Looking for a way to prepare turkey that’s a little different than the usual holiday fare? These braised turkey legs offer an ideal (and eye-catching) solution. Slowly cooked in a tangy, spice-spiked braising liquid, the turkey is then shredded and ready to be smothered with chile sauce and your favorite fixings. Tuck it into a taco, stuff it in a quesadilla, pile it atop a baked sweet potato, or let us know what you did in a comment below.Angie Zoobkoff

A blue bowl of shredded turkey leg barbacoa braised with flavored with bay leaves, paprika, cumin, cloves, oregano, lime juice, vinegar

Turkey Leg Barbacoa

5 / 5 votes
For this turkey leg barbacoa, the legs are slowly, sexily braised in beef stock flavored with bay leaves, paprika, cumin, cloves, oregano, lime juice, vinegar. Not your grandma’s Thanksgiving now, is it?!
David Leite
Servings4 to 6 servings
Calories1358 kcal
Prep Time1 hour 10 minutes
Cook Time2 hours 30 minutes
Total Time3 hours 40 minutes


For the barbacoa

  • 4 turkey legs (from 2 turkeys)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon oregano (Mexican if possible)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 sprig epazote (optional)
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 quart store-bought or homemade beef stock or venison stock
  • 1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil (optional)
  • Smoked salt (optional)

For the chile sauce

  • 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4 dried guajillo chiles, de-stemmed, seeded, and torn up
  • 4 dried ancho chiles, de-stemmed, seeded, and torn up
  • 2 dried or canned chipotle or cascabel chiles, de-stemmed, seeded, and torn up
  • Salt, black pepper and lime juice to taste

To serve

  • Cilantro, shredded cheese, sour cream, avocado, chile sauce* and/or hot sauce


Make the barbacoa

  • In a large, heavy, lidded pot combine the turkey legs with the bay leaves, paprika, cumin, cloves, oregano, salt, lime juice, vinegar, and stock. Add the epazote if using. If the meat is not completely submerged, add enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook at a very gentle simmer until the meat falls off the bone, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove the turkey legs from the braising liquid and let cool. Reserve the braising liquid as you may perhaps need some for the chile sauce and then you can use the rest however you please, perhaps in a ramen bowl garnished with some of the turkey barbacoa.

Make the chile sauce

  • While the meat is cooking, heat a medium skillet over medium heat and warm the lard or oil. Toss in the onions and cook until softened and lightly browned. Stir in the garlic and the torn-up chiles and mix well. Cook for 1 minute and then add enough water to barely cover. Season with salt and simmer until the chiles are tender, about 15 minutes.
  • Transfer the sauce to a blender and purée until smooth. You want it to be the consistency of barbecue sauce. Add salt, black pepper, and lime juice to taste. The sauce will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.
  • When the turkey is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin. Shred the meat and, if your meat looks on the lean or dry side, add the lard or vegetable oil. If desired, sprinkle the meat with the smoked salt. You can serve it as-is, or jazz it up with the addition of chile sauce, cilantro, shredded cheese, sour cream, avocado, or chile or hot sauce.


Rabbit Barbacoa

To make rabbit barbacoa, simply substitute 6 rabbit legs (from 3 rabbits) for the turkey legs.
Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail Cookbook

Adapted From

Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail

Buy On Amazon


Serving: 1 portionCalories: 1358 kcalCarbohydrates: 40 gProtein: 142 gFat: 69 gSaturated Fat: 18 gMonounsaturated Fat: 19 gTrans Fat: 0.1 gCholesterol: 481 mgSodium: 2757 mgFiber: 13 gSugar: 21 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2018 Hank Shaw. Photo © 2018 Holly A. Heyser. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

I am so excited to have this turkey leg barbacoa recipe in my repertoire now! It’s as if I have a new secret weapon—for entertaining, for easy weeknight meals that offer the biggest bang for the buck in terms of time, and for those moments when I just want to do something different and off-beat.

I love that this version of barbacoa uses turkey, as I’m so often searching for a reason to use the bird between Thanksgiving feasts, but most recipes are uninspiring or just remixes of those same holiday flavors. The spices in this preparation are what raise the roof on the finished dish and make it unique. I learned that Barbacoa was originally a Caribbean style of barbecue before it became associated (for many of us) with Mexican and Southwestern cuisine; the inclusion of cloves and cumin in the spice blend really highlights those origins. I was initially concerned by the heady proportion of ground cloves (1 whole teaspoon!) but that might be the single most important ingredient when it’s all said and done, adding warmth and a hint of sweet spice that infuses the meat perfectly and made my husband stop in his tracks after the first bite and say “Whoa! What is this?!” So much earthy and robust flavor to make the finished plate bold and memorable. Goes particularly well with a Chilean Carménère or Argentinian Malbec!

It’s such an easy recipe to put together, and with very little commitment in terms of hands-on time or expense. I put out a full display of tortillas, the deliciously earthy chile sauce as recommended, some avocados, sour cream, feta cheese, and the meat with a scallion garnish that made the whole shebang look gorgeous on the plate.

I’m so excited that I saved some of the turkey Barbacoa on it’s own (without the chile sauce) as it’s going to make a terrific leftover bolillo roll sandwich with some goat or feta cheese, perhaps some pickled red onions, and a handful of peppery arugula. Yum!

Definitely a keeper!

What a versatile recipe this turkey leg barbacoa is! Not so much a dish unto itself but an ingredient to add to any number of things. This would be good as a taco filling, added to a cheese quesadilla or panini, you could fold it into cajun-seasoned rice, top a grain bowl with it…the list is almost endless.

The meat was falling-off-the-bone tender and is surprisingly subtle in its seasoning. The braising liquid was flavorful (and the rest will make the base of a ramen-style noodle bowl) and the chile sauce is outstanding! I used ancho chilis, chipotle in adobo sauce, and guajillo peppers for the sauce. I did thin the chile sauce with some of the reserved braising liquid and balanced it with about 1/4 cup lime juice and a little honey. I did not add the lard or oil to either the meat or the sauce as it didn’t seem to need it.

I will make this again, however, next time I’ll reduce the beef stock by 1/2 and pressure cook the legs for 25 min. followed by a natural release. It will cut the cooking time by more than half, and make this a recipe that I would happily make in the summer without heating up the kitchen!

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. “Not your mother’s thanksgiving…” This is exactly right. My kids said can we skip the Turkey and do Barbacoa… So then I found your recipe….

    So saying this is for Thanksgiving what would you serve with it?

    Added to notify me of follow-up comments

    1. Ken, you just want the four legs to be roughly similar sizes so that they cook at the same rate, but it doesn’t matter if they come from the same turkeys.