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How to Make Jerky from Your Upland Birds

In this guide, we establish some parameters, but ultimately what direction you take your upland bird jerky is up to you.

How to Make Jerky from Your Upland Birds

Jerky is a journey, not a destination. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Sure, you can settle on a gun dog breed for life—that is acceptable—but when it comes to upland bird jerky, you’re meant to tweak, refine, and experiment. However, there are some general best practices when making great-tasting jerky with your upland birds. 

What Upland Birds to Use for Jerky

The short answer is any upland bird. The basic method remains the same: You’re dehydrating game meat. Whereas you might cook a prairie chicken breast to 135 degrees Fahrenheit and a pheasant breast to 155, red-versus-white upland bird meat does make a difference here. All meat gets dehydrated, and therefore fully cooked. Yes, spices, butchering techniques, time to dehydrate—these aspects may vary, but we will cover these variables in each upcoming section.

Making Snack Sticks from Upland Birds

The Slim Jims of the jerky world, snack sticks, are a great option for ground upland game. Your brother-in-law that shot that rooster within 10 yards with a full choke and turned it to hamburger? Dice that ringneck and use it for snack sticks.

Cuts of meat such as thighs, wings, and legs can be difficult to butcher into strips for whole-muscle jerky, but when deboned and put through a grinder, this meat works perfectly for snack sticks. Yes, you can also include breast meat in the grind. If you’ve saved the giblets, throw them in too!

cutting upland bird meat on a cutting board with a knife
Pro tip: It’s easier to debone a bird when it’s partially frozen. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Wild birds are lean, so you may wish to include upwards of 20 percent pork fat in your grind for snack sticks. Pork fat, basically speaking, has very little flavor, but will create a juicier final product. If you plan to include pork fat in your grind, simply treat it like it’s sausage when grinding and mixing. Grind your meat when partially frozen and mix when it’s very cold. You want protein extraction to occur, which has trouble happening above 34 degrees. If protein extraction doesn’t occur—if fat and protein molecules don’t properly bind—fat will leak and your snack sticks will shrink and become drier.

If you’re including pork in your snack sticks, like making sausage, you’ll also want to include 1/2 cup of ice-cold liquid per pound. This is where your creativity comes into play: Do you want sherry cooking wine, or perhaps a dark ale? Typically speaking, darker meat, like sharp-tailed grouse, accepts darker-colored liquids well, while your lighter-colored meats like pheasant or ruffed grouse will benefit from a white wine or a blonde ale. Yes, you can simply include ice water, but that’s kind of boring, right? 

Keep your grind very cold while mixing. When mixed correctly, you should be able to hold a golf-ball-sized bit of meat upside-down on your palm without it falling off. You can stuff this mix in collagen snack-stick casings using a sausage stuffer, or use a jerky gun, which is what I prefer—it’s easier and more enjoyable, I think. Plus, kids love it and can get involved in the jerky fun when using a gun

grinding upland bird meat for making snack sticks
You can also choose to include a binder like non-fat dry milk or carrot fiber, both of which help with the binding of proteins and fats while retaining moisture. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Whole-Muscle Jerky

The Original Jack Link’s of jerky, whole-muscle does not involve any sort of grinding. Instead, you cut whole muscles into pieces that are ideally a 1/4-inch or a bit thicker and one to two inches long—basically a little bigger than a pheasant tenderloin.

On the subject of tenderloins, that little strip of meat tucked behind the breast, you want to keep these whole and dehydrate them as their own piece. To butcher an upland bird for other pieces, as mentioned earlier, technically you could use thighs, but breast meat is your best option here. Depending on the bird you’re using and its size, this may require getting creative. Quail, for example, are smaller, but you could butcher out their breasts and butterfly for a whole-muscle piece of jerky. For the thicker portion of a pheasant breast, you may even consider using a meat mallet and lightly pound out the meat until it’s approximately a 1/4-inch thick. 

Curing Upland Bird Jerky

Yes, you can cure with salt, but that requires a good deal of time. A lot of jerky recipes include what is called “insta cure” or “pink curing salt” for purposes of preservation. It also fixes the color of the meat, meaning it’ll stay pink-ish, and it adds that “cured” flavor (think pepperoni or bacon). Curing meat also prevents botulism (a form of food poisoning). Insta cures are a mixture of salt and synthetic sodium nitrites (sometimes nitrates) and while large doses of nitrites are toxic to humans, such a small amount is used when curing so there is no adverse effect. Still, some folks prefer naturally occurring nitrites found in celery juice powder, or to not use a curing agent at all. For whatever you choose—insta cure or celery juice powder—make sure to follow the packaging’s directions for how much to use and for exactly how long to cure. 

