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.
Meryle Lehn says
Love your recipes and side info. I have several times cockspatched and de boned birds once doing a wild bird turducken (goose, pheasant, Ruff grouse). So want to try cockspatched and deboning a couple of skin on pheasant then smoking. Will brine and smoke time change? I also wanted to through carcus in smoker as well so will have smoked bones for broth later…Will that work. Sugestions
Russell Walker says
If I don’t pluck the pheasant, will it still be good prepared without the skin on?
Hank Shaw says
Russell: Not really. Smoked adheres, and flavors, fatty things much much better than lean muscle, so in a smoked pheasant the majority of the smoked flavor will be in the skin and fat.
Ted Dysart says
Hank, I’m starting with frozen birds from the freezer. Can I smoke them and refreeze them? At one of the hunt clubs I’ve been to we got frozen smoked Pheasant that was great with a cheese board, but I’m not sure about freezing, thawing, cooking and refreezing meat. Is that safe?
Hank Shaw says
Ted: Yes, you can smoke and refreeze. That works well.
Is the brining the “seasoning” or can you also season the bird before putting in the smoker
Hank Shaw says
Dalton: The brining is just to help the bird retain moisture, and yes, is salts it. But you can add any other seasoning you want. But you should not need more salt.
Ralph Campanale, says
How do you modify the recipes for skinned birds1?
Thanks, and THANK YOU for your cookbooks ( I not only bought Buck Buck Moose, Duck Duck Goose and Pheasant Quail Cottontail but have bought numerous copies for my hunting friends – they make fantastic gifts, and have essentially “retired “my other 45 or so other game cookbooks)
Hank Shaw says
Ralph: In many cases, you can’t convert them, I’m sorry. A smoked, skinned pheasant isn’t very good, but if you want to try it anyway, brine as usual and smoke cold-ish, like 175F, only until the thighs are done, about 165F internal. It still might dry out, so you’ll have to tinker with it. And thanks for your support!
Hi hank, I’m referring to your recipe here for a few Chukar, instead of pheasant. In my experience, I’ve found plucking pheasant to be a daunting task. I’ve worked around this by wrapping my skinned and gutted pheasant with bacon after the brine process, and then smoking them. I’ve had great success with this method! Thanks for the recipe!
Hank- I used 100% pure maple syrup but it really did not want to boil down much. Looking up the water content of pure syrup, its only 33%. Do you actually boil down pure syrup? If so how long does it take to reduce by half?
Hank Shaw says
Paul: Well, you may have thicker syrup than mine. You want it to flow like runny honey.
Thanks, it was pretty thick after I let it cool down. It seemed to work fine. Did 8 Hastings Island birds, it took a little longer, but they looked and tasted great. Had one for dinner last night, froze the rest for the holidays.