Roast Woodcock: A Dream Fulfilled
February 05, 2011 | Updated June 23, 2020
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Ever since I started hunting I’ve wanted to chase the elusive, mystical woodcock, a bird so steeped in mythology it was once thought to spend its summers on the surface of the moon.
Timberdoodles, mud snipe, bog sucker, wood elf — all names for Scolopax minor, the lewdly named woodcock. OK, get your jokes out of the way. Lord knows I’ve told more than my share about this bird. But when you’re done, you really ought to do everything in your power to actually eat one of these birds.
Many who have eaten them say that woodcock is the king of game birds, greater even than ruffed grouse or canvasback duck. The flavor of woodcock is strong, gamey-in-a-good-way, and like nothing else. Some say the earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked: pink, and just a little bloody. That may be a bit much, but only a bit.
Woodcock do not live west of the Great Plains, so I am out of luck here in California. But when I hunt in the Upper Midwest I do everything I can to get out and chase these fantastic birds.
Unless you find yourself with lots of woodcock, which is a rare luxury, there is only one real way to cook these birds, and that is to roast them simply with Cumberland sauce. The Robber Barons loved roast woodcock, and if it was good enough for J.P. Morgan and his fellow Gilded Age tycoons, it was good enough for me.
First I cut rounds of spelt bread (I wanted something earthy and rustic to go with the game) and fried them in a little lard. Why lard? Why not? The birds then went in the oven. Fifteen minutes later they emerged. I salted them with fine Italian sea salt and let them rest thoroughly while I made the sauce.
Down went the sauce, then the toast, then the birds. It was all so simple.
First thing you notice when you are confronted by a roast woodcock is that it is an odd bird; the Indians say God made woodcock out of leftovers. Its breast meat is dark but its leg meat is light — the exact opposite of every other bird I know. Weird.
Roast woodcock is good by itself, but is pure magic when eaten with a little piece of crispy toast and a smear of the Cumberland sauce.
So this is how Rockefeller and Morgan felt as they ate their dinner! I felt an uncontrollable urge for either a very old Port or a Madeira from before the War. Which war I am not entirely certain.
It is a simple, heavenly meal.
- 2 to 4 whole woodcock, plucked and gutted
- 1 tablespoon lard or butter
- 2 slices bacon, cut in half
- 1 celery stalk
- Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
- 1 recipe Cumberland sauce
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Most ovens will require a solid 30 minutes to get to this temperature. As the oven is heating, take the birds out of the fridge. If you want to truss the birds, tie some kitchen twine around their legs. It is traditional to leave the head on the woodcock and jam the beak through the legs to truss it. I think this is weird.
- In an oven-proof frying pan, heat the lard over medium heat for a minute or two. Add the bacon pieces and fry until halfway done. Remove the bacon and set aside.
- Add the woodcock and fry for 1 minute on each side -- don't fry the breast. Remove the birds and take the pan off the heat. Pour off all but a thin sheen of oil.
- When the oven is good and hot, arrange the woodcock in the frying pan breast side up and use pieces of the celery stick to keep them from falling over. Lay a piece of bacon over the breast of each bird and cook in the oven for 6 minutes.
- Remove the bacon, and continue cooking the birds for another 9 to 11 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the fleur de sel. Let them rest on a cutting board as you make the Cumberland sauce.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Here in Vermont, Woodcock/Timberdoodle/bogsocker/worm-bird is a common occurrence come October. Unfortunately the season is a rather short one, but I’ve found they are infinitely easier to hunt than the ruffed grouse. This being my first hunting season (I’m not a very good shot), flushes to birds-in-bag ratio for grouse was 54/1, but woodcock was 23/8. As a result, I had some nice opportunities to experiment with a few amateur recipes. My favorite by far was a bourbon or brandy flambee with the woodcock cooked rare in sections in a stovetop pan with butter. Melts in the mouth! Great appetizer or maybe even a bizarre desert if paired right. The meat is just so sweet and juicy.
You may already know this, but the reason behind the white meat legs is because woodcock are flight/migratory birds that need the extra capillaries in their breasts for flight. Hence why the rarely in-flight grouse or chicken has white meat breast and dark meat legs.
Love the website! Looking forward to the book!
There are Snipe in California, havent hunted any but my friend got two a while ago, he forgot to tell me if they were any good. Have you had any yet?
Love your site!
I came across it looking for rabbit recipes. My husband and I have started a tiny farm and are raising various animals for meat (rabbit, quail, duck etc). Hopefully he’ll be doing some hunting in the fall as well. I’m be coming back for more recipes!
Central Texas has Woodcock or Snipe, after limiting out on doves there are always these long beaked birds too. I throw them into my “Paloma Cioppino” every year and no one notices, but me. They are small, but tasty. No, I don’t bother with the brains either. As for Collared Eurasian Doves, I don’t know what you have where you hunt, but the ones here in Central Texas are bigger than White WIng Doves. woodcock are about the size of a young Mourning Dove.
