Transport yourself momentarily to the early colonial days of America, and you would find very different proteins on your plate than the pork, beef, and chicken of today. Chief amongst these was turtle meat — renowned for its rich, deep flavor and easy availability at the ocean’s shore. As turtle soup, it was even a longtime favorite meal of early American presidents.
Prior to becoming a regular staple of American menus, however, turtle meat already enjoyed a place of prestige on dinner tables in both England and China. And while overfishing may have ultimately limited sea turtle and snapping turtle consumption across the world, cookbooks hold records of marvelous turtle soup recipes dating back hundreds of years.
In today’s article, we’ll be exploring everything you’ll need to source, prepare, and cook turtle meat — including two variations of its most famous associated recipe, turtle soup. Follow along and you’ll learn not just what turtle meat can taste like, but where to buy it online and how to season it for the modern palate.
What Does Turtle Meat Taste Like?
Before you can get a true sense for the taste of turtle meat, it’s important to differentiate between two commonly served varieties: Freshwater, or snapping turtles, and saltwater, or sea turtles. Whereas the freshwater variety is known more for its succulent texture and muddier flavor, saltwater turtle meat is prized for its flavor and aroma that falls somewhere between veal and lobster.
For a modern take on the flavor of turtle meat, you need look no further than New Orleans or Philadelphia — two areas of the country where this seemingly exotic meat has never fallen out of style. Cody Carroll, a New Orleans chef, had this to say about the flavor of turtle meat during an interview with The Takeout:
It’s one of my favorite ingredients to cook with… Turtle has the advantage of having an incredible meaty, beefy flavor with an extremely unique texture… think alligator or squid.”
Indeed, a large snapping turtle of the kind you’d find in Louisiana has been said to contain “seven distinct types of meat, each reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish or goat.” (Source)
If it really is that delicious, why has turtle become such a rarity in American and world cuisine? It all comes down to a problem of supply and demand.
When popular demand for turtle soup took off in England and the Americas, it quickly led to overfishing of green sea turtles in their native Caribbean habitat. This, in turn, led to skyrocketing prices — and even the invention of “mock” turtle soup to satiate the public’s desire for the dish.
As time went on and the price continued to creep upward, turtle meat was pushed out of the reach of most diners. Today, it’s still one of the most expensive rare meats that you can buy, routinely costing upwards of $30 a pound!
Types of Turtle for Meat
Turtles are found in each of the world’s major oceans, and include over 250 different types. One popular type for meat consumption is the green turtle, which can be found in both saltwater and freshwater habitats. The green turtle is slow-moving on land but capable of swimming quickly through water to catch its prey. It eats fish, crabs, seaweed, jellyfish, and mollusks. It is named for its green fat, not its skin color.
The meat of the turtle is reddish-pink in color and has a distinctive flavor that some describe as fishy or pork-like. The texture can be compared to veal or crab, but many find it similar to chicken. The meat of the green turtle is consumed in many countries, including China, Poland, Turkey, and Russia.
Turtle soup has been a delicacy for centuries. It was popular during the early 19th century with high society in Europe and was immortalized by Jules Verne in his 1873 novel “The Mysterious Island.” Today it is still considered a delicacy by some, but turtle soup is widely available in grocery stores and butcher shops.
Turtle meat can be served in many ways: fried, boiled, or as turtle soup. It has long been considered “game” and not fit for consumption by most people. Because of this perception, turtles have been over-hunted nearly to extinction, resulting in a scarcity of turtle meat and soup. Use of their shells has also been considered taboo.
There are many types of turtles from which to choose for green turtle meat. The loggerhead sea turtle can be found along the southeastern coast of the United States and is often caught as bycatch during shrimp fishing. The loggerhead is the largest species of sea turtle in North America, weighing up to 4oo pounds and 5 feet long. They eat crabs, jellyfish, clams, starfish, snails, shrimp, worms and algae.
