Some Key Do’s and Don’ts When Your Birds Meet Smoke and Fire

By Hank Shaw
Everyone loves barbecued chicken, so pheasant hunters naturally think that the “ditch chickens” they bring home from the prairie will work just fine on the grill. Um… not really. Being wild birds, pheasants are denser and tougher than the typical yardbird you buy at the megamart. But that doesn’t mean you can’t cook them outdoors. Here are five tips and tricks for cooking pheasants – and quail – on the grill.
Beer is Your Friend Beer: Not just for breakfast – or drinking – anymore. The classic beer can chicken, where you shove a can of Grain Belt or some other cheap beer up the hind end of a chicken, then cook it over indirect heat on a covered grill, works just as well with whole pheasants – especially pen-raised birds from a preserve. You do need to have whole, plucked pheasants for this to work, however, as a skinless bird will dry out too fast
You’ll also need a narrower can, too. I use a narrow glass jelly jar, or a Red Bull can. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine with glass if you keep the heat on the other side of the grill and away from the bird. Oh, and as for the beer itself, drink it and fill the can or jar half full with water. You don’t get any extra flavor from the beer, just some added moisture.
A Thigh is Not a Leg Barbecued wild turkey thighs are a beautiful thing. Ditto for pheasant thighs. But as most of us know, the drumsticks of both birds are riddled with iron-like tendons and sinew, making them nearly impossible to eat the way you would a chicken drumstick. Pheasant and wild turkey drumsticks are best slow-cooked and pulled free from all those tendons. Pheasant carnitas, anyone?
But the thighs? Oh, man. So good. Only that one bone, and the meat is naturally fattier and easier to cook than either the drumsticks or breasts. Thighs are my favorite part of the bird, and they’re tailor made for barbecue, slow and low. Brine, then paint with your favorite BBQ sauce and let the magic happen. Take your time and you will be rewarded.
Quail are Quail The good news if you are a quail hunter is that quail are quail. Anything you can do with a store-bought quail you can do with a wild one. Store-bought quail do tend to be smaller and softer than wild ones, but the slightly larger size and firmness (note that I did not say “toughness”) of wild quail actually puts them in the sweet spot for both grilling and slower barbecuing. In fact, grilling or barbecuing quail is my favorite way to serve them.
My advice is to pluck your birds whole and cut out the backbones to flatten them. If you want to go the extra mile, snip out the ribs, too. Brine if you want, but often quail don’t even need it. If you grill, do most of the cooking with the breasts of the birds facing up. This will cook them without overcooking the breast meat, which is the majority of the meat on a quail. And don’t forget those little legs! So good.
Breasts Like it Hot Most of us have bags of skinless pheasant breasts lying around. One of the best ways to cook them is on the grill, but it can be a bit tricky. First, always brine pheasant breasts for a few hours. Second, let them come to room temperature before you slap them on the grill: This helps the meat cook faster so the outside doesn’t char while you wait for the center to reach 150°F or so, which is medium-well. Third, have a hot fire going when you grill pheasant breasts. Speed and high heat are good things in this case. If your fire is right, pheasant breasts will cook perfectly at about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Let them rest a couple minutes before serving and you’re good to go.
A member of both Pheasants and Quail Forever, Hank Shaw is a hunter, cookbook author and award-winning writer. His website is Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. He lives near Sacramento, CA.
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