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Why You Should Marinate Upland Game Birds

Game birds are great candidates for marinades, as they're the perfect size for these concoctions of fat, acid, and flavor to make a big impact on taste.

Why You Should Marinate Upland Game Birds

Marinades are best used on thinner cuts, breasts, thighs, and legs of most game birds. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Marinating is an easy way to tenderize, add moisture, and enhance the flavor of wild game meat. Acids, such as vinegar, wine, citrus, and yogurt help break down muscles and connective tissue. Salt, if you use any, can make a marinade mimic a brine, infusing not only flavor but also moisture into meat through the process of osmosis. Finally, the addition of fat, usually oil, helps herbs and spices adhere to the surface of meat. 

Primary Considerations

There are people who will marinate a piece of meat for days, thinking that it’ll turn into a superbly tender and flavorful cut of meat. In reality, they’re doing more harm than good. Here’s why: Flavor and acid can only penetrate so far past the surface of meat, usually a tiny fraction of an inch, even after long periods of time. First and foremost, remember that marinating is a surface treatment, and the longer a piece of meat sits in an acidic solution, the mushier the outside will get. Therefore, marinades are best used on thinner cuts, and the breasts, thighs, and legs of most game birds.

Secondly, marinating isn’t appropriate in all situations. Consider the animal, cut of meat, and desired end result. If a good sear and color is your main objective, remember that a wet marinade will impede the meat’s ability to caramelize and form a crust. If, in your gut, you know those legs from an old Canada goose would be better off in a crockpot, don’t try to force a marinade on it. And the old adage about a good piece of steak holds true for all great meats: Sometimes, all you really need is salt and pepper—I’d never marinate a deliciously tender, fatty duck breast. 

In a nutshell, marinades are best used on meat that is passably tender but could benefit from some improvement. Here are some ways a marinade can be useful: transforming pheasant breasts (that can dry out easily) into savory, juicy kebabs for the grill; helping to soften the flavor of stronger-tasting waterfowl; tenderizing game bird breasts that are typically considered chewier, such as those on Canada geese; a quick way to impart a punch of aromatics and flavor to whole BBQed quail, or even doves.

One last thought to consider: If you want to marinate a whole bird, spatchcock it first. It takes a lot less marinade to evenly coat a flattened bird than an awkwardly cylindrical-shaped one. And because spatchcocked birds have more surface area, a marinade will be able to work its magic in all directions. 

The Basics of Marinating

The basic equation for making your own marinade is one part acid to two parts fat, plus whatever herbs and spices you’d like to add. Some might prefer one part acid to three parts fat for less acidity. Dairy-based and other enzymatic marinades are the exception. Yogurt or buttermilk act as both acid and fat. Fruits such as kiwi, green papaya, pineapple, and Asian pears contain enzymes that help break down meat. 

There’s no hard and fast rule on which marinade you should use on a particular species of game bird. I know hunters who use Italian dressing on just about everything, and they like it just fine—which leads me to mention that most salad dressings can be used as a marinade. They contain the three basic elements: fat, acid, and spices. Personally, I don’t recommend this route, not unless you’re in a pinch. Most shelf-stable, store-bought vinaigrettes are too acidic, and you’d have to doctor them up to make up for the lack of flavor anyway. 

So, how long should you marinate game birds? On the high end, no longer than overnight. On the low end, that depends. I take into consideration the species, its size and the cut—also, whether I’m pressed for time. At the very least, marinate game birds 30 minutes prior to cooking them, and overall, I find that three hours is a comfortable amount of time to start from.  

The following marinade pairings are only suggestions. Mix and match to see what you like best. 

Marinades for Dark Meat 

Stronger-tasting game birds such as ducks, geese, doves, and several species of grouse benefit from sweeter marinades, which helps to balance the minerally flavor found in their dark meats. For example, some hunters might describe waterfowl as tasting “bloody” or doves as slightly “livery.” Fruit flavors complement these darker-meat birds well. 

I love the addition of fruit preserves in a marinade, which not only adds concentrated fruit flavor but also much-needed sweetness to help balance the pungent flavor of vinegar. A jammy, dark red wine is another pick, which adds subtle fruitiness, plus enough acidity that you won’t need to add another source of acid. Quality balsamic vinegar is another favorite; its acidity is much more delicate than other vinegars, and the dark notes of prune and molasses add a different dimension to meats.  

balsamic-rosemary marinated grouse poppers with dates recipe
Balsamic vinegar is less acidic and sweeter than other vinegars, imparting subtle and pleasant notes of dried fruit and molasses to marinades. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Go to Balsamic-Rosemary Marinated Grouse Poppers & Dates Recipe!

Apricot-Curry Marinated Kebab Recipe
This apricot preserves and curry marinade is excellent on all red meats, from venison to waterfowl. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Go to Apricot-Curry Marinated Kebab Recipe!


Marinades for Light Meat

When flavoring lighter-meat game birds, you can go bold or delicate. I especially enjoy combinations full of fresh herbs and spices, but I might also reach for more pungent ingredients in certain dishes, especially in Asian recipes. Any marinade that works with chicken will work with light meat game birds such as pheasant, quail, and ruffed grouse. 

Yogurt-based marinades are one of my favorites. The lightly acidic mixture tenderizes meat through an enzymatic process, without imparting too much sourness. 

Rosemary and Orange Roasted Quail Recipe
This Rosemary and Orange Roasted Quail Recipe is very much a finger food and it's impossible to eat whole quail without using your hands, so keep plenty of napkins on hand. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Go to Rosemary and Orange Roasted Quail Recipe!

BBQ and marinara marinated pheasant pizza recipe
A simple mixture of BBQ sauce and marinara is an easy way to season pheasant breasts for grilling. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Go to BBQ-Marinara Marinated Pheasant Pizza Recipe!

Marinades that Work for Both

Jamaican jerk seasoning and chimichurri are two marinades that will work for a variety of game meat. I’ve used them to season everything from venison to squirrel. Both marinades include a bold combination of herbs and spices that darker meats won’t overpower, and lighter meats will readily accept. 

balsamic-rosemary marinated grouse poppers with dates recipe
A South American marinade, chimichurri is delicious with virtually all meats. (Photo By: Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Go to Chimichurri Marinade Recipe!


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