A basic skill I use all the time is breaking down, or cutting up, ducks, geese and pheasants. Not every bird is worthy of a full-on roast: To me, such a bird needs to be fat, young and not terribly shot-up.
For those birds with broken legs, shot-up breasts, that are skinny or very old, I break them down into parts for separate cooking. Breasts get seared, while legs and wings go into their own kinds of recipes. The carcasses all go into stocks and broth. I waste very little. Here’s how I turn a whole game bird into parts:
STEP ONE: Have a sharp boning or paring knife. This is the one I use. Can you use a chef’s knife? Yes, but in my mind it is too wide to do a lot of the fine work needed for cutting up a duck or pheasant. A good alternative to a boning knife is a fillet knife for fish; it may be a little thin, but it’s better than a big wide chef’s knife. And make sure your knife is sharp! Remember a dull knife is a lazy servant…
STEP TWO: Start with the legs. I press on the gap between legs and breast to push as much skin toward the breast as I can: That keeps the breasts juicy and tender when you cook them. Slice down in the gap and you will notice you just sliced skin, not muscle — that’s the key. Gently cut downward until you reach the ball-and-socket joint where the leg is attached.
As you slice down, arc the knife under the back of the bird to get all the meat off the thigh, as in the right picture above.
Snap the leg back toward you to pop open the ball-and-socket joint, which frees the leg/thigh. Tuck the knife behind the ball and cut the leg free. As you cut past the socket joint, don’t forget to arc the knife around the little pocket of meat known in birds as the “oyster,” as this is the best part. The oyster is small in wild ducks, but is large in turkeys, geese and pheasants.
STEP THREE: Move to the wings. If your bird still has wings (you often lose one when wingshooting), look for the dark line where the fatty breast ends and the side of the bird begins: This is where you make a cut parallel to that line all the way to the wing joint.
If you cut in the right spot, you will go right through the soft cartilage and free the wing from the body. Don’t worry if you mess it up a few times; it takes practice to know exactly where that spot is.
Now slide the knife along the saber bone, which is a long, curved bone along the bird’s back that looks like a sword; you can see it in the picture above left. Slide the knife along that bone until you get to the joint, which will now be totally free from the body. Finish by removing the wing by cutting a little extra skin from the neck area.
STEP FOUR: Finish with the breasts. I like to take the breasts off in one piece — this lets me stuff them if I want, and it wastes less skin. Remember skin equals protection for breast meat, which is prone to drying out. I begin by making a cut along a fat pad on the side of the bird.
I then gently start sliding the knife along another fat line toward the bird’s tail end; you can see that line at the end of my knife in the picture above left. To get all the meat, you need a sharp knife and the knowledge that different birds have different breast structures: Ducks and geese have broad plates under their breasts, so you run the knife flat along this plate until you hit the keel bone.
In pheasants and pigeons, that plate is narrow, but the keel bone is very high. So when you hit it, know you have to slice a long ways up until you find the spot where meat ends and skin begins. It takes practice.
Once you get the back end of the breast freed, run the knife along the stout bone along the neck end of the bird, then along the wishbone up towards the keel bone. Some cooks remove the wishbone before breaking down a bird, but I generally don’t.
In the pictures above, I am freeing the meat from one side of the keel bone — freeing the meat is how you should think about this process, rather than “slicing” or cutting” — and I am freeing the meat from the wishbone on the neck end.
Once you have done this on both sides, gently cut the attachments along the top of the keelbone to free the whole breast from the body. I do this by letting the mostly freed breast sides hang.
When you have your breast meat on the cutting board, all you need to to do finish is remember to remove the tenders, as they are only lightly attached to the breast and need to be taken off if you plan to sear the breast solo.
There you go. My advice: Take your time at first, study the pictures and feel free to ask me questions. Every bird will be easier than the last one you did, and this technique for cutting up a carcass works with any bird: Ducks, geese, pheasants, pigeons, turkeys — even domestic chickens.
Once you get the hang of it, it only takes a few minutes to break down a bird.