By Bill Buckley
I used to dread eating waterfowl. Until I devoted considerable time to learning how to process, freeze, and cook different species, the quality of my duck and goose dinners was always unpredictable. Now, by adhering to some basic principles and simple practices, eating these wild birds is an event I savor.
The palatability of any duck or goose depends a lot on the species, its age, and what it has been eating, but the biggest factor is how you care for your harvested birds. Believe it or not, this process starts by being a discriminating shooter. If you don't like eating certain ducks, don't shoot them. If you can target immature geese (they're usually smaller and have duller plumage), you'll end up with meat that is tender and mild. And if you pass up those super-close shots, the birds will be in much better shape for eating and post-hunt photos.
Basic meat care is largely common sense. You wouldn't leave a harvested deer lying in the sun, and you shouldn't leave your birds there either. On all but the coldest days, keep the birds in the shade. Small birds cool faster than large ones, but no matter their size, avoid placing birds in a pile, which traps heat and over time can sour the meat. Laying birds breast up or hanging them on a strap will help dissipate heat. Gutting birds will accelerate cooling and is a good idea if pellets have penetrated the abdomen.
Outside temperature will dictate how soon you need to process your birds. If it's somewhere between the high 30s and high 40s, hang them on a strap for a few days in your garage or shed and they'll be tender and flavorful. In warmer temperatures, you'll want to clean your birds as soon as you get home.
Plucking vs. Skinning
While skinning is the fastest way to process waterfowl, for many species, especially those feeding on grain, you'll be throwing away the best cooking assets a bird has: skin and fat. Both keep the meat moist while cooking, and the fat can impart wonderful flavor, just as it does in prime cuts of beef. Plucking is tedious and time consuming, but you usually only have to pluck certain parts of the bird. While I always pluck teal whole, for most puddle ducks I simply pluck the breast, flank, and legs and then fillet the meat off each side, keeping the breast and leg attached. Geese are almost always best when cooked in parts, with a plucked breast (particularly from a juvenile) prime for a hot grill and skinned legs awesome for slow cooking.
There are instances when plucking is pointless. When a duck's fat is gray or orange, chances are it will taste gamey. And shot-up breasts will likely have a layer of coagulated blood underneath the skin. In these cases, it's best to remove the skin. Also, I often skin and breast out less delectable duck species and older geese and use that meat for sausage.
To process birds, use a flexible, thin-bladed fillet knife so you'll leave less meat on the bone. Then thoroughly rinse the meat in cold water, removing feathers and coagulated blood, and massage bloodshot meat between your thumb and forefinger to lift the blood out. Cut open any wound channels to remove feathers and shot.
Brining and Freezing
Brining helps draw out blood, making the meat milder tasting, and hydrates the flesh so that, once cooked, the meat will remain juicy. After you've thoroughly cleaned the meat, place it in a large pot or bowl. Add enough water to cover everything and then add approximately one cup of coarse salt per gallon of water. Agitate the water to dissolve the salt, then cover and leave in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. For shot-up birds or stronger-tasting ducks, change out the brine at least once. Be sure to rinse the meat after brining.
If you plan on cooking soon, pat the meat dry and let it air-dry on an open rack in the refrigerator for at least a few hours—this will help enhance browning during cooking. If you freeze the meat, use a vacuum sealer, which can keep the meat tasting great for well over a year. Be sure to label freezer bags with the date and species harvested so you can plan your meals accordingly.
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