Plucking a pheasant is not hard, but it requires patience. The reason is because unlike a duck or goose, a pheasant has relatively thin and loose skin — skin that will tear very easily if you try to rush the job.
There are two methods: Dry plucking and wet plucking. Dry plucking is what you think it is — you just start plucking feathers off the bird. Many people swear by it, and I will dry pluck when I only have a bird or two. But if you have a pile of pheasants, wet-plucking works well and is a lot faster. I always dry-pluck pheasants that have hung for a few days, however.
Wet plucking basically means scalding the bird before plucking. To do this, you need to get a large pot of water and get it to scalding temperature. What is scalding temperature? Steaming, but not boiling — not even simmering. If you need a number, shoot for 140°F to 150°F.
- Do one bird at a time. The scalding process only works when the feathers and skin are warm. Once they grow cold you will have a soggy mess. Work quickly and efficiently.
- Once you have the water hot enough, pluck the pheasant’s long tail feathers out, one by one. Then grab the pheasant by the head or feet (I do the feet) and plunge him into the water. Hold him under for 30 seconds. Lift him out and let him drain until the water stops coming off in a stream. Repeat this two more times. This means you have dunked the pheasant for a total of 90 seconds.
- Pluck the bird while it is still warm. Start with the wings. Next pluck the large feathers along the outer edges of the breast – carefully, as they can tear the skin easily. Then work on the flank feathers on the bird’s thigh, then go to the neck and finish with the back and the rest of the legs. Take your time. It is very important. Go feather by feather if need be, especially around the breast — you want it to look pretty and not torn.
- The feathers on the wings come off easier than those of a duck, which is the most persnickety part of duck-plucking. But the pheasant’s breast — especially around any place that has a shot hole — is the hardest part, to my mind. When you have shot holes, anchor the skin down with the fingers of one hand, and pluck one feather at a time with the other. It’s the only way to get them off without tearing the skin.
- When you are finished, gut the pheasant (save the liver, heart and gizzard to make Italian giblet Bolognese pasta sauce) and wash it well. Dry the bird with a paper towel thoroughly, stuff a clean paper towel in the cavity and then set him on another paper towel in a lidded container in the fridge for 2 to 7 days. Pheasants age well this way.
This method works for all other upland game birds. All are related biologically, and all have the same thin skin as a pheasant. In my experience, Grouse, quail and partridges are better dry-plucked than wet-plucked, although it takes a lot longer to dry pluck than wet-pluck a bird. Doves, woodcock and pigeons, which are not related to the others, are the easy to dry pluck.
A few words on dry plucking: I mostly do this with birds that have been hanging for several days; you can still wet-pluck a hung pheasant, but the longer the hang time, the more likely you will need to contend with weakened skin.
So to dry pluck:
- Start on the back and the wings as you would a fresh or scalded pheasant. Remember to PLUCK, not pull. Use a quick snap of the wrist to yank a feather out very quickly, while anchoring the skin down with several fingers of your other hand. Under NO circumstances should you try to grab more than a couple feathers at a time. You will tear the skin.
- The drumsticks pluck the easiest.
- The neck has a few areas that pluck easy, but the loose or limp areas are a devil — expect to get a few tears.
- There are two kinds of feathers on a pheasant, quill-type feathers with a stiff core, and wispy under-feathers. The under-feathers pluck very easily, while the quill feathers are guaranteed to rip the skin if you pluck incorrectly.
- To pluck quill feathers correctly, anchor the skin down and in one motion, yank each feather out first the way it is attached, then the opposite way in a kind of arc. It is VERY important to do only one or two feathers at a time when you get to these feathers, which are on the neck, each side of the breast, and the flanks of the bird.
- The wings are pretty easy, but watch out for where the wings meet the body — this area tears easily.
- Save the breast for last: The feathers along each side of the breast are be nit-picky, but the little feathers are a breeze.