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.
You don’t gut a woodcock. The guts are the best bit.
This recipe worked great for me. I plucked all my grouse and woodcock this year and that has made the difference in keeping the meat moist. I followed this recipe for a mixed plate of roast woodcock and grouse, pan seared in a little miropoix, then roasted for 20 min at 450, nothing but a little salt and fresh thyme on top. The final platter was capped off with a smothering of sauteed Chantrelles that had been dry sauteed in the summer and frozen, finishing salt and pepper. The mushrooms reconstituted perfectly. I put the pepper on after roasting because Thomas Keller said pepper is best when not cooked.
While on a grouse and woodcock hunting trip to MIchigan, I met another hunter at the hotel that was a woodcock specialist (he had a handwritten notebook that covered 20 years of woodcock hunting and coverts) ,he actually did not care at all about shooting grouse. Anyway we had nice conversation about cooking them and he turned me on to woodcock legs, just sautéed. That is the sweetest tasting meat on any gamebird and one of my favorites. Recently someone told me to try it with dove legs as well. It is awesome.
Sorry, I should have said that the pin-feather can be found on the ‘outside’ slope of the wing after the elbow i.e. the slope further from the body of the bird, not the ‘downwards’ side
When plucking woodcock the British & Irish first take the ‘pin feather’ off each wing to put in a hatband as a discreet but prestigious shooting symbol. Do you do that in North America? The pin-feather can be found by stretching the wing out, looking on the leading edge on the downwards side of the ‘elbow’ and finding a small prominent diamond-shaped feather. It can usually be plucked by hand, if not use small pliers.The pin-feather was used by artists in the Middle Ages for painting minatures and is still referred to in the phrase ‘to get a feather in your cap’ i.e. do something praiseworthy
I shot two woodcock with the last two shots of my shooting season in North Yorkshire, England, on 28 January (using a 20-bore side-by-side, Bumbling Bushman, and a labrador retriever). They are now hanging in a cool shed, to be eaten on 1st February with fine claret. There is a good demonstration video of how to prepare and cook them on the ‘Shooting Times’ website. A friend enjoyed woodcock roast and filleted at The Star Inn in Harome a few weeks ago: much better, I suspect, than the traditional rare and bloody roast bird, served on fried bread with its head on and its beak threaded through its thighs.
This is a great recipe, and just in time. It’s the end of the bird season down here in Argentina, and I’ve been basically ignoring the snipe we have for months as I crossed creeks and bogs in hot pursuit of quail. Yesterday, it occurred to me – “I’ve flushed dozens of snipe today and only five quail, hmmm…” and I began to stick to the marshes. It is amazing how much fat is on these birds. And your recipe was absolutely right – simplicity and truth to flavor at its finest. Thanks!
I personally think woodcock is more gamey than grouse, which is much like chicken. Woodcock is more like duck and should be cooked rare to medium rare.
Your fine article has me avowed to bag a couple of these in my Missouri woodland this fall and seek to enjoy what you describe. Cheers.
I’m so delighted you offered such lovely pictures of this little bird – you’ve inspired me to try plucking some and serving them trussed. Like Andrew, I find myself with a lot more woodcock in the bag than grouse – they hold so much better for a pointing dog than those flighty grouse. Plus I live in Michigan, the American capital of woodcock hunting. I’ve been eating them breasted and cooked very quickly in bourbon and butter, two to three minutes a side so they come out medium rare. I found this recipe rifling through hunting books, when I noticed that the late Ralf Coykendall, who wrote about hunting duck as well as woodcock, cooked all his birds in panfulls of butter and bourbon, with a little worchestershire and red currant jelly. Really simple but the best way I have found to prepare these little guys. I plan to combine this recipe with your method for toast. Looking forward to the book.