How to Tenderize Turkey Legs (and Make Turkey Sugo Over Polenta in the Process)
If you're only eating the breast meat off of your turkeys, you're missing out
No primal cut from any wild game should ever be discarded. But I do understand why so many hunters leave behind the wings, thighs, and legs from a spring gobbler—they’re tough, unbearably so, if not cooked correctly. If you know how to handle them, though, they can be delicious.
There is no such thing as instant gratification when it comes to cooking a hardworking cut of meat. Tough cuts require time and low heat to finally yield tender bites. One of the best ways to cook wild turkey legs—or other tough cuts—is called braising. To do this, you sear the meat in a hot pan, then cook it slowly in liquid with low heat over an extended period of time. The long cooking time and low heat break down tough muscle fibers while liquids keep the meat from drying out.
Before braising turkey legs, I recommend dry-brining and aging the meat in the refrigerator with kosher salt and black pepper. The brine will slightly tenderize the meat and concentrate flavor. It also helps the meat retain moisture while cooking.
The braising liquid in this recipe is a sauce called sugo—which means “sauce” in Italian. It’s close to a Bolognese sauce but there is no cream. You can experiment with other sauces and liquids for braising, but the core technique should remain the same when wishing to tenderize tough cuts: Sear to caramelize the exterior and simmer low and slow for at least 4 hours. I like to use a Dutch oven, but a crockpot will work as well.
Turkey Leg Sugo and Polenta Ingredients
Makes four servings
- Wild turkey thigh and leg
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Polenta
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Sliced scallions for garnish (optional)
- 2 large carrots, minced
- 1 medium yellow onioned, minced
- 4 large cloves of garlic, roasted
- 2-4 cups beef stock
- 1 cup red wine
- 12 ounces crushed tomatoes
- 8.5 ounces sundried tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 full sprig of fresh thyme
- 1 full sprig of fresh sage
- 1 full sprig of oregano
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Baby broccoli
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Fully thaw wild turkey thigh and leg and dust all sides with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Allow the meat to sit in the fridge uncovered for three days. When ready to cook, add a thin layer of olive oil to a Dutch oven over medium heat. Separate the thigh and leg and add to the Dutch oven once the oil is heated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. You want to hear the meat sizzle when you add it to the pan. If you don’t, immediately remove the meat, and wait for the oil to get hotter.
Adequately sear all sides of the turkey thigh and leg then set them aside. Add the chopped onion, and a little more olive oil, to the Dutch oven and lightly salt and pepper. Once onions are browned, add the chopped carrots and a little more olive oil. Continue to stir until the carrots are mostly soft. Add the turkey back to the Dutch oven, along with the garlic cloves, and turn the burner heat to low. This will allow some juices from the turkey to drip down into the onions and carrots.
After cooking for a half-hour, remove the turkey thigh and leg and set aside while you add the onions, carrots, and garlic to a blender along with both the sundried and crushed tomatoes. Blend thoroughly, then add back to the Dutch oven and stir in the remaining sauce ingredients (beef stock, red wine, balsamic vinegar, fish sauce, salt and pepper, thyme, sage, oregano, and bay leaves).
Add the turkey thigh and leg to the sauce in the Dutch oven and cover. Then, place it in the oven at 275 degrees F for 4 hours. Check every half-hour to an hour to make sure the liquids are still covering most of the turkey meat—add beef stock to the sauce if it isn’t. When the meat is ready, it should easily come off the bone. If it doesn’t after 4 hours, turn the oven up to 300 and check every half hour until the meat is tender.
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To roast the vegetables, chop the ends off of the asparagus and peel the carrots. Then lightly oil and salt them along with the baby broccoli and spread the vegetables out in a roasting pan. Place in the oven alongside the Dutch oven 30 to 45 minutes before pulling out the turkey.
For the polenta, bring 3 cups of water to a low boil, add 1 cup of polenta and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Turn heat to low and stir frequently until water is fully absorbed (should take about 5 minutes). Cover until ready to serve.
To serve, remove the herb sprigs and bay leaves from the sauce. Then remove the turkey thigh and leg and pull meat from the bones with either tongs or forks, and finely shred or mince. Add shredded turkey back to the sauce in the Dutch oven and salt to taste. Add polenta to a dish followed by roasted vegetables, then a scoop of wild turkey and extra sauce. Garnish with scallions.