how should game birds be cooked

When Should You Break Down Upland Birds?

How the bird was shot may also have an impact on when to break down vs leave your birds whole. You do not want to roast a bird that resembles a hamburger rather than a bird. The choice may also depend on how you want to prepare the bird. When cooking a wild bird in its entirety, you want the heat to circulate evenly throughout the bird. Roasting racks are made to enable heat to circulate around the bird in all directions while it is cooking. If the heat isn’t coming in at a steady, even temperature, you might want to think about breaking the bird down, even for smaller birds.

For instance, a few years ago, I went fishing and hunting in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with Lukas Leaf, the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and chef of wild game. After our group shot a few ruffed grouse, Lukas and I intended to skin and bone them, then cook them in a big cast-iron skillet with some lobster mushrooms Lukas had foraged. We discovered that the legs remained underdone and chewy even after the breasts had been cooked to a perfect, juicy texture. After switching to indirect heat and adding a few pats of butter, we cooked them for at least 30 more minutes. Because there was no cover and the birds were cooking on the skillet’s surface, we were lacking that steady, even heat flow that surrounded the entire pan.

Why Break Down Upland Birds?

Compared to their domestic cousins that are wrapped in plastic at your neighborhood grocer, wild birds are thinner. Furthermore, because they have to work harder to elude predators and obtain food, their leg and wing muscles have developed and become tougher. To produce tender bites, these more labor-intensive cuts—which apply to ALL wild game, not just birds—typically call for low-temperature cooking techniques.

Smaller birds like quail can indeed be cooked whole. If done correctly, even a small, younger pheasant can be roasted whole; however, larger or older birds will benefit more from breaking them down and cooking the individual parts.

I would contend that there is never a situation in which you should cook a wild turkey whole. The ideal internal temperature for the breasts of light-meat birds is 160 degrees Fahrenheit, while the legs should ideally be closer to 180 degrees. Smaller birds, such as quail, can find the ideal medium temperature because their legs can reach almost 180 degrees Fahrenheit, while their breasts are around 165 degrees. On the other hand. An older rooster or any other tough, larger bird’s legs, wings, and thighs will harden at 160 degrees Fahrenheit and, after a few hours of low cooking (ideally some kind of braise), will finally yield

Because mass determines everything, the amount of time it takes for heat to enter meat varies greatly depending on the cut. For the same reason, even at low roasting temperatures (wild turkey kebabs are amazing), I also advise butterflying or chopping up large tom breasts because the outer layers of meat will be overdone by the time the center of the breast reaches 160 F. Additionally, methods like tenderizing game birds must be used.

The ideal leg temperature for dark meat birds, such as sharp-tailed grouse, is still between 170 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. However, you shouldn’t cook the breasts past medium-rare (135 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of this, breaking down these birds before cooking them also helps.

How, when, and why to break down upland game birds for cooking, along with instructions on spatchcocking smaller birds

I attempted to roast the first wild turkey I shot whole in the oven, making it taste a lot like Thanksgiving. Truth be told, I don’t even think I brined it. It turned out terrible. Reluctant to fully subscribe to the definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different outcomes, I attempted cooking a whole wild turkey again the following year, but this time I cooked it over a charcoal grill. Aside from the breasts, it also was not edible.

I had ten years of professional experience in the kitchen industry and knew how to cook, so what was I doing wrong? I made the mistake of thinking these wild birds were domestic.


How do you cook game birds?

Break down the pheasant or other gamebird into pieces (two breast pieces, two thighs and two lower legs) for grilling, marinate in your favorite sauce or mix (try Walton’s Butter Garlic Marinade), let the meat sit for a couple of hours, season with a spice blend or sauce, and grill to perfection.

What degree of doneness is best suited for game birds?

For light-meat birds, 160 degrees Fahrenheit is the target internal temp for breasts, while legs will benefit from reaching closer to 180 F. Quail and other birds up to the size of a small pheasant can find that perfect medium as those smaller legs will reach near 180 F while breasts sit around 165 F.

Why are most game birds better if not cooked until well done?

Because farm-raised game birds are usually young and tender, they can be roasted, sautéed, grilled, and barbecued. The most important thing to remember about them is they are usually very lean. Therefore, they are best served slightly rare. If cooked to well done, they become dry.

What can you do to prevent game birds from becoming dry while cooking?

Older or skinned birds may become dry during baking. You may want to wrap the birds with bacon to prevent them from drying out. Remove stuffing from the bird prior to storage, because stuffing is a good growth medium for microorganisms. Use leftovers within one or two days, or freeze for later use.