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What is the Best Tasting Game Bird?

Looking at the flavor profiles of our favorite upland birds and waterfowl along with how to properly prepare them.

What is the Best Tasting Game Bird?

The best tasting game bird is the one that you personally enjoy cooking and eating most. And that’s going to be different for everyone. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

As a new hunter, you have enough to think about: from hunter education, firearm safety, proper gear, to actually pulling the trigger and making a clean shot. You might feel that all that hard work would go to waste if you screw up the cooking. Although shooting birds is often the crescendo of most hunting experiences, it’s the meal that truly ties the entire process together. Unfortunately, hunter education doesn’t teach you the difference between cooking an old pheasant rooster and a broiler.  

Here’s a breakdown of what common game birds taste like and how to handle them in the kitchen. 


Light and Mild: Pheasant

Ring-necked pheasant is the ubiquitous game bird. Even if you don’t live in an area where wild pheasants exist, there is likely put-and-take hunting somewhere in your state. Pheasant is known for its light-colored breast meat—much like chicken—and its mild flavor is ideal for introducing new and non-hunters to wild game. Still, pheasants are easy to overcook. One complaint I hear often is that pheasant meat can be dry and tough. 

Pheasant breasts battered and fried with honey biscuit and pickle sandwiches
Battered and fried pheasant breasts in honey biscuit sandwiches with coleslaw and pickles. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

If you’re new to cooking pheasant, cook the breasts and legs (and thighs) separately. Pheasant breasts are easy enough to handle: grill, pan sear, fry, or poach breasts until the internal temperature reaches 155° to 160° for juicy meat—a little pink is okay. You can season pheasant breasts just as you do chicken. Battered and deep fried, as a topping on pizza, pheasant with homemade mushrooms and cream sauce, over a salad, in a sandwich or lettuce wrap, over pasta and alfredo sauce—the possibilities are limitless. 

Pheasant legs and thighs, however, should be handled differently. If you shoot a young bird, they might be fine marinated and thrown on the grill. If you shoot an older bird, the legs and thighs would be better for making stock or slow cooked in a soup or stew. A few of my favorite pheasant leg recipes include pheasant tortilla soup, coq au vin, pheasant and wild rice soup, pheasant and noodles, etc. Remember to remove those annoying pin bones in the legs before serving. 

The author's Pheasant Tortilla Soup Recipe

Pheasant tortilla soup
Pheasant tortilla soup made with an old rooster. Simmer breasts, thighs and legs until tender. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

The In-Between: Quail

Quail is high on my list of favorite game birds because it offers the best of both worlds. Its flavor is a nice balance between light and dark meat, and in my experience, cooking quail is more forgiving than pheasant. If I accidentally leave quail in the pan or on the grill a little too long, its natural tenderness allows a little buffer. Still, I generally shoot for about 155° internal temperature in the thigh area. 

Unlike pheasant, quail are fairly uniform in texture, so you can cook the whole bird the same way. If you can manage it, plucked whole quail is the best. That little bit of fat in the skin offers great flavor and helps to lock in juices. You can do just about anything with quail: marinated and roasted, spatchcocked and grilled, smoked, deep fried whole, etc.

GreekGrilledQuail
Whole plucked quail marinated in Greek seasonings and grilled. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Dark Meat: Waterfowl, Grouse, and Dove

With wild birds, generally, the darker the meat looks, the stronger it will taste. Some people call this strong flavor “gamey,” and it’s not always well-received. Here’s my advice: If you try something and don’t like it, try not to write it off so quickly. Speaking from my own experience, an appreciation for the intensity of stronger-tasting game can be acquired. Field care and cooking technique also help.

When I first started hunting, I couldn’t stand the taste of waterfowl. I didn’t realize at the time how important field care and storage was to the final flavor of meat and that some meats are more sensitive than others. For one reason or another, waterfowl, prairie grouse, and dove seem to go “off” easier than lighter meat birds, such as pheasant and quail. Cool down these dark-meat birds as soon as possible, especially waterfowl, with their thick, insulating feathers that hold onto heat. Just as importantly, store the meat properly if you don’t plan on eating it right away. Vacuum sealed and frozen is best. 

Once I learned how to take care of these birds in the field and at home, figuring out how to cook them was fairly simple: Eat them pink—medium to medium-rare. Overcooked, these birds will taste and smell like liver. Shoot for an internal temperature of 145° for optimal texture and juiciness, although some might like it rarer. If you want to roast a whole bird, take advantage of a probe thermometer. 

I enjoy ducks, geese, and grouse breasts and legs skin on, and simply pan-seared with salt and pepper, although I’ll occasionally roast whole birds. These gamey birds taste great served with a fruit-based sauce—the sweetness and acidity of fruit helps to balance the minerality of the meat: deglaze the pan with a splash of balsamic vinegar or wine, stir in a dollop of fruit preserves, and then a pat of butter. Also, keep in mind that not all waterfowl and grouse species are created equal; flavor will differ across different species and regions. As you gain experience, you will have a better idea of which species you like to eat and those that you might pass on shooting. 

dove poppers
Dove poppers are always a crowd pleaser. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Doves are amazing off the grill, breasted, or plucked whole. Last season, I tried coating whole, plucked birds in cornmeal and deep frying them with a dusting of curry powder to finish. They were wonderful. 

Finally, for stronger-tasting game birds, I make soup, stew, or chili. Simmer them until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. The long cooking time in liquid seems to help tame strong flavors. 


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