General Curing Guidelines

GENERAL RATIOS: For insta cure #1, use 00.2 % per total amount of meat. Example: 1 pound (453 grams) would require .032 ounce (.9 grams) though most people apply a 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds. For 1 gallon of water, 1/2 cup of insta cure #1 is recommended. Celery juice powder calls for 00.45% to 00.9%, though I opt for 00.6% of total meat weight.

HOW LONG TO CURE: For making snack sticks with ground meat, 6-12 hours. For whole muscle slices, 24 hours. 

Whether to cure or not to cure, that decision is up to you. If you don’t cure, you lower the shelf life of your jerky significantly, limiting the expiration to a month at most in the fridge, obviously longer if frozen (upwards of 2-3 years). If you’re producing a small batch and are going to gobble it up with the next few days or week, curing might not be necessary.

In terms of that cured flavor, personally, sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. After I’ve made enough cured venison jerky, everything starts to taste like pepperoni to me and I want that “pure” wild-game jerky taste. I do recommend this: If curing is a topic of further interest or concern, do a bit of research before making your next batch of jerky.

Spices and Marinades for Upland Bird Jerky

This is your area to shine and show the world you’re a jerky savant. Yes, you can start with a pre-made jerky mix from LEM or Hi Mountain, or you can read their ingredients and use as a reference to make your own mix. Ingredients are listed in order of the amount used, so the first ingredient’s amount is the highest ratio. Remember this: Less is more oftentimes with jerky, so don’t overcomplicate it. And don’t oversalt your jerky. As a general rule, whether sausage or jerky, salt should never account for more than 1.8 percent (in weight) of your total meat.

Whether to use a dry rub or marinade, that is also up to you. Have fun experimenting. Don’t use water in your marinades. Use apple juice instead, as an example. Think about incorporating soy sauce or maybe some wine. Still, very peppery prairie grouse jerky might be something special, while you may wish to lean into garlic and ginger for chukar.

upland bird meat making snack sticks meat in bowl with spices
Remember dark ingredients work well with dark meats and vice versa, but that rule isn’t set in stone.(Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Below is a simple spice mix I like to use per pound of pheasant jerky:

  • 1/4 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

If using a dry rub, you’ll want to allow the meat to absorb the rub for at least 3 hours. For marinades, an overnight soak is best.

Smoking vs Dehydrating

Notice an oven isn’t mentioned here. Invest in at least a dehydrator—they aren’t expensive and produce a consistent quality final product. But if you like that smoky flavor in your jerky, you may wish to consider using a pellet grill or smoker. Don’t smoke over 160 degrees, is my best advice. I like to smoke my jerky for an hour at 160 then transfer to a dehydrator, which is far more consistent in terms of temperature regulation and can go lower, to 140, which is a better temp for finishing off upland jerky, in my opinion. (Again, experiment, feel welcome to prove me wrong.)

If smoking, keep in mind smoke adheres better to slightly moist meat or meat with some sort of sticky exterior. (This is the reason a lot of pitmasters spritz their smoking meat with a mix of apple juice and apple cider vinegar).

Some general times for smoking or dehydrating or both:

  • 3 hours on smoker at 160 degrees
  • 1 hour on dehydrator at 160 degrees, 2-1/2 to 3 hours at 140 for remainder
  • 1 hour on smoker at 160 degrees, 2-/12 to 3 hours at 140 on dehydrator

How to determine when it’s done is a matter of preference. Yes, you want it fully cooked/smoked/dehydrated, but some prefer their jerky to have the texture of leather, while others want a bit of tenderness to it. Test a piece using the above timelines. If you want it done further, give it another half hour, test again and repeat until satisfied.

Jerky Expiration Date

When cured and vacuum-sealed, jerky will last in a cool dry place for a month or two. In the refrigerator, it’ll last for several months, and then for two to three years in the freezer. Snack sticks, if using pork fat, will have a shorter shelf life of two to three weeks outside the fridge and three to six months in fridge. In the freezer, they will also stay good for two to three years.

If not cured, whether whole muscle or snack sticks, I’d recommend keeping in the fridge. Uncured whole muscle upland jerky may stay good for upwards of a couple months in the fridge, while snack sticks will likely expire after two to four weeks. If frozen, same as any other meat, your jerky will stay preserved for easily a couple years.Whenever in doubt, look for mold. If you see any mold, I’d recommend tossing. Also, trust your nose. If it smells off, it’s off. Don’t’ risk it.

upland bird meat snack sticks
Making jerky and snack sticks from your upland birds allows you to make the most of every bit of bird meat, with very little going to waste. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)
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