The Turkey Whisperer

How to Cook a Whole Turkey, From Head to Toe

November 17, 2016

We know that Thanksgiving leaves us with a bounty of leftovers we cherish (it's not so hard to make sure no drop of gravy or cube of turkey goes to waste). But the turkey itself give us more food than what makes it to the dinner table.

More: 125 recipes that help fight food waste.

Photo by James Ransom

Aside from the giblets and bones, which we know to turn into gravy and stock (thanks to experience with chickens), the "odd bits," as Jennifer McLagan calls them in her extraordinary book by the same name, can be fairly mysterious. Can you eat them, how do you cook them, do they even exist? (One of these is a trick question, but it's true: They do exist, but you don't find turkey feet at the butcher shop.)

Those feet—and legs, necks, giblets, brains, and so on—needn't and shouldn't go straight into the waste bin: They can be delicious, fortifying, and a change from the usual. We just have to know where to get them and how to cook them.

Once people discover how easy most odd bits are to cook, the demand for them will increase, and so will their availability.
Jennifer McLagan, in Odd Bits
Clockwise from the head: feet, liver, gizzard, heart, neck. Photo by James Ransom

Finding the Whole Bird (Like Really, the Whole Bird)

To acquire a bird with all its parts will take a little more effort than stopping by your grocery store. Some markets and butcher shops can get you a whole bird with advance notice; some cooks will want to hunt their own.

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But the simplest option may be purchasing your turkey directly from a local farm. While many farms' turkeys are reserved far in advance, they butcher right before Thanksgiving and may be able to hold onto the odd bits for you. To find a farm, check out the stalls at your farmers market. The one photographed here comes from Violet Hill Farm, a 200-acre farm in upstate New York that we found at the Union Square Greenmarket. Sites like Local Harvest, Eat Well, FarmFresh, and Eat Wild can also guide you to local turkey farms.

Cooking Head to Toe

We asked a few meat pros to weigh in on how they cook the whole beast. The lineup includes:

You'll see their ideas below—they're a starting point, a heads-up that you can eat the odd bits, and may very well like the outcome. Many of techniques they suggest are ways we cook lots of other ingredients. For instance, confit: Whether it's duck, mushrooms, onions, or turkey legs or giblets, confit allows the ingredient to deep-fry (either in oil or in the ingredient's fat) low and slow, so that tough or sinewy ingredients break down into something luscious.

How to Eat Each (But Not Every) Part

Some of the giblets: heart and liver. Photo by James Ransom


McGruther: You can make a giblet gravy pretty easily; you can follow the method for making chicken giblet gravy.

I also like to sauté the giblets in butter with a bit of onion, then chop them finely and add them to the turkey's dressing. Or give them a good soak in milk, to soften their flavor, sauté them in butter with sage, add a glug of sherry, and whir it all up in a food processor to make paté.

Cosentino: I make a giblet salad with confit giblets, chicories, persimmon, and pomegranate.

Zimmern: Confit the gizzards, fry the livers, and eat them alone on toast with sea salt and caramelized shallots.


McGruther: The bird's neck doesn't have much meat, but it packs a lot of flavor. Whatever you do, start by tossing it into the roasting pan along with the bird. It'll crisp up nicely. Then you can add it to the stockpot with the turkey's spent frame, or drop the neck by itself into a pot filled with a quart of salted water. Simmer it for about an hour, strain, and reserve the stock. Pluck any bits of meat off the neck, chop an onion, and stir them both into uncooked rice. Cover it with reserved stock and bake it, covered, until the rice is tender.

Zimmern: Pan-fry them skin-on until crispy, about 40 minutes on medium heat. Eaten with sea salt and chiles, they’re phenomenal.

Boemer: I like to braise and caramelize with a char siu glaze.  I like to serve on rice with plenty of herbs and fish sauce vinaigrette.


Cosentino: Confit to ensure they’re super tender.

Boemer: Know that there is a lot of sinew and connective tissue in addition to meat on the leg, but I love to confit the legs and use them in a pasta filling.  

Zimmern: Brown the legs, poach, pull apart, and use for hash.


Zimmern: Steam the feet for 20 minutes, fry until crispy, toss with your favorite black bean chile sauce recipe (perhaps mine?). It’s an awesome dish.

Cosentino: Make a spin on Chinese chicken feet but with turkey feet—and instead of a soy-based sauce, toss the feet in gravy.

McGruther: If you're lucky enough to get the feet, add them to the stockpot, as I do with chicken feet, too.

Bones & Carcass

McGruther: Dump the turkey's bones (and giblets and feet, if you have them) into a large stockpot, cover with water, and add a splash of wine. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn down the heat to a slow simmer. Allow the bones to simmer in water about 12 to 14 hours. Add celery, onion, carrots, bay leaves, and thyme toward the end of cooking, and then strain it all, saving the liquid and discarding the solids. You can sip the stock on its own, or make soup.

Zimmern: Roast the bones until browned all over, along with diced veg and lots of onions. Deglaze the pan with 2 cups of white wine. Place it all in a gallon of water or stock and simmer to reduce by half. Strain and reduce further to a thin gravy. Save in small baggies in the freezer for saucing poultry all winter, as you would a demi-glace.


Zimmern: I wouldn't cook the brains on their own—too much trouble to extract the peanut-sized brains from the skull. Instead, I roast dozens of heads until crispy, toss in a Sichuan chile sauce, and serve them cold. Bite into the heads, then eat the brain. Delicious.

Photo by James Ransom

Not for Eating

Zimmern: Feathers.

Boemer: I do not use the feet, blood, and brains.

Boemer should chat with Zimmern about the feet and brains, but Anya Fernald, co-founder of Belcampo Meat and author of Home Cooked, advises against the blood, too, saying " I do not know anywhere in the world where poultry blood is a culinary ingredient." She also said to steer clear of the crop, which is part of the digestive tract near the throat. You may find the animal's digested food there, and even if the turkey hasn't fasted for a day before slaughter, the crop doesn't taste very good. The good news is there are a ton of other parts that do.

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Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


K November 20, 2016
My mother always made two dressing: one with the liver, which I never liked. The only one in my house who likes it is the cat. I give her a raw slice!
sarah November 18, 2016
Thank you for a very interesting and educating article!