By Steve McGrath
I would guess that there are as many different reasons to waterfowl as there are choices in shot shells, but I seriously doubt there are many that do it for the meat. We’ve all heard the cliché sayings about cooking duck; most of them ending with some sort of punch line about throwing away the meat and eating the rock it was cooked with. For those that have been fortunate enough to have tasted just how good waterfowl can be, your hunts have probably taken on a different meaning.
If you are lucky enough to have a great shoot, it’s what you do with the ducks afterwards that can dictate just how good or bad, they will taste. Treat the birds the same as you would a prime cut of beef; keep it cool and dry. The sooner you can clean the bird the better. There is a long-standing debate on methods of cleaning, with many just removing the breasts. The time consuming plucking can lead to a much better tasting duck, but I would guess that many overlook it for logistical reasons. If you decide to breast the ducks, leave the skin on and just pluck the small patch left with it.
If you plan on consuming it within a day or two, soak the newly cleaned meat in a bowl of slightly briny water; it will help draw the blood out of it. Place the submerged duck pieces in the refrigerator for a day or two, changing the water as needs be. If you are leaning towards collecting a few more ducks before firing up the grill/smoker, vacuum pack and freeze them to keep them as fresh as possible.
Waterfowl cooking methods can be as diverse as Bubba’s suggested shrimp methods in Forrest Gump. I’ll spare you the reciting of that rather lengthy list, but suffice to say, there should be a method that suits your tastes. Here are a couple favorites among the fall crew I hunt with.
Smokers are well known for cranking out some great ribs and brisket, but don’t overlook waterfowl. It’s become my family’s favorite way of eating ducks and geese. There are a couple of ways to add smoky flavor to your meat. Cold smoking takes the longest time and requires controlled temperatures of 100 degrees or less. If you’re new to smoking game, start with hot smoking. Ideally, hot smoking temperatures are around 170 degrees, give or take 10 degrees or so. Duck breast fillets typically take about 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours to reach the desired internal temperature of 135 degrees (medium-rare). Whole or split ducks will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the ducks. Given the inconsistencies within most smokers, rarely will the different meats be finished at precisely the same time. In other words, when each piece is done, take it out. If it’s not done, leave it in until it is done.
Smoke-cooked ducks will be moist and juicy, provided that you don’t cook them too long. You’ll know if your ducks are overcooked when they shrink up, turn grey in the center and become tough and dry. If that happens, don’t blame the duck that it was smoked too long.
Here is a simple brine recipe from The Sporting Chef, Scott Leysath. It’s great to use on birds before smoking them.
This brine formula works for whole or halved waterfowl. For larger birds, allow extra time in the brine to penetrate the meat.
- 12–16 duck breast fillets, skin on or off
- Olive oil
- 3 quarts water
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup Italian seasoning
- 1/4 cup garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
- 4 bay leaves, crushed
- 1 1/2 quarts ice
Heat 1 quart of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Add kosher salt and the next six ingredients and stir until dissolved. Reduce temperature to low and simmer brine 15 to 20 minutes to blend flavors. Transfer brine to a large container, add remaining 2 quarts of water and allow to cool. Add ice.
Place duck breast fillets in brine and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. Rinse fillets with cold water, pat dry and rub with a thin coating of olive oil.
Place fillets in a 170-degree smoker for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until internal temperature reaches 135 degrees for medium-rare.
When you’ve spent any amount of time in the field you are bound to have banner days that will always be remembered. One of those for me happened to be a spring hunt for snow geese. The geese are literally eating themselves out of house and home. Their breeding grounds up north can’t support the populations, which has brought about the conservation order. Our group, which included an editor of Sportsman’s News, met in the northeast corner of Colorado to see if we could shoot some northbound snow geese. We were fortunate enough to find the “X” in the two days we were there and shot over 150 geese.
After the fun ended, the real work began with processing that many birds. Thankfully there was as aspirational 17-year-old that hoped to go on the same hunt next year, who was handy with a knife and helped breast the birds out. The first problem had been solved, the geese had been breasted and vacuum packed until we could decide what to do with them all.
My wife was born and raised as a city girl, having never tasted wild game of any kind, I spent years wondering if she would like the taste of any wild game. Foolishly, I had never given her to opportunity to try it though. Some may cringe at the idea of snow geese being her first exposure to wild game, but the stars aligned and she was hooked. As talked about in the previous paragraph I had copious amounts of snow geese breasts and needed to do something with them. I did what many hunters do when faced with large amounts of meat – I made jerky. Following the simple instructions from the Hi Mountain Jerky package I bought, I was able to make some of the finest jerky I’ve ever tasted. The confirmation on just how good it was came from my citified wife and kids. The reason I tell that story is cooking waterfowl doesn’t have to be difficult or dreaded, it’s as simple or tough as you want to make it.
The last method, which I would bet is the most popular of cooking waterfowl is grilling. Let me paraphrase waterfowl cooking guru Hank Shaw, “Think of a duck breast as a steak wearing a hat made of bacon.” Keep the skin on to seal in that thin layer of fat and sear the skin to crispy perfection. When cleaning the duck, if the fat is off color, orange or yellow, be sure to clean it from the meat and dispose of it. The colored fat tends to hold more of the fowl taste.
The taste of the meat varies from species to species, with divers being some of the worst tasting. Leysath has another great recipe he uses for divers, but it can also easily be applied to any ducks.
- 8-12 diver duck breast half-fillets (depending on size of ducks)
- 1/3 c. olive oil
- 3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ tsp. kosher salt
1. Whisk together olive oil and remaining ingredients. Place duck breasts in a zipper-lock bag, pour half of marinade over, reserving the other half to serve with cooked breasts. Squeeze out air and refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Heat a well-lubricated grill to medium-hot. Remove duck from marinade, drain and place on grill. Cook until medium-rare on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
3. Allow meat to rest for a few minutes before serving. Arrange on plates and drizzle on remaining marinade.
Give these recipes a try and discover just how good waterfowl can be! Your mouth might just start to water the next time you decoy in some birds.