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Michael Hastings: Grilled turkey legs offer a taste of the fair

Michael Hastings: Grilled turkey legs offer a taste of the fair


Fall has arrived, and I’m thinking of all of those foods I won’t be eating at the fair because of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the most visually appealing fair foods — at least for a meat lover — is grilled turkey legs.

I can picture myself turning a corner at the fair and catching sight of a sea of beautifully bronzed, oversized drumsticks arrayed on big grills. That visual appeal alone makes them a big draw for food vendors, even if half the crowd comes to drool and not buy. The vendors don't mind because when fairgoers do buy them they get a lot of free advertising as people carry around those big hunks of meat in their fists.

In short, these turkey legs are wildly popular. Disney reportedly sells 2 million of them a year at its six North American theme parks.

Their popularity is well earned — but the recipe is not hard to duplicate at home.

The legs you see at the fair are jumbo, often 1¼ to 1½ pounds. The legs you’re likely to find at the supermarket may be smaller, often 10 to 12 ounces, but may go up to a pound each. But that’s still a mountain of meat.

The smaller size actually means less effort, or at least less time, for the home cook.

The two most important things for tasty, succulent turkey legs are preseasoning of the meat and slow cooking.

Turkey legs are relatively thick, bone-in pieces of meat, so they do best on the grill with slow cooking over a low temperature to ensure that the inside gets cooked before the outside gets overdone or thoroughly blackened.

Because those hunks of meat are going to be on the grill a while, you want to make sure they don't dry out. Turkey dark meat is less likely to dry out than white meat, but it still helps to have some insurance.

That insurance comes in the form of preseasoning, which not only will help keep the meat moist but also enhance the flavor.

For preseasoning, you have two options: a wet brine or dry brine (salt and spice rub). Both require working 12 to 24 hours ahead.

I prefer a dry brine, or pre-salting. I think it best preserves the texture of the meat, and it’s less fuss.

You also have two options for cooking: grilling or smoking.

If you have a smoker, it’ll do a great job on turkey legs with three to four hours’ worth of cooking. It’s slow, but assuming you use hickory or other wood in it, you’ll love that great smoked flavor.

But I don’t have a smoker, so I use a covered charcoal grill — sometimes with wood added. I still use a low temperature, but this method cooks the legs much faster than smoking.

I heat a charcoal grill over medium heat and set up for indirect cooking, grilling the legs on the cool side (300 to 325 degrees) for 1 to 1½ hours, depending on the size of the legs.

You can cook the legs on a gas grill — but you will rely more on the seasonings you add than any smoke for flavor.

Grilled turkey legs make a great fall supper. Serve them with some homemade slaw and potato salad.

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