The diamondback terrapin can be found along the Atlantic coast of the United States and is most common in regions with saltwater estuaries. It eats fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects as well as worms, snails, clams, crabs, sea urchins and sponges.
The Hawksbill turtle has been over-hunted throughout its range for use of its shell to make jewelry and other items. The hawksbill is dark brown in color and feeds on a variety of animals, including sponges, jellyfish, sea anemones, sea urchins, crabs and mollusks. It can be found throughout the tropical waters of the world.
It should be noted that turtles are slow-moving animals with low reproductive rates. Because turtle meat has long been thought of as taboo, over-hunting has threatened several species with extinction. It is important to educate yourself about whether the turtle you use is an endangered species and what its range is in order to ensure that it supports sustainable populations and does not threaten or endanger other animals.
Turtle Meat Nutrition
A three-ounce serving of green turtle meat contains approximately:
- 32 grams protein
- 18 grams fat
- 5 milligrams iron (3% recommended daily allowance)
Note that turtle meat is not generally considered a significant source of vitamin A and C. It can be part of a healthy, balanced diet when taken in moderation and combined with other sources of these vitamins.
Turtle meat is most often found in East Asian markets under the name of tortoise or turtle soup. Unfrozen green turtle can be found in some ethnic groceries and specialty grocers, usually frozen.
Turtle meat is very low in saturated fat and sodium, but it contains high levels of cholesterol. Green turtle contains more cholesterol than beef or pork (120mg per 3 oz. serving). However, the high cholesterol may be offset by other nutrients present in green turtle meat.
Turtle meat can cause an allergic reaction in some people who are also allergic to shellfish and other aquatic foods, including fish.
Risks and Considerations For Eating Turtle Meat
Turtle soup used to be served in fine restaurants, but its use has become taboo because of the environmental damage it did to turtle populations. Turtle meat may contain harmful levels of mercury if it is caught in waters near industrial or nuclear plants.
The hunters who catch green turtles for food are usually paid by dealers who sell them for their shells, which represent a substantial portion of the turtle’s value. Turtle soup is made by boiling the turtles alive.
Turtle meat will spoil quickly unless it is carefully prepared and cooked at low temperatures (below 120 degrees). Frozen green turtle meat should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator before preparing.
Green turtles are often caught accidentally during fishing for other species. As a result, some species of turtle have been over-hunted to near extinction. It is important to educate yourself about whether the turtle you use is an endangered species and what its range is in order to ensure that it supports sustainable populations and does not threaten or endanger other animals.
How to Cook Turtle Meat
Turtle soup became the most popular dish to cook with turtle meat for one simple reason: Butchering turtles is incredibly challenging. It yields many small chunks of meat rather than any large, steak-like cuts — making it perfectly suited for use in soup.
For a classic example of turtle soup preparation in England, take a look at this antiquated recipe from Soup Through the Ages: A Culinary History with Period Recipes, by Victoria R. Rumble:
Take your tortoises and cut off their heads and feet and boyl them in fair water, and when they are almost boyl’d put to them some white wine, some sweet herbs, and a piece of bacon, and give them a brown in the fryingpan with good butter, then lay them upon your bread a-steeping in good strong broth, andFor those of us without the means (or the heart) to butcher a live tortoise, a recipe like the one offered by the famous Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is a much better option; they use cubed turtle meat of the kind that can be purchased online. Consider this simplified recipe, adapted from this one featured in Louisiana Kitchen and Culture Magazine:
well seasoned; garnish the dish with green sparrow-grass [asparagus] and lemon over it.”
- 1 1/4 cups unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks)
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 2 stalks celery, minced
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 green bell pepper, deseeded and minced
- 1 teaspoon mixed herbs
- 1 1/2 cups tomato puree
- 4 cups beef stock
- Parsley, to serve
- Sherry, to serve
In a heavy saucepan, melt 1 cup of butter over medium heat. Gradually add the flour, stirring continually until the mixture is fragrant and browned (this is known as a roux). Set aside.
