Waterfowl Cooking Basics

Follow these simple rules to get the most flavor out of wild ducks and geese

Photo © John Hoffman, DU / Styling: Shannon Persell, DU

By Scott Leysath

There was a time when I thought that game was muttony, livery, and chewy. As much as I enjoyed spending time in the woods and on the water, I couldn't quite understand how some people actually preferred the taste of game over commercially raised beef and pork. The term "gamy" seemed appropriate. Attempting to cover up the taste of my harvested game birds, I soaked them in powerful marinades for several days, for the sole purpose of disguising the flavor of off-tasting wild meats. As it turns out, the way to prepare great-tasting game birds is quite simple.

Keep Game Birds Cool

It starts as soon as you get home. Leaving whole birds on the garage floor for several hours is a bad idea, especially if the garage temperature gets above 40°F. The "danger zone" for any meat is between 40°F and 140°F. That is when bacterial growth spreads rapidly. Make certain that your game is cleaned, cooled, and refrigerated as soon as possible. 

Always Brine Ducks and Geese

Soaking waterfowl in a saltwater solution replaces blood with brine. The process also adds flavor and moisture. Once brined in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours, the meat will be paler in color, giving it less of a livery look and more the appearance of domestic meat. After brining, simply pat down the ducks or duck parts, then give them a good rub with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Go easy on the salt, however, because the brine adds salty flavor to the meat. 

Basic Brine

  • 1/2 gallon water
  • 1/2 cup kosher or any coarse salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 cup pickling spices

Heat 2 cups of the water in a saucepan over medium heat. Add salt, brown sugar, and pickling spices. Stir until the salt is dissolved. Add this mixture to the remaining water and cool completely in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours before soaking the duck or goose meat. 

Avoid Powerful Marinades

Be mindful that marinades should enhance, not disguise, the flavor of game. Olive oil, garlic, herbs, seasonings, and perhaps a splash of wine or vinegar will make the flavor of the cooked dish come deliciously alive. Marinate puddlers for a few hours. Darker-fleshed divers and birds that tend to be a bit earthier in flavor should be marinated for several hours and up to a day or two. Ducks that have been brined and marinated will be moist, tender, and mild in flavor. That is, unless they are overcooked.

Adjust Heat Accordingly

Sinewy leg and thigh sections are best cooked at a low temperature, about 300°F, for several hours. It takes time for tough meat to become tender. Breast fillets are cooked quickly over high heat. How you cook your ducks is entirely your business, but do keep in mind that the longer a duck breast is cooked past medium-rare, the tougher it will be. One notable exception: when braising or stewing the meat, you should let it cook for several hours, until it falls apart.