Best post title ever.
‘roofed goose’??’timgerdood’e??are they known by other names in Britain?
and I thought I was an adventurous eater. must hunt in Selfridges.
Timberdoodle? That’s quite the name! And those are some outstanding feathers. So ornate!
Thank you Hank!
That is so thrilling. It is on my list and I fear I will never try them.. good to have the experience vicariously through you. I wonder if they are like other birds in that the meat goes liverish if cooked too long?? Like with those fabled ortolons, I think I could never do the guts and brains part either!!! They are lovely little birds, aren’t they?
Thanks for sharing your triumph!
And I love the idea of the spruce grouse tasting like spruce… I used pine as part of my stove-top smoke mix for quails… really delicious (with jasmine flowers and tea- a chinese recipe)
J. No, the American woodcock is smaller. And yes, I know about the whole entrails thing. Not interested, sorry!
Josh: Nope. Never eaten a mountain quail yet. Hoping to fix that later this year…
Cork: Whitetail season and the best bird hunting are not at the same time. You want to go in early October for grouse, and deer season is not until November, if I remember right.
Jesse: Oh, don’t worry, I will be eating spruce grouse, and I know they taste piney. My strategy will be to go with it, and not fight it. I may still hate it, but I have to try.
Mari: Yeah, I know, I’ve been meat-centric lately. Working on some vegetarian stuff for you soon, though. Hang in there!
Oh my gosh dude. I love your blog… apparently in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Your foraging entries are looked forward to year round but several weeks of straight fowl entries are getting to this 20+ year vegetarian. Have mercy on my poor soul, you must have frozen elderberry around somewhere?
Great article, as usual. You mentioned wanting to not only hunt but eat every game bird in North America… I strongly advise against Spruce Grouse. At least once it’s gotten cold. My dad once got a Spruce Grouse while hunting Ruffed. This was fairly late in the season, and the thing had been eating… wait for it… spruce needles. The crop had a good cup or more, if I remember right. And the bird tasted like spruce needles.
Put it this way – when you get one, I’ll be very very curious to see how you’ll prepare it.
I’m extremely fortunate to have had the past two epic woodcock seasons I’ve had. Glad you enjoyed them Hank. I’ve got three more in the freezer…what to do with them???
Even with the bounty of Oregon white truffles you sent, my wife still gave me the evil-eye as I packed away the 3 birds I sent you. She loves those legs!
I’ve been anticipating this post. It doesn’t disappoint.
I hunted woodcock (w/ Brian D) in 2009, when coastal North Carolina had an influx of migrants thanks to severe weather to the north (repeated again this year). They are, as you say, amazing, mysterious, delightful creatures and we cherished the handful that made it into our gamebags like little gold nuggets. They make you want to carry an old side-by-side in 28-gauge, or something like that. They make you want to own a well-bred dog. They make you want to read a real book. Wood elf – that’s a good name for them.
Alas, for me woodcock is a dream yet unfulfilled.
Hank, you must have been reading my mind this weekend with all the cookbooks I’ve been focused on by authors from France and the UK that highlight the timberdoodle and bécasse! They do go crazy about these little but tasty upland offerings, most especially some interesting recipes by Dickson Wright in her “Game Cookbook”, though your Cumberland sauce seems much more in tune with the woodcock…don’t know if I’d be that into a French snipe recipe I’ve read, with its entrail contents soaking into toast…then again we never bat an eye on whole sardines and anchovies. 😉
…A friend invited me to hunt whitetails on his farms in northwestern MInnesota, and your recipe make me want to get there a bit earlier for the woodcock and ruffed grouse…would love to see how Ziggy does on them!
Good to eat like a robber baron once in a while! Hope to get my skills up to whee, if I got a chance at them, I’d have a chance @ them. As for the grouse/woodcock comparison, there are times that I, too, prefer the more hearty, though less ‘refined’ option. Maple syrup/oolong come to mind.
Congrats on the season closer, too!
A pair of woodcocks can usually be found hanging out in the woods along our 1/4-mile-long driveway in summer. Others come through from Canada in autumn. I love the curious way they fly, beak down, whistling.
Because they wait until you’re really close before leaving the ground and also fly relatively slowly, an avid bird-hunter friend tells me that the most common mistake is to shoot at them too soon. You’re apt to miss, since your shot pattern hasn’t spread yet. And if you hit, there won’t be much left of the bird.
How interesting! I’d like to hunt and eat one one day.
As for game birds, do you have mountain quail under your belt yet?
Nice post – is it the same species as British woodcock?
The reason you leave the head on traditionally is beacuse you supposed to eat the brains. The British traditional method is to roast it whole with the viscera still inside, then scoop the innards out and smear them on toast. The bird’s then jointed and piled on top. The head is split in two so you can pick each half up by the beak, like a spoon, and slurp the brains out…