By Hank Shaw
The season for preserve hunting and dog training hunts is just about over, and many of us find ourselves with a freezer full of pen-raised pheasants, chukars and quail – and in many states this is the only sort of bird available to upland hunters.
You should know that these birds are to wild roosters what flag football players are to tackle football players: softer, smaller, blander. But all is not lost. Pen-raised birds actually have some advantages over Johnny Ringneck in the kitchen.
First off, there are gradations of pen birds. The closest to wild are those birds that are raised in captivity until say, summer, and then let loose on the hunting grounds at the beginning of autumn. This sort of bird is very close to a wild one, as it will typically have to have fended for itself for at least a month or so before you ever see it. The weak ones die quick.
More common are the put-and-take birds you see at most preserves. These birds live in captivity their whole lives, until they are released on hunt day. Few survive more than a few days in the wild.
When you have these birds in hand, the first thing you will notice is they tend to be smaller and much fatter than wild roosters. Their bones will be very soft in comparison, too. After all, it doesn’t take a lot of physical effort to live in a pen.
In the kitchen this means a pen-raised pheasant, quail or partridge will be much closer to the kind you buy in the store; in fact, many preserves also sell to markets so it may well be the same bird. The net effect is that a pen-raised pheasant will cook faster – sometimes three times faster – than a venerable old rooster. The meat will also be softer, less dense and less filling. As a bird lives life in the wild, it gets strong and the meat grows denser. This is not the same thing as toughness, although the sinews in a wild bird do indeed get mighty tough.
Speaking of sinew, the drumsticks of a put-and-take pheasant can often be eaten like those of a chicken, something you would never, ever do on a wild bird. Wild pheasant legs need to be braised slowly -- then you pull the meat off all those tendons. Pen-raised drumsticks are more versatile.
Fat is a great benefit to pen birds, too. They all eat grain, and that yellow fat, which can sometimes be thicker than that of a store-bought chicken, is gold: Cut it into small pieces and put it in a frying pan with a little water and render it out. Strain the golden fat and keep it in the fridge to cook all your upland game birds with. You will absolutely thank me for this later if you try it.
The one major drawback, culinary-ily speaking, of pen-raised birds is flavor. Pen pheasants and quail are always less flavorful than wild ones. It’s a function of their lives, which were also less interesting. Fed a steady diet of grains over a few months, pen-raised birds are nice, but nowhere near as wonderful as a wild rooster that might be several years old, who had eaten a varied diet of grain, greens and bugs and had lived an athlete’s life. But each kind of bird has its place in the kitchen.
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.
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