Smoked Pheasant

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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.

A whole smoked pheasant on a cutting board.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

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.

Carving a smoked pheasant
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

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.

A whole smoked pheasant on a cutting board.
4.91 from 10 votes

Smoked Pheasant

This is a hot-smoking method, essentially a really slow, smoky barbecue. You must use plucked pheasants for this recipe. It will not work with skinned birds, as they will get too dry. If you are not a hunter but want to make this, you can use a high-quality domestic chicken (regular supermarket ones are too soft and flabby) or you can buy a whole pheasant online or in some supermarkets.
Course: Cured Meat
Cuisine: American
Servings: 6
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 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

Instructions 

  • 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.

Notes

Note: This recipe also works with chukars, grouse and partridges, but not turkeys. Use this smoked turkey recipe instead.

Nutrition

Calories: 823kcal | Protein: 103g | Fat: 42g | Saturated Fat: 12g | Cholesterol: 323mg | Sodium: 182mg | Potassium: 1106mg | Vitamin A: 805IU | Vitamin C: 24mg | Calcium: 55mg | Iron: 5mg

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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60 Comments

  1. I cooked a whole pheasant that had been skinned by this method on my green egg over lump charcoal and apple wood with the temperature at 250 degrees. Since the bird was skinless, I wrapped it in bacon to try and keep it moist. It was fantastic and the molasses I drizzled over it after the first hour was next level, lip smacking good.

  2. Hi Hank…My son just brought home 10 pheasants yesterday…after reading your recipe and the need for brine time , would it be ok to freeze the pheasants until I can brine and smoke them next weekend?

  3. I’m going to do pheasant and chucker (breasts only) for Christmas. Then I’m going to slice thin for sandwiches. I plan to bacon wrap. I will also be using a temp gauge and it take off at 160*. Can you give me an approx. time it takes so I can plan when to put them on? I’m guessing an hour plus.

    1. George: Pull them at 150F. They will be fine, and much more tender. Also, Put them in cold, right out of the fridge. And smoke them at low low heat because you want it to take a couple hours to get to internal temperature so you have enough smoke time.

  4. So, I have 2 skinned Pheasants and a smoker with a variety of pellets. What else can I use if I don’t have chicken skin? Peppered bacon draped over the breasts?

  5. Would this recipe be possible with chukars that are not whole? My cousin gave me two frozen gallon bags and I didn’t realize it’s just breasts, thighs and legs. I’m wondering if the time/temps would be different.

  6. This recipe has become my go to smoked game bird primer. It is adaptable and so easy to follow. You will automatically get good results.

  7. I usually end up with skinned duck and pheasant breasts at the end of the fall hunting seasons. When I buy chicken thighs I routinely skin them before cooking. I roll up the skins and freeze them in ziplock bags- and use the skins to cover wild pheasant and duck breasts before roasting or smoking… less fat than bacon, and it does not impart a bacon flavor. Helps keep them moist.

  8. Hank, I have several pheasants that were given to me. They are skinned and legs removed. I have brined and smoked wild turkey with about a pound of bacon tooth picked in and it doesn’t dry out too much. Do you think I would get a similar result on my naked birds?

  9. Here is an additional tip from David the owner of Quail Point Hunting Club in Zamora California. He smokes his pheasant and then immediately zip lock backs them and puts them in the smallest cooler (without ice) that fits all the birds for 2 hours. This really seals in the moisture (I like to call it a red neck pheasant under glass technique :))_I can’t wait to try the recipe!I am brining now!

  10. Hank, the smoked pheasant recipe is wonderful.
    We made it for Christmas, using a skinned bird and pomegranate molasses for basting. We we wrapped it in bacon strips and smoked it for 4 hours using hickory and pecan, and took it out when the meat thermometer read 160 deg F. The result was amazing – it wasn’t dry, and it was very flavorful, and it made an amazing Christmas dinner.
    Thanks for the great recipes.

  11. smoking pheasant right now should be good. will be cooking very large white front,might be a tule goose 8 lbs taken near colusa , ca. will be christmas dinner , any ideas.

  12. Thank you, Hank!

    I have made this recipe twice now, both times the pheasant was cooked to perfection! Used Hickory the 1st time and apple wood the 2nd. Both were great, the difference in taste was subtle. I topped the breasts and legs with slices of maple bacon.

    Thank you again, I would never have ventured to try smoking pheasant without your most informative and helpful instructions.

  13. Hello Hank, Quick question. I brined a plucked pheasant whole overnight and have it drying in a Tupperware bin in the fridge (covered but with some paper towels). My question is how long it will keep like this. I’m going hunting this weekend for ducks and geese and was hoping I will have more to go with it come Sunday. I was assuming that b/k you can hang pheasants for so long that it will probably keep pretty well for a week or so but I didn’t want to take any chances either. Thanks in advance

  14. This was great!! I added a bit of Sriracha (about 1 tbsp) and bourbon. I thought it was the best pheasant I’ve had and a few of my friends who eat pheasant quite a bit agreed. Thank you for sharing the recipe.

  15. Great recipe! We always skin our birds so to seal in moisture I wrapped the breasts in bacon. Seemed to work great as the meat was melting in our mouths! Thanks again for this recipe!

  16. When using this recipe or any other recipe for smoking game birds how do you deal with the shot that is still in the bird. do you have to pick all the shot out before brining or is it all right just to throw a whole pheasant cleaned skin on bird in the brine. I have heard that the salt in the brine will react with the shot.

    1. Dave: I’ve never bothered to take the shot out. But then, I would not make this with a heavily shot-up bird.

  17. I have 10 pheasants frozen. They are skinned. Good hunting trip to North Dakota. I want to smoke them and then referees them. Will this work out ok? I could use some guidance on this plan.
    Thanks
    Larry

    1. Larry: I really don’t like smoked pheasant that has been skinned. It dries out too fast. But if you do it, you will need to make sure the meat is fully cooked before you re-freeze, otherwise the meat will suffer even more. But honestly, I’d do something else with them.

  18. This worked perfectly for my ‘Franken-Pheasant’. My pheasants were skinned, so I pulled the skin from chicken hind quarters and ‘re-skinned’ my pheasant breast sections. They slipped right in like a tight sweater. I stuffed a little chicken fat in there, too. The pheasant hind quarters,legs, and wings I use for soups.