Why You Should Save the Leg and Thigh Meat on Wild Turkeys

This turkey season, don’t miss out on some of the most flavorful meat on your gobbler

homemade ragout made from goose leg
The author cooked this ragout, made with goose-leg meat, last fall.Phil Bourjaily

This space is supposed to be devoted to shotguns and shooting, not eating—but if I didn’t like to eat wild game, I might not own any shotguns at all. So here it goes.

With turkey season upon us in some places and coming soon everywhere else, it's time for a reminder: Save the legs and thighs.

Back in January, I helped at an event for adult-onset hunters, mostly urban foodies interested in learning how to kill their own game. Following a successful preserve pheasant hunt, the group followed one of the guides to the cleaning shed for a demonstration. He cut the breast halves out of a bird and tossed the rest in the garbage, which is what a lot of hunters do. The foodies gasped at the sight of perfectly edible bird parts going into a trashcan.

And they were right. Throwing out edible parts of birds doesn't quite rank as "wanton waste" worthy of a ticket, but it's a shame, perhaps even a sin. I helped one of the foodies pluck his bird, and encouraged others to save their legs and thighs. Not only is using more of the bird the right thing to do, it is its own reward.

Yes, legs are tough. It’s the biggest difference between wild and domestic birds. Legs and thighs are also really tasty, and they are the reason we have Dutch ovens and slow-cookers. Legs and thighs braised until the meat falls off the bone, then shredded and re-submerged in liquid to cook a little more and absorb juices, form the basis for dishes limited only by your ambition. You can make turkey barbecue, turkey carnitas, turkey soup, all kinds of things. Similarly, I made the ragout of Canada goose legs pictured above this winter, and it was one of the very best game dishes I’ve ever cooked or eaten.

Likewise, plucking whole birds is often worth the effort. In the case of doves and quail, you can pick a bird in a few minutes. Pheasants, grouse, and ducks take longer—and you have to learn how to pull feathers without tearing skin. A picked dove cooked in a very low oven for 90 minutes or so, or a quail split up the back and broiled are among my favorite things to eat. I like a whole roast pheasant about as much as anything, and the covering of skin helps keep the bird moist. There are even a couple of good bites on the drumsticks, although the rest are really tough and full of long, needle-like bones.

I plucked my first few spring gobblers but no longer do, although I’ll still pluck a fall poult or hen. It’s a marathon project and not worth the time unless you’re frying the turkey. Besides, a really big turkey doesn’t fit into an oven. Instead I’ll cut out the breasts, legs, and thighs. I keep feet, fans and beards, too, but those I always seem to throw out after a few years because they pile up and gather dust. I’m always glad I kept all the meat, though, including the legs.