Roast Pigeon

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A platter of roast pigeons.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Here in America, everyone seems to think there’s something dodgy about hunting and eating pigeons, which are, after all, a non-native, borderline invasive species totally unprotected in most states (although in the Northeast they are, inexplicably, considered a songbird).

Mind you, I’m not talking about hunting city pigeons, whose crops are stuffed with Doritos and cigarette butts. We chase “barnies” that live in semi-abandoned barns who spend their days gorging themselves on grain and seeds. Still, talk to any American about Columba livia and you’ll get the squinched nose. “Ew! Dirty!”

Sorry, but I have a thing for pigeons. I love hunting them, I love how fast they fly, how tough they are and I love how they taste. I know, I know, some of you are already tuning out. Fine. More for us. But can I hear from the Britons out there? Back me up: Wood pigeons are damn good, right?

This recipe is an homage to my British ancestors. It is just a simple roast pigeon, served atop a bed of roasted root vegetables, with a little malt (or beer) vinegar splashed on and served, ideally, with a British pale ale or a glass of claret.

The great chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating serves as my inspiration, with a few modifications. I probably cook as many little birds as anyone, and I have a few pointers you might want to learn before you start your roast pigeon.

First, pigeons are a red meat bird and should be eaten somewhere around medium.

What’s more, they are rarely fat, although once in a blue moon you’ll find a pigeon so morbidly obese you have no idea how it flew. (Those are a treat for the table, by the way.) Normally, however, you need to deal with athletic birds, able to cruise around at 55 miles an hour with a top end at close to 90 miles an hour; this makes them the fastest game bird in North America. Impressed yet?

Incidentally, if you like doves you will like pigeons. Pigeons are to doves what hares are to cottontails, or geese are to ducks: Bigger, smarter, tougher, older. Where most doves barely live a year, the average lifespan in the wild of a typical pigeon is five years. Yep, that’s older than most deer you shoot. So you’ll need to deal with that.

You can sometimes tell if you have old birds. Their feet look like they’ve been walked on for years and their keelbones are super hard. Young birds have a flexible keelbone and are just generally fresher looking. They also tend to have lighter colored meat. But it’s not an exact science.

So as an insurance policy against toughness, you need to start the cooking of the legs and wings before the breast. The easiest way to do this is to sear the legs and wings in hot butter or oil before you roast the bird. You don’t want to sear the breast, though, because you want it to be pink when you serve it. To do this, you need to hold the pigeon with tongs in the hot oil and be vigilant.

There is another way. I recently bought a nifty kitchen device called the Searzall Blowtorch Attachment. You screw this baby onto a Bernzomatic TS4000 Trigger Start Torch, which uses for fuel those little green propane tanks you get in the supermarket. Why not just use the torch? Because it gives meat a nasty propane stink. The Searzall converts the propane flame into radiant heat energy. I used the Searzall to pre-cook the legs and wings of the pigeons here, and it worked like a charm.

Photo by Holly A. Heyser
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

I could have easily seared the breasts, too, and, had I wanted to, I might have been able to cook the whole bird with the torch. But I am still working out the ins and outs of this thing — and I wanted you to be able to make roast pigeon without special equipment.

For any of you who have eaten doves, pigeons taste pretty much the same, although they can be a little more aggressively flavored. Squab, readily available in fancier restaurants, is just a baby pigeon. The closest parallel beyond that is wild duck, like a teal, only without the fat layer.

roast pigeon recipe
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Pigeon is meaty, but not so much as venison or beef. Very tightly grained, especially the breast meat. It takes salt and vinegar very well, and is “gamey” only in the sense that it tastes like something, not like flaccid, corn-fed, penned beasts.

Roast pigeon is a bird to get down on, too: Pick it up and gnaw. Sure, you can carve it and get all white linen, but I find it so much better eaten caveman style. Juices flowing, crispy skin on the legs, which are the best part to my mind.

So. Damn. Good. Go get some, people!

roast pigeon recipe
4.63 from 8 votes

Roast Pigeon with Root Vegetables

Pigeons are a smallish, dark meat bird with very little fat. Closest substitution would be store-bought squab, which is to pigeon what veal is to beef. You could also use ptarmigan or sharp-tailed grouse. You'll only need one per person, and up the roasting time to 12 to 14 minutes. As for the vegetables, go for it. Use whatever you want. The more the better, and the crazier the better. I served this with salsify, parsley root, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and golden beets. Have it it.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: British
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 to 4 pigeons, plucked and dressed
  • 1/4 cup melted butter or olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 4 to 6 Jerusalem artichokes, cut into chunks
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 to 4 salsify roots, scrubbed and cut into 2-inch lengths (optional)
  • 1 or 2 roots of Hamburg or root parsley, cut into chunks (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Beer vinegar or malt vinegar, for garnish

