November 26, 2012 | Updated February 15, 2021
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Smoked pheasant can be either the best expression of the bird, or it can be a desiccated husk, usable only as a flavoring for broth. I’ve had it turn out both ways, I am sad to say. After my failures, I got back on the horse and smoked another pheasant. Then another. And another.
Finally, I am able to present to you a method for smoking pheasants — and other upland game birds — that works well consistently.
The issue with wild birds like pheasants, chukars and grouse is that they work for a living. They can be old and tough, and smoking doesn’t tenderize them.
But brining does. Most experienced smokers know that the brining step is important when you deal with fish or other meats. It is vital with pheasants and similar birds. Skip this, or short it, and you will be sorry.
I brine my pheasants for about 12 hours. This is a long time for a bird that typically weighs somewhere between 2 and 3 pounds plucked and gutted. But the salt brine needs time to work its magic. Brines keep meat moister by allowing it to retain more moisture during cooking. All cooking removes moisture from meat, but brined meat loses less.
A brined bird is a seasoned bird, too.
Brine too little and you get a dry bird. Brine too much and you get a salt lick. In this case, you want to take the brining process to the edge of “too salty.” And even here, if you are smoking an old rooster, you will probably want to just shred the drumstick meat when you’re done — those sinews are murder.
The reason you want to err a little — not a lot — towards the too salty end of the spectrum is because you normally eat smoked pheasant cold, and our perception of salt dulls with cold foods.
One nerdy trick to a perfect brine? Weigh the pheasant, and the water you intend to brine it in. Do this in grams with a kitchen scale. Then weigh out 2 percent of that total weight in kosher salt, dissolve that in the water, and submerge the pheasant in there for a day or a week. It won’t get too salty.
Beyond that, smoked pheasant is pretty easy. Brine, dry, smoke over hardwood. I like a bit of sweet with my smoke, so I use heavy syrup — boiled down maple syrup, in this case. You could use molasses, honey, treacle or thick birch, hickory or sorghum syrup. You just want it to be thick, because regular maple syrup will just bead on the surface of the pheasant.
The sweet part is optional, the drying step isn’t. Allowing your birds to dry a bit helps the smoke adhere. Smoke won’t stick to sopping wet meat, nor will it to bone dry meat.
Another tip: Move your birds from fridge to smoker. Doing this will give you a better smoke ring, that pretty pink layer we all love in smoked meats. It forms only until the interior of meat hits about 140°F, so the slower the meat takes to get there, the better the smoke ring.
If you plan on smoking partridges or grouse, reduce the brining time to 8 hours (or do the weighing trick I mention above), and keep an eye on your smoking time. You still want an internal temperature in the leg meat of 160°F to 165°F, but it will take less time. And if you don’t plan on eating the legs (or you want to use them as a base for soup) take the birds out when the breast meat hits 150°F. They will be more tender that way.
Eat smoked pheasant right off the smoker for dinner, or you can let it cool and slice the breast meat for sandwiches. Gnaw on the thighs for a snack, and shred the drumstick meat for soup, tacos or burritos, in omelets or hash… you get the point.
Don’t forget the carcass! use that to make a smoky pheasant broth, or, even better, North Dakota knoephla soup.
- 2 whole pheasants
- 1/4 cup kosher salt, about 2 1/4 ounces
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups maple syrup, boiled down to 1 cup
- Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Find a lidded container just about large enough to hold both pheasants. Cover them with the brine and let this sit in the fridge for at least 12 hours and up to 18 hours.
- OPTIONAL: Weigh the pheasant and the water you intend to brine it in; you'll have to guess, so err on more water. Now dissolve 2 percent of that total weight -- pheasant + water -- in kosher salt in the water, then brine. This method allows you to brine the bird for days without it getting too salty.
- Take the pheasants out of the brine. Set on a cooling rack under a ceiling fan or in a breezy place and let them dry for an hour or so. You can also put the birds in a container uncovered in the fridge overnight. This drying process is an important step. You want the bird damp and tacky on the outside, not soaking wet.
- Smoke the pheasants over the wood of your choice – I prefer apple, hickory or pecan – for at least 3 hours, and up to 5 hours. You want a relatively warm smoke, between 200°F and 250°F. Let the pheasants smoke for 1 hour before painting on the maple syrup, then baste with the syrup every 30 minutes afterward.