In a separate saucepan, melt remaining 1/4 cup butter over high heat and add turtle meat. When browned, add celery, onion, green bell pepper, herbs, and salt to taste. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until vegetables turn translucent.
Add tomato puree to the pan with turtle meat and vegetables, and simmer briefly. Add beef stock, and simmer for thirty minutes over low-medium heat. Finally, stir in the roux slowly, thickening the soup to a rich and creamy texture.
Serve with a glass of sherry on the side, and finely minced parsley for a garnish.
Where to Buy Turtle Meat
The curious gourmets among us will be happy to know that turtle meat, while rare and expensive, is not nearly as difficult to source as exotic game like moose or bear. In fact, good-quality turtle meat is regularly available from a variety of online grocers.
Having spent some time living in New Orleans, Cajun Grocer is our favorite place to order turtle meat. Their boneless turtle meat is consistently of a high quality, with chunks that are the perfect size for making turtle soup.
Louisiana Crawfish company is an excellent alternative, and slightly more affordable than Cajun Grocer. You can find their boneless turtle meat for sale year-round here.
FAQs about Turtle Meat
Here are a few common questions about turtle meat.
How did turtle meat go from one of the most wanted, most enjoyed, and top tasting meats in America to almost completely being unheard of?
There are two main reasons for the disappearance of turtle meat from our plates & bowls. First, their population has plummeted due to overhunting and habitat loss. They are also hard to farm & domesticate. Second, since they live so long, they accumulate a lot of pollution into their muscle & fat layers that humans put into our rivers & wetlands. Humans ruined turtle meat.
What part of turtle is edible?
All parts of the turtle are edible, including eggs and blood. The red meat is typically consumed raw and cooked, and its flavor is described as “chickeny.” Turtle eggs may be hard-boiled or soft-boiled.
How do you kill a turtle to eat?
Turtle can be killed by freezing them, then hitting their heads with a hammer. Once they are alive again but stunned, they should not feel anything when their necks are cut. Note that most turtle populations are protected by Federal and State laws. Be very certain that you are legally harvesting & ethically killing any turtle that you are planning on consuming.
What is turtle soup good for?
Turtle soup originated with both Native Americans and Creole peoples. Creole peoples, in particular, are known for making turtle soups with sailors returning to New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico region. Turtle soups were originally created to reduce turtle meat that may have spoilt or had limited storage life by removing most of the fat and cooking it in an aromatic stock along with vegetables.
They’re usually quite high in calcium content because turtles accumulate minerals on their hard shell while they’re alive underwater. Turtles also store this same mineral content around their musculature which can add flavor to a turtle soup broth when slow-cooked for many hours. As such, turtle soup is commonly seen as part of good cardiovascular health due to its richness in calcium.
Turtle meat is very healthy due to its low fat content, high protein level, and many essential minerals & nutrients which provide for a variety of benefits.
Shell muscle is also quite low in cholesterol and full of mineral salts, so it can be marinated overnight with wine or vinegar to reduce the gamey taste. It can also be stewed with vegetables.
Turtle meat is lean, making it a healthy meal option. It has up to 50% less fat than chicken or beef and is still full of protein, vitamins & minerals!
There are no known allergies that come from the consumption of turtle meat.
Can eating turtle make you sick?
No, eating alligator or turtle does not make you sick.
If you eat raw meat that has parasites in it, there is a chance you will develop cysticercosis. If the meat has passed through your digestive tract unaltered, then the cysticercorsis should be found in your feces rather than cause any other symptoms. If you do experience nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and stiff neck (this is called neurocysticerosis), make sure to tell your doctor immediately as this may be indicative of tapeworms or other illnesses.
One thing to note about eating turtles: they’re known for accumulating pollution, such as PCBs and mercury in their body from human sources. Only harvest turtles that are legal to harvest and have lived their lives in pristine habitat.