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Consider the lowly scoter. One of a nine-member clan of hardy, ocean-going ducks, this is the most common sea duck where I live in California. Variously called skunk heads, candy corn beaks, clowns, fruit loops, or, as I like to call them, skunk puffins, they are not the wariest of ducks, but they are plentiful and fun to hunt when the action is slow inland.
They zip along in the San Francisco Bay inches over the water, black darts that can be tough to see if the wind’s up. When resting they can congregate in vast rafts that have been known to drift with the current into gun range of your boat or floating blind. They readily come to a call — basically you growl into a regular mallard call — and seem to like it when you wave a black flag at them.
One a good day, such as I had recently with my friend RJ Waldron of Northwind Outfitters, we can stack up a limit of surf scoters by 9 a.m. That’s the fun part.
When it’s time to go home, there’s a fair chance I will hear one or another of the other hunters I am with try to pawn off the birds. (That didn’t happen last time) And RJ’s No. 1 question on his sea duck hunts is: Are they edible? Why yes, yes they are. And as a matter of fact, eating sea ducks need not be an exercise in masochism or an Andrew Zimmern-like gastronautical dare. You just have to cook them right, that’s all.
So what’s “right,” you ask? First, chuck any idea you have about plucking and roasting sea ducks whole. That is, unless you are a native of the Far North. It seems that Inuits, Newfoundlanders, Greenlanders, Icelanders and the people of the Faeroe Islands have something of a taste for sea bird.
Believe it or not, roasted puffin is a thing in Iceland. You are what you eat, and sea ducks eat crustaceans, clams and fish. Sea duck fat is orange for the same reason salmon meat is orange — pigments in the crustaceans they’re eating. Tasty in a salmon, horrific in a duck.
So you need to skin your sea ducks (and saltwater divers) and remove every scrap of fat you can find. Even the stray bits of fat around the gizzard and that fat ring round the heart. All fat must go. (Here’s a video on how to skin a duck, if you need a refresher)
Keep in mind that everything I am writing here about true sea ducks also applies to fishy diver ducks like bluebills, buffleheads, goldeneyes and some ringnecks, canvasbacks, redheads or brant.
Where I live, in Northern California, there is a health warning against eating the livers of ducks in the San Francisco Bay, so I toss them. If you’re a liver lover, I see no reason why you couldn’t eat the livers of cleaner-living sea ducks.
The legs are up to you. I’ve eaten plenty of skinned scoter legs and they’re OK, but you really need to be diligent about removing that fat. Even when you are, they are strong-tasting. My advice is to brine them in 1/4 cup kosher salt to 1 quart water overnight. That will do wonders. Note that this is one of the very few times I advocate brining duck. Sea ducks are strongly ducky, even when treated perfectly. There’s no getting around it. So if you are used to eating wild ducks, you’ll be fine. If you are serving “civilians,” brine the meat.
The breast is the money cut. Brined or unbrined, once you trim away the skin and fat you’re good to go. So how to eat your sea ducks?
Here are 10 recipes that will work very well with scoters, any other sea duck or very fishy diver ducks:
Wild Duck Jerky or Goose Jerky
Yep. Jerky. Damn good use for sea duck breasts. You end up brining (or salting them) as part of the jerky making process anyway, and you typically use strong flavors in jerky, so there may be no better use for a sea duck than jerky… if you like to eat jerky.Read More
Duck Stir Fry with Scallions
I designed this duck stir fry specifically for scoters. Any duck works, but this dish is a knockout — and will convince anyone who thinks they don’t like sea ducks that they’re horribly wrong.Read More
Thai Duck Curry
You use skinless breast meat here, and the strong Thai flavors handle the sea duck meat well. Another winner for scoter meat.Read More
The classic. You can make a schnitzel out of anything, really, and while it won’t be a true Vienna schnitzel, it will still be awesome with sea duck breast meat.Read More
I designed this recipe for sea ducks, too. It’s basically an Italian meatball, done with scoter meat. Any meatball recipe on this website will work with ground sea duck meat.Read More
Crab Fried Rice Thai Style
When you click over to this recipe you see it was originally done with crab meat, but subbing in (or adding) slices of sea duck meat to it works great.Read More
Again, this is originally a venison dish, but if you sub in sea duck legs, this may well be the best thing you can make with them. Great in tacos or burritos!Read More
Beer Sauce with Duck
This is a deeply flavored Nordic dish that I normally do with puddle ducks with the skin on. But the heady flavor of the dark beer sauce with a skinless sea duck breast will make you a believer.Read More
This is a link to a venison recipe, but sub in skinless sea duck breasts and slice them thinly and you’re in business. This would be more or less like a fajita.Read More
Venison Greek Souvlaki
Kinda like a Greek taco, this is a damn good use for chunks of sea duck meat. Be sure to brine the meat in this case. If you have breast meat that’s a little shot up where you need to cut around it, this is a good choice for a recipe.Read More
These are just ten recipes. I could go on and on. The point is that eating sea ducks is not so crazy an idea, if you have a little guidance. Hopefully this will do the trick. Now go shoot some skunk puffins and feast on them afterwards!
