Plucking pheasant and quail isn’t hard, but it requires patience. The reason is because unlike a duck or goose, a pheasant has relatively thin skin – skin that will tear very easily if you rush.
There are two methods: Dry plucking and wet plucking. Dry plucking is what you think it is – you just start plucking feathers off the bird. I will dry pluck when I only have a bird or two because it results in a better-looking bird. But if you have a pile of pheasants or quail, wet-plucking works well and is a lot faster.
Wet plucking basically means scalding the bird before plucking. To do this, you need to get a large pot of water and get it steaming, but not boiling. Shoot for 140°F to 150°F.
Do one bird at a time. The scalding process only works when the feathers and skin are warm. Once they grow cold you will have a soggy mess.
Once you have the water hot enough, pluck the pheasant’s long tail feathers out, one by one. Then grab the pheasant by the head or feet and plunge it into the water. Hold it under for 30 seconds. Lift it out and let it drain until the water stops coming off in a stream. Repeat this two more times. This means you have dunked the pheasant for a total of 90 seconds. Do the same for quail.
Pluck the bird while it is still warm. Start with the wings. Next pluck the large feathers along the outer edges of the breast – carefully, as they can tear the skin easily. Then work on the flank feathers on the bird’s thigh, then go to the neck and finish with the back and the rest of the legs. Don’t rush, but work quickly with no interruptions. Go feather by feather if need be, especially around the breast – you want it to look pretty and not torn.
Remember there are two kinds of feathers on a pheasant, quill-type feathers with a stiff core, and wispy under-feathers. The under-feathers pluck very easily, while the quill feathers are guaranteed to rip the skin if you pluck incorrectly.
To pluck quill feathers correctly, hold the skin down with your off hand and with your working hand, in one motion, yank each feather out first the way it is attached, then the opposite way in a kind of arc. It is VERY important to do only one or two feathers at a time when you get to these feathers, which are on the neck, each side of the breast, and the flanks of the bird.
When you have shot holes, anchor the skin down with the fingers of one hand, and pluck one feather at a time with the other. It’s the only way to get them off without tearing the skin.
When you are finished, gut the pheasant and wash it well. Dry the bird with a paper towel thoroughly, stuff a clean paper towel in the cavity and then set him on another paper towel in a lidded container in the fridge for 2 to 7 days. Pheasants age well this way.
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.