Thighs are by far the best part of any chicken-like bird, pheasants included. Where the breast meat can get dry and sad in seconds, the thigh is forgiving. And where the drumstick is latticed with impenetrable sinews, the thigh has only one bone. And thighs are far more flavorful than the breast meat, no matter what bird we’re talking about.
All of this comes together when you barbecue your thighs. Pheasant thighs – minus the drumstick – make the best BBQ. And what exactly do I mean by barbecue? Slow and low, away from direct heat. Cooking meat directly over the coals is grilling.
If you have old, wild roosters – and even if you don’t – brining you thighs is a good idea. Soaking the meat in salt water helps keep it moist when you are cooking it. I use a simple brine of ¼ cup kosher salt dissolved in 1 quart of water. I’ll submerge the thighs in this (in the fridge) for at least 1 hour, and up to overnight. Four hours is ideal.
You can barbecue your pheasant (or chicken, or turkey, or grouse) thighs unadorned, but most of us like a bit of barbecue sauce added to the party. Any sort of BBQ sauce will do. My preference, especially with pheasants, is a mustard-based South Carolina style sauce.
Figure on at least two thighs per person, but four is better. Once people start chowing down on these morsels, they rarely stop. Grilled corn and a good potato salad is a nice accompaniment.
Serves 4, and can be scaled up.
- 8 to 16 pheasant thighs
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 1 quart water
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 white or yellow onion, minced or grated
- 1/2 cup yellow mustard (the kind you get at the ballpark)
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard (like Coleman’s)
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- Salt to taste
Dissolve the kosher salt in the water and submerge the pheasant thighs in it for 4 hours in the fridge.
Meanwhile, cook the grated onion in the butter until it’s soft but not browned. Add the remaining ingredients—yellow mustard, brown sugar, cider vinegar, dry mustard, cayenne, salt—mix well and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Get your grill ready with a hot side and a cold side. When the fire is hot, set the thighs, skin side up, on the cooler side of the grill at the edge of the hot side. Cover the grill and let the thighs cook for 20 minutes. Paint them with the BBQ sauce, recover the grill and cook another 20 minutes. Make sure the grill is no hotter than about 350°F, and no cooler than 250°F. Turn the thighs over and rearrange so the thighs that were farthest from the hot side of the grill are now closest. Paint with more BBQ sauce.
Cover the grill and cook another 20 minutes. Finally, turn them over and check the skin: If the skin is nice and crispy, and well painted with the BBQ sauce, you’re good. If not, sear the skin side directly over the coals until it’s crispy, then turn over, move back to the cooler side of the grill and paint with more sauce. Cover the gill and let the sauce set, about 5 minutes.
A member of both Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, Hank Shaw is a hunter, cookbook author and award-winning writer. His website is Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (www.honest-food.net). He lives near Sacramento, CA.