Hi from the center of france.. tonight my son called me to say “I have been given a cormorant” shall we do lunch? I searched and searched internet for recipe- rubbish! Then I found your site,,, HUGE THANK YOU x for some sensible information some good advice, and I will let you know how the cormorant lunch goes.
My father and I were hunting the day after opening day this year and shot a couple of Common Mergansers. I’d been told that diver ducks were inedible and very fishy, but I’ve also been told that bullhead are “trash fish” by the same people and I have a similar rule to yours that if you shoot it, you eat it. While trying to research how to treat and prepare them, I wasn’t surprised that the only reliable resources I was finding were you and Steve Rinella. I watched your video on skinning divers and I can tell you that Mergansers are much more difficult. The skin at the front middle area of the breast is so firmly attached that the meat would rather tear than release from the skin. I wound up plucking the breasts, removing them, and then filleting the skin off like a fish skin, which worked pretty well. The legs were incredibly meaty. The hearts were delicious and had no fishy flavor at all. I didn’t eat the livers since you warned against it with the divers in your area, citing polluted water, and we have Onondaga Lake near us which is one of the worst polluted bodies of water. I pulled the gizzards but found they were very small and had almost no meat on them at all, so I discarded them. Between the breasts, inner breasts, and legs I wound up with about 1.5 pounds of meat with no skin and *all* fat trimmed off. I followed Steve Rinella’s guidance to brine all the meat in salt and pepper and water for an hour at room temp, using your 1/4 C to 1 Gallon ratio for the brine with a few pepper corns in as well.
This morning before I went to work I made the Barbacoa braising liquid and set the meat in a Dutch Oven inside my oven at 200 degrees (My wife works from home). I think it cooked for about 4 to 5 hours, maybe 6.
The meat was still very dense when we took it out but it absolutely fell apart to the touch. I’ve only learned to cook once I started hunting about 5 to 6 years ago and only started experimenting with mixing in citrous and fruity flavors this year. This was delicious to both of us, and my wife is picky. Not a “fishy” note to be found! We served it with cilantro, avocado ( another recently new flavor for me), red cabbage, shredded Mexican cheese blend, fat free sour cream, and Cholula brand hot sauce. Divers are definitely on the menu. Thank you!
A go-to for us is the Instapot…put some buffies, scaup, or a quartered scoter in layered with sauteed onions, 1/2 cup of sweet red (we are from Michigan so sweet reds are a “thing” here), 1TBS of smoked paprika, 1tsp of chili powder, 1TBS of cumin, and pressure cook for 1hr or so until it falls off the bone. Separate the meat and then fill some small rounds of pastry dough with the meat, more carmelized inion, and a slice of extra sharp cheddar…bake until pastry is browned and eat/drink/be merry. DEFINITELY trying your barbacoa recipe this week!
Is there a ratio for the meat while brining? I see you said “1/4 cup kosher salt to 1-quart water overnight” just wondering if that’s per duck?
Ed: That’s the ratio. Use more or less as needed.
In Nova Scotia we soak sea ducks in Baking Soda and water overnight and the strong taste is gone, I personally like the strong taste, When doing sea duck stew I put 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses in with the duck or rabbit while it is in the slow cooker
What about cormorants? I have been offered one (legally shot) by a friend, and I am awaiting delivery. I presume I should skin it and remove all fat. Any other suggestion?
Hi Ryan, I have to admit, we’ve been eating mergansers for years now, and they seem to be about like sea ducks…a little prep and my kids love ’em.
Would mallards I shoot on the Oregon Coast be considered sea ducks? One of the ones I shot didn’t seem to have orange fat, or really any fat at all. I’d prefer to keep the skin on since I know I like duck like that but if it’s going to ruin the meat then I will toss it. Will the meat still be okay even if the fat was orange?
Jacob: Only one way to find out. Roast one skin on and you’ll know. Mallards are hard this way — they can eat anything.
What about mergansers? Would you think these recipes apply to mergansers as well? We kill red breasted mergansers and hooded mergansers here in Florida. Thanks.
Ryan: Not sure. I’ve never shot one.
Will these recipes also work well with “hard-core” fish eaters like shag & cormorants, or do they need a different treatment?
Kristine: As those are illegal to kill in North America, I wouldn’t know.
Spent years chasing eiders and scoters in the maritimes, just occasionally now on the west coast. Similar to you, I’d brine except in strips and then marinate in a vinegrette based on olive oil, red wine and balsamic vinegar and then whatever I felt like with the garlic. Then cook hot fast and rare and serve in good rolls with mayo and cartelized onions, sea dux samiches!!!
Right about brining them.Have used the recipe in Hunters game cookbook for allegheny baked coot (sea duck in maine) .Be sure to use the plum jelly.Will make a believer of people who say you can’t eat them.Have used thi recipe for 30 years.
Thanks for the recipes! I can’t wait to try the Thai Red Curry dish. Hunting sea ducks got more interesting. 🙂