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 1/4 cup kosher salt to 4 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 2 1/2 hours for wild turkey legs. Remember, slower is better.
- When 1 hour has elapsed, paint the legs with your favorite barbecue sauce and continue cooking. Let them cook 5-10 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 OK, 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 tomatoey Kansas City style BBQ 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?
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 crispy, 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!
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?
Beer Can Pheasant
Beer can chicken is one of the best ways I know to roast a chicken, especially in summertime, when you can do this recipe on the grill. I made beer can chicken for my friend Elise recently, and I immediately thought it might work for pheasant, too. It does. But you need to do a few modifications. First off, while you can jam a regular beer can into a pheasant, the birds are generally too small. But a Red Bull can will fit. Fill it halfway with beer.
I designed this recipe for young birds, but I have also found that ranched birds are ideal; you can often find whole pheasants in places like Whole Foods.
You also should consider brining your pheasant first, especially if it was a wild bird, and definitely if it was an old bird. Mix 1/4 cup of kosher salt with 4 cups of water and add some seasonings: I like bay leaves, rosemary and cracked black pepper. Submerge the pheasant in this brine for 4-8 hours, then drain and let sit in the fridge uncovered the next day — this helps you get a crispy skin. After that, you can do this like a regular beer can chicken. You do not need to brine ranched birds or young pheasants. This recipe would also work with large grouse.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
- 1 empty Red Bull can
- Enough beer to fill half the can (use any beer you want)
- 1 whole pheasant, plucked and gutted
- 2 tablespoons olive oil to coat bird
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
- Take the pheasant out and let it rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Bring the beer out, too, as you don’t want cold beer in the can.
- Prepare your grill for indirect heat. If you are using charcoal, put the coals on one side of the grill, leaving another side free of coals. If you are using a gas grill, fire up only half of the burners.
- Rub the pheasant all over with olive oil. Mix the salt, pepper, and thyme in a bowl and sprinkle it over the pheasant.
- Fill the Red Bull can halfway with beer; it doesn’t matter what kind. Drink the rest of the beer. Put the can inside the pheasant’s cavity and place the pheasant on the cool side of the grill. The legs and the can will act like a tripod to keep the pheasant upright.
- Cover the grill and come back in 40 minutes. After that time, check the pheasant and add more coals if needed. Stick a thermometer into the thickest part of the pheasant’s thigh — you want it to read 160 degrees. If it’s not there, close the grill lid and come back in 15 minutes. Keep checking this way until the pheasant is done. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, poke the spot between the leg and breast with a knife and look for the juices to run clear, not pink.
- Carefully move the pheasant to a pan. Let the pheasant rest for 10 minutes. Carefully lift it off the can and carve up into serving pieces.