successful as it is easier to retain moisture in the meat. Smaller portions can also be tenderized before cooking, either mechanically or with marinades, which will soften the meat.

For more information on preparing wild game visit Clemson University Extension, or contact your local MSU Extension office. Be sure to read Wild harvest: Part 2 - fish. Enjoy the bounty of the spring turkey hunt!

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