Instructions 

  • Preheat the oven to 425°F. Put all the chunked-up vegetables in a small roasting pan and coat with about half of the melted butter. Salt them well and pop them in the oven to roast. Take the pigeons out of the fridge when the veggies go into the oven. Let the pigeons come to room temperature for 30 minutes.
  • Stir the root vegetables, which should be starting to get brown. Paint the pigeons with more melted butter and salt them well. Pour the remaining melted butter into a small pan and get it hot. Sear the sides of the pigeons in the hot butter. You want to get the legs and wings halfway cooked before the birds go into the oven. This should take about 6 to 10 minutes. Don't sear the breast meat.
  • Check the vegetables. They should be pretty close to being done. If they are, remove them from the oven, put in a bowl and cover with foil. Turn the oven up to 475°F, or even 500°F if it will go that high. Wipe out the roasting pan. Let the pigeons rest for the 10 minutes or so this will take. When the oven is ready, put the pigeons into the roasting pan, breast side up. Roast for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the pigeons from the oven and set on a cutting board. Turn off the oven, pour the vegetables back into the roasting pan, toss with the chopped parsley and set into the oven to re-warm and cook a bit further. Let the pigeons rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serve them surrounded by the vegetables, which you can season with a little vinegar if you want.

Notes

What to drink? Clearly a medium-bodied red is your best bet. Pinot noir, Garnacha, Gamay, Merlot, you get the picture. As for beer, pale ale is a good choice, as would be a red ale, Märzen, blonde bock, or brown ale.

Nutrition

Calories: 717kcal | Carbohydrates: 39g | Protein: 43g | Fat: 43g | Saturated Fat: 16g | Cholesterol: 258mg | Sodium: 274mg | Potassium: 1485mg | Fiber: 7g | Sugar: 17g | Vitamin A: 5971IU | Vitamin C: 25mg | Calcium: 88mg | Iron: 7mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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28 Comments

  1. Came across this recipe and stopped at the live poultry market in Chinatown (Los Angeles, where I live) to pick up a couple pigeons to roast. Just had them for New Year’s Eve dinner. SPECTACULAR! Who knew flying rats were so exquisite!?

  2. Hello, great post! I just returned back to the states from Egypt. When I’m there I eat pigeon nearly every day. Such tasty meat. I’m wondering if they slow roast the birds, because there it is customary to eat the stuffed bird – bones and all. At first I was skeptical….uhh BONES??…but once I got past the crunch-factor, I found the bones actually added a rich flavor to the meat that is simply indescribable. Most bones were edible, with really only one here and there needing to be left on the plate. I’m trying to find a recipe that results in that same tender and tasty bird as I get in Egypt. Is there a specific manner of cooking that makes the bones…edible? Perhaps the pigeons they roast are particularly young? Are you familiar with this?

    1. Lucie: Thanks for the note! Had not known about the bones — yes, from what I understand, the Egyptians only use very young pigeons. That won’t work with older, wild pigeons.

  3. I don’t know about city pigeons but we have probably four dozen in our abandoned silo and they never visit a city they come and go from our silo. I’m wondering how to hunt them. I don’t want to use my 20 gauge so I was thinking about a pellet gun. Any thoughts on hunting or capturing them?

    Scott

    1. I have a Gamo Swarm Maxim(10x shot break barrel air rifle), and it will send a high velocity alloy pellet up to 1350fps, according to my chronograph. I prefer to use a much heavier lead pellet though, as if adds a lot to the footlps going down range. I suggest the Gamo TS-10 .177 “competition” pellet as it is one of the heaviest pellets you can get in .177 and IT INCREASES VELOCITY. This is due to the fact that when you shoot an air rifle, the pressure spikes. A lighter pellet will leave the barrel before the pressure reaches it’s maximum pressure. If you use a pellet that’s too heavy, then it will stay in the barrel for too long, and to pressure will end up passing the spike, and go down. The TS-10, at least for the higher powered Gamo .177 air rifles is going to be in the Goldilocks zone. If you are using a high velocity and high accuracy air rifle then that’s fine. I would also suggest the FX Impact, though I have not used it myself, It is really good for this kind on thing. Although, if you just want to kill them, and not worry to much about spending money on an air gun like that, just use a 20 gauge. there are also some lower gauge shotguns that you COULD get, but they are hard to find.

