Facing My Freezer

This time of year the birds in my freezer are still in good shape, meaning I can be more ambitious with my cooking decisions

By Rob Breeding

The late, great author Jim Harrison once warned hunters to take fall inventory of their freezers. Any remaining frozen carcasses, Harrison advised, were to be subtracted from the number of birds you were allowed to kill in the upcoming season.

I’ve learned the best way to avoid Harrison’s fall conundrum is to not wait until fall. A mid-winter scan is best. This time of year the birds in my freezer are still in good shape, meaning I can be more ambitious with my cooking decisions.

Those frozen birds include a couple pheasants, a few chukars and a handful of quail. I have faith the birds are in good shape as I’ve developed a post-hunt process that mostly preserves quality.

If the birds aren’t too shot up, they get plucked. Plucking is easy when I only have a couple of birds to attend to, but after more successful hunts plucking can be a chore. Even a quail takes me 15-20 minutes if I’m being careful not to tear the skin.

On those days I shoot a little better, I’ve adopted the wet-plucking method that involves repeatedly dunking the birds in scalding water, about 150 degrees, until the feathers release easily. There are directions on Hank Shaw’s great website “hunter angler gardener cook” found at https://honest-food.net.

Shaw is a trained chef as well as a hunter and angler. He’s written a series of highly regarded books on game cooking, and you can mine plenty of good info from his website.

The advantage to wet plucking is that you can go fast without fear of skin tears. The disadvantage is that it’s smelly and messy. Married hunters with partners fussy about matters in the kitchen may need to set up a wet-pluck station in the garage or patio.

After plucking, those birds take a bath in a salt brine. My bird brine recipe also comes from a foodie website: www.seriouseats.com. The brine recipe is simple. Dissolve 450 grams of salt per gallon of water. The volumetric measure on the salt is about 1 1/4 cups, but since the crystals of table salt and different kosher salts vary in size, a measuring cup doesn’t give you an accurate read.

This is one job where a kitchen scale comes in handy.

Brining times vary so you’ll want to experiment, but two hours is a good starting point for quail, and you can scale up from there. I’ve left pheasant in overnight without over-seasoning the meat.

Brining accomplishes two things. The first is the well-known moisture boost. Some, including Serious Eats editors, warn that brining adds too much water and that can dilute the flavor of the meat, but they’re talking domestic poultry. Wild game birds are packed with flavor, and also more likely to dry out if overcooked.

Another benefit is that the salt bath helps with bacterial concerns. I handle my game birds carefully, but that doesn’t change the fact that these birds have been shot, and sometimes that leads to messy carcasses. Brining provides some antibacterial benefit, though it’s no replacement for safe handling from the get go.

Finally, the birds dry off in the fridge and then I vacuum seal them before they enter the deep freeze. I’ve had birds so handled that they emerged from the freezer in September looking every bit as good as those thawed midwinter.

Next to the full carcasses are a couple of re-sealable bags of bird bones. I save them along with any aromatic vegetable scraps — onions, carrots, celery — until I’ve collected enough to make a pot of stock. I use it in my preferred recipe winter recipe, coq au vin, a wonderful French stew that classically featured an old, past-his-prime rooster.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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