You likely have some sort of system for assembling your gear before hunting season. My system, for instance, is a frantic scramble gathering up gear the night before my first trip, followed by a visit to the open-all-night department store nearest my hunting destination along the way.
I’m solely a bird hunter these days, so the Sept. 1 opener for grouse, along with chukar and Huns in Montana, is generally when I start planning my first trip. It’s usually too hot for chasing chukar at the start of the month. October is better for these red-legged devils.
While my field gear remains scattered about, another category of hunting tools stays organized year round. In the kitchen, all of my crucial cooking gear is close at hand, and I’ve got a few tools in the kitchen that are indispensable when I’m cooking game birds.
For starters, I’m largely a wet brine convert. A decade or so ago everyone was wet brining birds. I gave a couple Thanksgiving turkeys an overnight soak in a salt bath, which isn’t the most convenient thing to do. Food safety requires the brine stays cold, and for a turkey a sufficiently large brining vessel takes up a big chunk of refrigerator space.
Fortunately, overnight temperatures in Montana in late November are often cold enough that you can just set the brining bird outside on the deck. If an unseasonable heatwave ensues, brine your bird in a cooler and use gallon milk jugs of frozen water to keep the solution cold. Don’t add ice directly to the brine, however, as the melting water will throw off the brine’s crucial water/salt ratio.
That ratio is 6 percent salt by weight. This formula comes from one of my favorite cooking websites, www.seriouseats.com, and works out to about 1 1/4 cups of kosher salt for each gallon of water. But it’s more accurate to weigh out 225 grams of salt using a kitchen scale as different brands and types of salt measure differently volumetrically. Weighing your salt means your brine, regardless the type of sodium chloride, will be just salty enough.
Those big turkeys soaked overnight. Smaller game birds don’t take nearly as long. With quail and chukar two hours is about right. I like to add herbs, either thyme of rosemary, to my brine. The science says the herbs won’t pass flavor on to the bird, but they definitely passes along aroma, and smell is an important part of taste.
My game birds almost always get the sous-vide cooking treatment after brining. The birds are vacuumed sealed and then dropped in a water bath where the temperature is precisely controlled. Birds such as chukar and pheasant with white meat cook best at 160 degrees. They take about 45 minutes to an hour to come to temperature, and can stay in the bath for a few hours without overcooking.
The birds don’t look all that appetizing when they come out of the sous vide. The meat will be grayish, looking a bit like it has been poached. I like to brown mine up in a hot skillet, or, if I’m feeling ambitious, on a charcoal grill. I use a technique I first saw on one of my favorite television cooking shows, “Good Eats.” The show’s host, Alton Brown, cooked tuna, but didn’t use his grill in the conventional way. Instead, he lit a chimney starter filled with charcoal, and put a grill on top of that.
This creates a rocket engine cooking surface that quickly gives gray sous-vide birds a mahogany sheen, without overcooking them.
Hunting is fun. Cooking can be too, with the right prep. Get your kitchen organized with the right tools and it will pay off at the table.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.
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