Smoked Pheasant

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Should you wet brine or dry brine before smoking? Here are recipes for both methods, plus smoking instructions.

By Jack Hennessy
 
Smoking a game bird requires adequate brining beforehand to avoid dehydrating the bird. But here’s the great debate: Should you wet brine or dry brine? 
 
Dry brining is a fairly new technique. Many top chefs herald it as the superior method. In one study documented on AmazingRibs.com, digital scales were used to weigh multiple brined meats. They determined that dry brining does, in fact, retain more moisture than wet brining. 
 
Still, I consider that a matter of opinion. So I recently performed my own tests (sans science), but before we get into the results, let’s briefly explore how brining works.
 
At molecular levels, salt binds water to muscle proteins. This process “denatures” muscle fibers; in short, they can then retain more moisture when cooking. The chemistry involved in brining means your birds end up tasting juicier, and, despite longer times cooking in heavy smoke, you don’t have to worry about dehydrating your fowl. 
 
BENEFITS OF DRY BRINE
 
Less ingredients, meaning you waste less. Example: One teaspoon of salt versus one-third of a cup. 
Less mess. 
Easier to achieve crisp skin since it is easier to keep skin dry.
Takes less time. You can adequately dry brine a 2-pound cut of meat after a couple hours, unless you plan on smoking that meat.
 
BENEFITS OF WET BRINE
 
More flavor options. See this post for more details.
Tried and true and trusted by Grandma for decades
 
MY OWN RESULTS 
 
I smoked two pheasants according to the method below. Both tasted just as juicy to me, though my wife contended the dry-brined pheasant was juicier. “Dry brine all day” were her exact words. The wet brined bird’s skin was actually crispier. I was afraid I would wipe off spices on dry-brined bird, so I never patted it down with napkin (like I did with wet-brined bird). The flavors of ginger and garlic from wet brine got lost amid the smoky flavor, so I considered those ingredients moot. However, the skin of the dry-brined pheasant rippled with flavor.
 
Conclusion? Dry brine is a great way to go when smoking your birds -- for benefits listed above, and because the moisture retained is certainly comparable to wet-brined birds. But give wet brining a try to, and decide for yourself! 
 

BRINE 

Makes 4 Servings
2 whole skin-on pheasants, approximately 2 pounds each
1 gallon pecan wood chips
 
Wet Brine Ingredients
8 cups cold water
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup white sugar
1 ounce black peppercorns
1/2 bulb fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
6 ounces fresh ginger, smashed
 
Dry Brine Ingredients
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
 

METHOD

BRINE
 
For wet brine, add sugar and salt to water. Stir until dissolved. Add peeled, smashed garlic cloves and smashed ginger, along with peppercorns. Completely submerge one pheasant in brine and soak overnight, approximately 12 to 14 hours. Thoroughly rinse pheasant upon removal from brine and pat dry. Let sit in refrigerator, uncovered, for a couple hours to dry.
 
For dry brine, mix all spices and rub down pheasant inside and out with entire spice mix. Leave pheasant to sit in refrigerator overnight, minimum 12 hours, uncovered to dry. DO NOT rinse off dry brine. Lightly pat dry pheasant couple hours before smoking to make certain skin is dry. 
Dry skin for both birds is important for crisp skin. As well, smoke has harder time penetrating skin when it is wet.

Wet-brined pheasant ready for smoking (left), and dry brined (right).
SMOKE
 
Soak wood chips for half hour before smoking. If using a propane grill, bundle a couple packets of wood chips in aluminum foil. Poke holes for ventilation and place bundles between two heat deflectors under grill grate. For charcoal, start coals using a chimney starter and add coals to grill once partially gray. Do not place grate overtop. When coals are mostly gray, add a couple handfuls of wood chips. Make certain vents on charcoal grill are barely open on bottom (should be totally closed on lid). To avoid flare-ups with charcoal, mitigate oxygen properly. Always error on side of less oxygen flow. For both types of grills, once smoke starts billowing, place grate over top and cover. You are ready to smoke.
 
Spatchcock—cut out spine with kitchen shears—both birds and break rib cage to flatten completely. Place front-side down on grill. For a propane grill, you may wish to utilize an indirect heat method, meaning only the burners next to foil packets are turned on, while pheasant sit on other side, receiving smoke when grill is covered. For charcoal grill, I had no issue placing pheasant directly over coals. Again, mitigate oxygen properly and check often to make certain coals aren’t flaring up and skin isn’t burning. Temperatures for both grills should range between 200 and 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  
 
Smoke until internal temperatures reach 160 degrees. If smoke dwindles, which is what happened after an hour using charcoal, replace with wood chips with a fresh batch and continue until 160. Flip as necessary, every 20 minutes or so, to achieve an even coat of smoke on each side. Pheasant should reach 160 degrees after approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours of smoking.  
 
Once internal temperatures are right, remove birds and cover with aluminum foil. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Cut each bird as desired and serve.

End results: Wet brined and smoked bird (left), dry brined and smoked (right). Jack Hennessy is a freelance outdoors journalist based out of Minneapolis and the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.