Low, Slow, and Tender: How to Grill Game Birds

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Holly A. Heyser


It's hot. I don't feel like cooking outside much. And I have lots of wild game in the freezer still. What to do? BBQ! I've been doing a lot of grilling and barbecue over at Simply Recipes with Elise, and nearly everything I do there with domestic meats translates well with wild game.

Actually, the first grilling experiment I did with her this summer was a wild game trick I modified to work with a domestic turkey. One of my favorite ways to cook pheasant is slow and low on the grill, using indirect heat to coax the often sinewy legs into tenderness; you can do this with wild turkey legs, too. For flavor, you paint the legs with a barbecue sauce toward the end of the cooking time.

Here's how to do it:

    • Brine the legs with a solution of a quarter cup kosher salt to four cups water, plus a couple seasonings (I use bay leaves and cracked black pepper a lot). Don't go nuts on the seasonings because you are going to use a barbecue sauce later. Brine the meat for up to 12 hours.

    • Build a wood or charcoal fire on just half your grill area, or turn on just one burner on a gas grill. Let the coals or wood burn down to a steady heat, then put the pheasant or turkey on the cooler side of the grill. Cover and let this cook slowly for at least 30 minutes before checking.

    • After 35 minutes, turn the legs and move them around so they cook evenly. You will probably need an hour to 90 minutes for pheasant legs, up to two and a half hours for wild turkey legs. Remember, slower is better.

    • When one hour has elapsed, paint the legs with your favorite barbecue sauce and continue cooking. Let them cook for five to 10 minutes before painting again.

    • Once the pheasant is done, paint it one more time with the sauce and move it to the hot side of the grill to get a little char. Don't walk away at this point, because the sugar in the sauce can blacken in a hurry; a little black is okay, but you don't want a wild turkey briquette.

The result is fantastic: wild game bird legs will always be denser and more flavorful than domestic meats, and this slow-and-low technique helps retain moisture and break down the considerable connective tissue in wild turkeys and pheasants.

You can use any barbecue sauce you want, but here are three I developed for Simply Recipes:

    • South Carolina-style barbecue, which is mustard-based
    • A rich and tomato-y Kansas City-style barbecue sauce
    • My own bourbon-based barbecue sauce

Elise and I also played around with a beer can chicken recipe, and it was so good I knew I had to try to make beer can pheasant, using my last remaining whole pheasant.

If you've never eaten beer can chicken before, you are missing out. It may be the second greatest thing the NASCAR crowd has brought to American cooking, behind true barbecue itself. Done right, you get a crispy skin, meltingly tender breast meat, and the legs and thigh meat practically falls off the bone. It's the perfect chicken. But would it work for pheasant?

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Holly A. Heyser

First problem: pheasants have slim hips. Too slim to jam a regular beer can up inside them. Hmmm ... what sort of can might fit in a pheasant? I got it! Red Bull. Now I detest this stuff—tastes like sweet tarts—so I poured it all out and washed the can well to get rid of the Red Bull taste, then I filled the can up halfway with beer.

I just managed to get the Red Bull can up into the pheasant, as even it was slightly too wide. But it works.

Oiled up and dusted with salt, black pepper and thyme leaves, I closed the lid on Mr. Pheasant and set the burners to keep the temperature up at about 500 degrees for the first 10 minutes or so. I then dropped the heat to roughly 450 for the next 20 minutes, then dropped it again to about 400 degrees for another half-hour.

Turns out a pheasant cooked this way needs only about 45 minutes. I overcooked mine by thinking it would need an hour. But the skin was crackling crisp, and the legs looked fine. I let the pheasant rest for 10 minutes before cutting into it.

The moment of truth: when I sliced into the breast, it was, miraculously, still juicy! Definitely cooked more than I wanted it to be, but it was not dry at all. All the steam coming out of the can kept the breast moist. Thank you, Red Bull can!

So here you go: a recipe for beer can pheasant.

Could this work for other game birds? Maybe. The key is the can. I'd try a Foster's Lager "oil can" for a wild turkey, and I bet the Red Bull can would work on a large grouse. Not sure who makes cans small enough for partridges or quail, however.

Hunters out there: do you grill or barbecue your game birds? If so, care to share any tips and tricks?

More grilled or barbecued game recipes:
    • Barbecued Rabbit, Hare, or Jackrabbit
    • Grilled Doves or Pigeons, Spanish-style
    • Pheasant With Apricot Sauce, done on the grill, from Cork Graham

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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