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Why You Should Age Your Game Birds (And How to Do It the Right Way)

When done properly, aging birds can make them easier to process and taste better on the table.

Why You Should Age Your Game Birds (And How to Do It the Right Way)

Larger game birds like ring-necked pheasants can be aged for several days before processing. (Photo By: James Pearce/Shutterstock.com)

For such an elaborately plumaged bird, the flavor of pheasant can be underwhelming—I fully expect to receive grief from several of you for saying that. But let’s be real: A freshly-killed pheasant can be described as neither tough nor tender, and flavor-wise, there are more interesting game birds I’d rather eat. So, for a long time, I reached for boldly-flavored recipes whenever cooking pheasant because I thought it would make up for what I believed this game bird lacked. That is, until I learned about aging birds.

Several years ago, my friend Gerry brought up the subject of aging. He places pheasants on a shelf in his basement after he shoots them, and there they sit for at least a week, which he claims makes the meat taste irresistible. More shockingly, Gerry doesn’t gut the birds nor pull the feathers until afterward. His basement stays at a consistent 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year long, and he’s never had any issues with spoilage.

I was intrigued, but of course skeptical. My husband and I hang deer to age whenever we get the chance, but to let an undrawn pheasant lie was new territory. So, the following winter, I took the plunge and gave Gerry’s advice a try.


Experiment with Aging Your Birds

For my first try at aging a game bird, I chose a ring-necked pheasant that was in great shape, one that had few wounds and little bruising, because I wanted to pluck and cook it whole. Lacking a garage or basement at the time and no place to actually hang a bird, I set the pheasant inside an open cooler that we kept in the enclosed porch, away from direct sunlight. That old house was so poorly insulated that I knew it would be plenty cold—the temperature bounced somewhere near 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I let the bird age for six days, because I got too antsy to make it to the seventh.

Nearly a week later, the first thing I noticed was that on the outside, the pheasant didn’t smell bad at all, apart from all the normal avian aromas. Secondly, it had lost all trace of stiffness. Rigor mortis had gone, and the pheasant was as pliable as a grocery store chicken; I took that as a good sign.

To process the pheasant, the first task was to pluck it, which, up until that point, I had never been successful at. Yet with this aged bird, the feathers released much more easily, and I couldn't help but feel proud after I was done—it was beautiful. But the moment was fleeting, because I still had to gut the bird, which I dreaded most of all.

Plucked whole ring-necked pheasant rooster
The aging process slightly dries out and toughens the delicate skin of upland game birds, which makes them easier to pluck. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Will the slightest stab of my knife release a dangerous cloud of noxious gas? Will a sludge of decomposing feces and bowels come shooting out? Or perhaps a spontaneous swarm of flesh-eating beetles come to eat my face? I took comfort in the fact that the bird did not appear bloated. Cautiously, I proceeded, and thankfully, none of my imaginings came to pass: The guts did not smell nor look much worse than had I processed the bird shortly after its death. After a good wash in the sink, I beheld the most gorgeous, plucked pheasant. Even if it didn’t taste good, at least it looked fit for a king.

How Does Aging Birds Affect Taste?

I decided to brine the pheasant for about six hours, neatly trussed it and then roasted it in the oven with olive oil and butter. I made sure not to overcook the bird, and afterward, allowed it time to rest. Finally, the moment of truth: I cut off a sliver of breast meat and golden skin, and tasted the meat by itself—no sauce and no other seasonings except salt and pepper. 

My friend Gerry was right. It was the most delicious pheasant I had ever prepared. The meat tasted noticeably more delicate, and the time it had to age coaxed a savory dimension in flavor that you wouldn’t normally get with a freshly killed bird. Even the legs and thighs were palatable without slow cooking, which is what I normally do with them. I was convinced, and since then have tried to age all sorts of game birds.

Pheasant with carrots recipe
Whole roasted pheasant that was aged for one week. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

The Basics of Aging Game Birds

You can age just about any game bird, but results will vary. In addition to pheasant, I’ve had great luck with birds such as quail, chukar, grouse, and smaller ducks. I don’t normally age larger ducks and geese by this method; larger birds have less surface area and in addition to all those insulating feathers, heat can get trapped inside the body cavity which can lead to spoilage. I much prefer the flavor of aged duck over geese anyway. However, if you’d like to try aging larger waterfowl, leave the feathers on, but gut them before you hang to prevent them from going bad.

First, make sure you have a suitable space to age meat, away from pests and moisture. This could be a garage, basement, or better yet, a spare refrigerator. This space must remain cold with no drastic fluctuations in temperature: Always above freezing and never too warm. In my spare refrigerator, I set the temperature between 36-40 degrees Fahrenheit]. My friend Gerry ages his pheasants in a 50-degree basement with no trouble. Personally, I prefer the lower temperatures due to food safety, so you do what you’re comfortable with and at your own risk.

Separate birds into two groups when you get home: birds to slow cook and birds for everything else. There’s no need to age birds for slow cooking, so process them immediately or the next day; overly bruised birds are good candidates here. Those birds you do plan on aging, hang or lay them someplace cold and allow some space between each bird for air flow. It’s good practice to hang birds by the neck for aging, but I haven’t had issues with just laying them flat on a refrigerator shelf.

At a minimum, age birds until rigor mortis is gone, which could take 1-3 days. To develop more tenderness and flavor, age longer. With pheasants, one week seems to be the sweet spot, although I’ve aged bigger birds longer on occasion. Smaller birds such as quail and chukar, I age for about 3-5 days. Prairie grouse, I prefer only 3 days, just long enough to toughen up the skin so that I could easily pluck them. I usually let ducks go for 5-7 days. Experiment to see what you prefer.

Finally, process birds as you would normally. I only pluck whole and gut birds that are nearly pristine, with zero to minimal bruising in the breasts. The remaining birds, I skin and quarter. If you follow these directions, you likely won’t have any issues, but always err on the side of caution. Use your nose, because it doesn’t often lie. If you smell rot or don’t feel confident, it’s better to toss and try again. Don’t take the chance of getting sick. If all is well, cook birds soon after processing or package and freeze for later.

whole plucked ring-necked pheasant
Plucking is time consuming, so reserve this effort for game birds that aren’t too bruised and shot up. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

In many cases, aging game birds is a no brainer. We all know that feeling of staring at a pile of birds after a really long day of hunting. While you’re elated by the success, you dread the pressure of having to process every animal before allowing your head to hit the pillow. Well, aging is an excuse to put that off, and now you’ll end up with better-tasting game meat as a result.


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