- When the pheasants reach an internal temperature of 160°F in the thigh meat, take them out of the smoker. Put them on a cooling rack and baste them with maple syrup one more time. Wait at least 20 minutes before eating. They are excellent cold, too.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Unfortunately all of the birds I just brought back from South Dakota were skinned and not plucked. Can I still brine and smoke these birds? Someone recommended I wrap them in cheese cloth and then brine and smoke them. What are your recommendations?
I smoked a skinned pheasant this weekend. It turned out moist and tender. It was cut up so that the legs quarters and breast could be removed from the smoker when they each reach 160. I brined for 8 hrs then oiled and added the dry rub. Right before putting them on the smoker I injected with Cajun butter and wrapped each piece in bacon. I also had a rabbit and squirrel treated the same way on the smoker. The WSM was running a 225 with a mixture of apple and pecan when everything went on. I started pulling off the smaller pieces after 1.5 hrs with the bigger pieces taking a little over 2 hrs. Everything turned out great with the rabbit being the favorite and the squirrel being a little too salty from the brine.
Great smoked pheasant recipe, thanks. Your brine works perfectly. Try it with pomegranate molasses glaze instead of maple syrup sometime.
Lorraine: I really like either the Bradley Smoker or the Camp Chef Smoke Vault.
Planning to buy a smoker to do ribs, fish, poultry, etc. Do you have any recommendations for the smoker you prefer? Thank you.
Tom: I wouldn’t do it, but if you have a bunch of them, you might try it with one and see. If you do, lemme know how it goes, OK?
My father in-law has a dozen or so pheasant in the freezer now. Unfortunately they have all have been skinned. Would this smoked recipe work if you covered the birds in bacon to substitute for the skin?
I just smoked 3 birds my boys harvested a few weeks ago (their first by the way, they are 13 and 15) The birds turned out great I can’t say enough on how good they were. We used a cherry wood and it worked wonderfully. What a great Thanksgiving Day treat. On a side note my son used my grandfather’s shotgun he purchased in either 1926 or 1927, it was a great story for my son, a gun that has killed birds for nearly 100 years and it can still provide for the table. Great Blog
Alex: I would follow this recipe for smoked goose instead: https://honest-food.net/2011/12/27/how-to-make-smoked-duck/
Great site Hank! Do you think this recipe would work for a canada goose? I would love to find a smoked goose recipe. Thanks.
Hey Hank, I prepared your poached wild turkey breast recipe and it came out awesome. Do you think your smoked pheasant recipe would work well for a whole wild turkey? Looking forward to your waterfowl book.
My mouth is watering just looking at the pheasant.
What a beautiful bird. My wife and I are currently living in Prague, CZ and I am really missing my annual trip to chase roosters in Kansas. We can, however buy game meat at the markets here, so I’ll give this a try in our tiny oven.
One of my wife’s favorite game dishes was smoked pheasant, but our hunting party always skinned our birds. I would brine them as you recommend and baste on soy sauce and honey for about two hours from 200-250 over pecan wood. There would be only a very thin layer of dried meat that could be trimmed off. When it was done, we cut into small pieces and tossed in a little more soy sauce and honey. We served this as an appetizer with cheese and crackers and it was always a hit at parties.
I also want to say Thank You for what you are doing for the hunting community. You are bringing to light the responsible use of our natural resources that many non-hunters would not see otherwise.
What type of smoker do you use?
Eric: Yep. Here is how I pluck a pheasant.
I’m eager to give it a try. Any tips on plucking a wild bird without ripping the skin?
Brian: LOL. You got me! We photographed this using a store-bought pheasant. I am actually headed to Aberbeen, SD tomorrow morning, so I will post a full report soon afterwards.
Great looking legs. My birds typically have thin, very thin, legs and a slightly thinner breast. Looking forward to trying this.
The color on that bird is fantastic. It looks like a piece of mahogany furniture. But what I really want to know is how you managed to kill a rooster without breaking a wing, leg, or putting a single pellet into any edible meat. I suspect that a soft-mouthed dog caught it.
I presume that it came from South Dakota. I am waiting to hear what you thought about big time pheasant hunting, and more importantly, if you managed to bag any prairie chickens.
I have a pheasant in my freezer, but since we didn’t hunt it ourselves – we purchased it from our butchers – I’m sure it’s been pen-raised. And, unfortunately, it is far too cold here in northeast Ohio to smoke anything. 🙁 That’s okay, though; I plan on making your Glazed Roast Pheasant for Christmas dinner – it sounds awesome.