  4. Yep, band-tailed pigeons DO get bitter after eating a solely elderberry and acorn diet (both loaded with tannins), especially here in Southern California! I solve the problem by braising them in wine, chicken broth, and herbs before discarding the braising liquid and taking the now-tender meat off their bodies and incorporating it in a cassoulet, a jambalaya, or this recipe when I get enough: https://www.saveur.com/article/recipes/moroccan-pigeon-pie-bstilla

    Don’t waste those band-taileds!

  5. Hi,I am from North Devon, England.I would like to cook pigeon. Can it be cooked as I cook Quail, which is to pan fry the legs and breasts in butter for a few minutes then into a hot oven for about 6 minutes.

  6. The idea that “City Pigeons” are different than any other pigeon is pretty silly. Do you think the same bird stays in town its whole life? Birds fly all over the place, thats been proven over and over. Once more, pigeons are not the dirty animal everyone thinks they are. They eat the same thing any other bird does, unless they are starving. Ive eaten city pigeons quite often and found them to be every bit as tasty as any bird harvested in the wild.

  7. Hey John from Minnesota, I’m thinking you might have Eurasian Collared Doves out there. They are an invasive species and often have no season or bag limit! (Hunt birds all year anyone?) They are bigger than Mourning Doves and just as good.
    I would imagine they might fit the bill for this recipe?

    William

  8. Hank, thanks for publishing this recipe and commentary. I shoot barn pigeons a couple times a year and will try your preparation next time i have a bag of pigeons.

    Happy New Year!

  9. Jeffrey came home with band-tail pigeons full of acorns. A friend had them last night and said that they were bitter because of the acorns. He asked me to query you about a solution for bitterness. We aren’t having them tonight anyway because they need to drain a bit. These were taken from a ranch in Marin.

    Nicole

  10. This morning Hubby was marching out the door to go pigeon hunting. I said WHAT DO I DO to get ready for this bounty? He said “Ask Hank”. You have officially arrived. 😉

    What do I find? — right up front, a pigeon article and recipe, by golly.

    Happy Holidays, Hank and Holly!

    Nicole

  11. Ha! my dove MOJO spinners were bringing in pigeon like mad this year, and man were they fun to hunt. I found a spot they move between the sheep feeding troughs and water source. i also hunted a field of safflower and mullen and they were eating right along all the dove. my freezer is full of dove and pigeon from September, so this recipe just got printed and saved!! Thanks!

  12. Jack: Interesting. Funny that people should think that, because pigeons are by far the easiest bird to pluck, with the possible exception of doves. Try the legs next time. My favorite part!

  13. Hank,
    More greetings from the UK! The shooters I know ‘breast out’ pigeon and eat these fillets only. Restaurants usually offer breast meat only. There is a general perception that the rest of the bird is too difficult to pluck and too fiddly to eat. Pigeons are also highly rated as a sporting challenge because of their speed and agility. A very experienced Scottish gamekeeper told me that he rates pigeon more highly than red grouse. Our best gameshot, George Digweed, killed about 650 wild pigeon in one session. They can descend on a grain crop like locusts and farmers are pleased to have them shot or scared off. I saw a flock of pigeon on wheat last year that must have been a thousand strong. And it is a bird that can be shot under the ‘general licence’ whereas most birds are protected by wildlife conservation laws.

  14. Pigeon is a staple here is Somerset, UK. Free from most of the shoots, or had in the garden with an air rifle. Diana Henry does a lovely recipe in her book food from plenty. I did your German stew with squirrel rather than rabbit a few weeks ago, pretty good.

  15. Pigeon looks like it would be perfect for a rotisserie as well. It may have similar effect as the blow torch attachment and you could do barn load of birds at the same time.

  16. For a real treat, try pigeon breast just seared, served on wilted spinach…I promise you it’s heaven on a plate! I’ve made the classic pigeon pie with rough-puff pastry too, that’s always a winner, but never tried roasting the whole bird. Thanks to you Hank, I’ll give it a try now!

  17. We always eat pigeon whenever we’re in the UK – at least once or twice every year – and would love to find a source here in the US. Not a viable game bird here in Minnesota, but are there sources to purchase?

  18. Hi from England. We do like pigeon over here; or at least some of us do, there are a lot of people who won’t eat ‘game’ of any kind. Just means there’s more for us fans! Have eaten pigeon many times as well as venison, rabbit and duck. All purchased as the hunting fraternity is much smaller over here. My next purchase will be squirrel, there are a couple of sites offering these for sale. I will be using them in the excellent Spanish sauce recipe from your site. Thanks for a really interesting site from an armchair hunter.