Roasting quail is a bedrock skill for any quail hunter or any home cook interested in game birds. And while a pretty plucked quail may look like a tiny chicken, they are different enough to warrant their own recipe.
Quail come in various sizes and flavors, ranging from the mild, soft and tiny coturnix quail, which are the quail most people buy in the store, to the slightly larger and more flavorful bobwhite quail, which can also be bought in some stores, to the similarly sized and even more flavorful Valley or Gambel’s quail — two species that taste very similar — to, finally, the large mountain quail of California’s Sierra Nevada. Mountain quail are a bit darker and gamier than the other quail species, but not so much that you need to cook them differently. A few other species of quail, the scaled, Montezuma and Mearn’s, I’ve not yet cooked.
These are all Valley quail; incidentally, the four on the left are dry plucked, the one on the right is scalded. Notice the difference?
Regardless of species, all quail roast the same. The basic rule for quail is hot and fast. Really hot and really fast. I like about 500°F for about 15 minutes or so. This will cook your little birds nicely, although they will be a little pale — a price to pay for juicy and tender meat.
If you really want that pretty brown look, there are two ways to get it. The traditional way is to brown the bird in lots of butter: Butter will brown birds faster than oil and, well, it tastes good. Another way is to blowtorch the bird after it comes out of the oven, which is what I do because I went and bought myself a Searzall, which is a cool device that allows you to brown foods very fast without getting that weird butane stink on it. Either way works, but if you do it, roast the quail a bit less, like maybe 12 minutes.
Finally, if you have access to a pizza oven or something else that gets to 600°F or even hotter, you can just blast your quail for about 4 to 5 minutes. This is, actually, ideal, although few of us have a pizza oven.
Whatever you do, keep things simple. The flavor of quail is chicken-like, but subtly different. You want to enjoy it, especially if you’ve worked so hard to bring a few birds home with you.
This is a basic roast quail recipe that can serve as a stepping stone for other, fancier recipes. Once you know how to properly roast a quail, you can then play with glazes or marinades — even though I am not normally a fan of marinades, they will work with quail because the birds are so small.
I include a brining step here if you like brining. If you do brine your quail, they will be more tender and you can cook them a few minutes longer — but you run the risk of them becoming too salty. Don’t brine too long! If you don’t brine, the meat will have a nicer texture, but you have less room for error when you roast them.
How to serve your quail? With any wild game sauce, or with a simple squeeze of lemon. Add the starch (homemade cavatelli with pesto in this case) and veggie of your choice and a big white wine or dry rosé and you’re in business.
Figure on 2 quail per person as a main course and 1 per person as an appetizer. Oh, and put a bowl out for bones. Quail are best eaten with your fingers.
Serves 2, and can be scaled up.
Prep Time: 30 minutes, to let the birds come to room temperature.
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1 quart water
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 whole, plucked quail
- Lard, butter or olive oil
- 2 celery sticks (optional)
- Black pepper
- Lemon wedges (optional)
- If you choose to brine your quail, boil the water or wine with the kosher salt and bay leaves, then turn off the heat and let cool. Submerge the quail in this brine for 2 to 6 hours.
- Preheat your oven to 500°F, or if it doesn’t get that hot, as hot as your oven will go. This will take a little while for most ovens, up to 30 minutes. While the oven is preheating, take the quail out of the fridge and pat them dry. Coat with lard, olive oil or butter (your quail will be browner with melted butter) and salt generously. Set aside at room temperature while the oven heats.
- When the oven is hot, get a small roasting pan or cast-iron frying pan and set the quail in it. They will want to tip over, so steady them with cut pieces of the celery stick. Try to prevent the quail from touching each other to speed the cooking process.
- Roast the quail in the oven for 10 to 18 minutes. The lower end of the spectrum will give you quail that are juicy, succulent and a little pink on the inside — but pale. The higher end of the spectrum will give you a fully cooked, browner quail, but one that is at the edge of being dry. Your choice.
- When you take the quail out of the oven, place on a cutting board and rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Use this time to make the wild game sauce of your choice, or just squirt lemon juice on the birds before serving.