Tenderizing Tough, Frozen Thighs: Pheasant Tinga

028209f6-d9d6-4744-92dd-6208bbc9b8ba If I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times: thigh meat was meant for tacos (or in this case, tostadas). However, because thighs and wings are the hardest-working muscles on a bird, they are of course the tougher cuts and require longer cooking times on low heat in order to maximize their flavor and texture.
 
It is no secret that some hunters simply toss the thighs when dressing their birds—maybe because on smaller upland birds, those tendons that cook into toothpicks are just too much to deal with. Or maybe it’s because, when not cooked properly, thighs end up tasting “chewy.” I’ll admit: thighs are not the first cut I reach for when pulling proteins from the freezer. Still, there are many great recipes available for just for thighs, as well as techniques every bird hunter can employ to get the most out of thighs each season.    
 

Tips for Preparing Thighs for Storage:

  • If possible, try removing a few tendons from legs by snapping foot off below the spur and removing it from rest of leg. I made a video last winter for reference.
  • Brining wild proteins in salt water for a few hours is a great way to remove residual blood from any crevices or potential holes left behind from pellets.
  • Before freezing, make an effort to thoroughly remove any feathers or hairs and rinse. If brined, make certain to thoroughly rinse off brine before freezing.
  • Air and moisture are the enemy when freezing. Freezer burn occurs when ice crystals form from stagnant air and moisture and adhere to the protein, eventually dehydrating the meat.
  • Vacuum sealers work wonders, but if you don’t own one, make certain thighs are dry, then wrap tightly in layers—first in plastic wrap, followed by Aluminum foil.
  • Make sure to label the date your thighs entered the freezer. Frozen meat is best enjoyed a year or sooner after it has been stored.
 

Tips for Thawing and Tenderizing Frozen Thighs

  • Place frozen thighs in a large bowl of cold water. Either continuously run cold water over thighs or replace water every half hour to avoid bacteria growth.
  • Acidic liquids are the key to countering any adverse textures acquired from sitting in the freezer for months. Marinades, buttermilk, tomatoes, peppers, etc. all naturally contain acids.
  • When grilling or roasting thighs, soaking them in your favorite marinade for a few hours beforehand is a great way to both tenderize the exterior and imbue with flavor.
  • Should you wish to fry your legs, letting them sit in buttermilk a couple hours beforehand will also tenderize the exterior. Once you throw thighs through a flour dredge, the fat in buttermilk will help the dredge stick to your thighs and create an even coat. 
  • Braising is perhaps my personal favorite way to turn tough cuts into succulent bites. The logic is pretty simple: sear the exterior, then cook on low for hours in fats and maybe other liquids in order to break down tough muscle fibers. Crock Pots work fantastic for this and are an easy “hands off” approach to cooking.
 
The following recipe is quite simple and employs the braising technique. I used a local, award-winning chipotle salsa, “Machismo” by “Double Take Salsa,” which lives up to its promise of flavor first, spice second. Their salsa selection is available in select Minnesota stores and online but if you are unable to locate, your current favorite salsa or another chipotle salsa will work just as well. The natural acids found in tomatoes and peppers serve to create both amazing flavor and tender shredded pheasant when cooked on low for hours.
 
Makes two servings.
  • 2 pheasant thighs, approximately 6 to 8 ounces each
  • Light dusting of salt and pepper over legs
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup Double Take Machismo chipotle salsa
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced and caramelized
  • 6 tostadas
  • Freshly minced cilantro for garnish (optional)
 
Sweet Cinnamon Mexican Crema:
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
 
Method
 
Please note: Should you leave the skin on your thighs, while the extra fat may add flavor, that skin will eventually turn to gelatin after hours in the Crock Pot, potentially contributing an unwanted texture to your shredded pheasant mix. My recommendation if wishing to use skin: remove it from thighs after 1 hour in Crock Pot.
 
Heat barbecue grill until coals are red and flaming or propane is set to medium heat. Lightly salt and pepper thighs and sear all sides on grill. Place thighs in Crock Pot on low setting with 3/4 cup chicken stock and 1 cup chipotle salsa. Set timer for 4 hours. Finely dice onion and cook in butter on low for approximately 45 minutes to caramelize onion, then add to Crock Pot. Check pot every hour and shred meat from bones with two forks and remove tendons whenever possible.
 
Mix crema ingredients in a bowl. Once pheasant thighs have cooked for 4 hours and meat is shredded, remove all remaining bones and tendons in pot. Spread a layer of meat across each tostada and drizzle or dollop crema overtop, followed by freshly minced cilantro. Enjoy!
 
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.