Doll and I headed out to hunt pheasants the other day, and once again I was the weak link in our partnership. The birds were as plentiful as my shooting was inaccurate.
OK, my dog wasn’t perfect. We were hunting public land where the birds get plenty of pressure, so we had lots of runners and wild flushing birds rather than points. Doll was probably pushing them too hard. I managed to put one on the ground, on a day when I should have hit more. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Occasionally, I shoot better and am confronted by a mess of birds at the end of a hunt. In such cases, especially with quail, I begin the cleaning process with great ambition, plucking a bird or two. When that grows old, however, I soon revert to skinning.
Game birds lack the subcutaneous fat of grocery store chickens so you don’t necessarily lose that much by skinning. Still, a plucked bird browns to a nice mahogany and the skin shields the meat beneath from the harsh heat of the oven. You can brown a skinless bird, but the meat gets stringy. Wrapping with bacon or prosciutto helps, but if you take time to pluck, the pork fat shield isn’t necessary.
Standing at the tailgate of the truck, faced with a lone bird, I couldn’t muster an excuse. So I started picking feathers.
Plucking revealed something: a bunch of pin feathers. I hadn’t noticed before, but this was a young rooster. That’s good as the skin is more likely to pay off with a young bird. Gutting followed. The giblets went to the dog and the bird went into a brine bath. In a brine the bird picks up seasoning, and more importantly, moisture, which provides a buffer against overcooking and dry, cottony meat.
I’ve experimented a bit with brining, especially with smaller quail and chukar, and I’ve left those birds in the salt bath too long. That isn’t the worst thing in the world, but they can be over-seasoned. I just chunk those birds out and make a salad for sandwiches or stew them with chillis to eat with rice and beans.
I dropped my pheasant in the brine without considering the clock. I wanted to leave it in the pool about four hours, but grew too tired to stay up late. My solution was to set the alarm for the middle of the night. I figured I could wake long enough to drain and rinse the bird, then be back in bed without realizing I’d ever risen in the first place. Instead, I slept through the alarm and rose sometime after sunrise. The bird had been in the brine bath for eight hours when I fished it out.
I worried it would be too salty, but the following night I went ahead with my roasting plans anyway. I left the bird uncovered in the refrigerator all day to dry out the skin, and then as the oven heated, I trussed the pheasant up and smeared it with butter.
Trussing is worth the few minutes it takes to wrap twine around the bird and pull the legs tight against the body. Otherwise, the legs stick straight out and can be dry and charred by the time the rest of the bird cooks.
I put it in a rocking hot oven and then turned the heat down after 15 minutes. I pulled the bird when a thermometer inserted into the thigh registered 150 degrees and rested it before carving. The breasts were tender and moist but the thighs were a little too pink. I popped them in the still hot oven for another five minutes and all was good.
That’s the solution for undercooked game birds. If you overcook there’s no turning back, and the only one happy is the dog.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.