November 03, 2023
There are two main reasons to age your waterfowl: to increase flavor and to tenderize. Aging is the process of moisture evaporating from meat over an extended period of time. When this happens, natural-occurring enzymes also denature proteins, resulting in more far-less-chewy bites.
“Hanging” is sometimes another term used in place of “aging.” All “hanging” game is “aging” game, but not all “aging” comes from “hanging” game. The process of stringing up birds and hanging allows for ample airflow around all sides of the birds, which facilitates the whole aging process. Still, for bigger birds like Canada geese, you may wish to butcher those and age them by letting them rest in a cooler or refrigerator.
WHEN YOU SHOULD AGE YOUR BIRDS, AND WHEN YOU SHOULDN’T
For starters, as a reminder, aging concentrates flavor so if you don’t love the flavor of a particular species it's likely best to not increase that flavor. Here, I am talking mainly about divers, mergansers and sea ducks. To learn how to better enjoy those, check out this article. But for a limit of teal or a speck, perhaps it’s worth boosting those tastes through aging.
Proper temperature conditions are also crucial. While you can age a white-flesh upland bird at temps up to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, red-meat birds (and red meat in general) shouldn’t be aged past 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher temps significantly risk of bacteria growth in these proteins, so if you’re going to age your birds, make certain temps will remain cool enough for the entire length of time. If it’s early season, perhaps you need to age birds in a fridge or cooler.
Lastly, if you suspect a dense pattern on a bird, you may wish to inspect that bird when deciding whether to age. A bird that’s been shot up real nice and good also presents a higher risk of spoilage, especially if humidity and temps shift during aging. Best to butcher shots and turn into sausage.
HOW TO AGE DUCKS AND GEESE
For birds up to the size of a lesser Canada goose, assuming temperatures remain 33-38 F, you can weave kitchen twine through nostrils or tie it around the feet and to hang. For bigger birds, like a mature Canada goose, all that extra meat and feathers will insulate heat via innards and increase the chances of bacteria growth. And, no, I don’t recommend gutting a bird ahead of aging if you can avoid it as there is something about keeping those giblets intact, inside, that increases flavor in the end.
For bigger birds, I recommend breaking them down and aging them either outdoors (if temps allow for it) or in a fridge or cooler.
Humidity does play a role in proper aging but, unless you have the proper equipment, it is hard to control. For example, some recommend proper humidity for aging should hover between 85 and 90 percent. Well, your fridge likely sits somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. A cooler might vary between 50 and 75 percent. For me personally, humidity is less of a factor. For ducks and geese, I would take consistent temps first and foremost.
Make sure the birds remain dry, so that means not placing them directly atop ice, which will melt and wet the bird. As shown in an earlier photo, ensure there is some sort of barrier between the cold source and birds. Wet birds have a higher chance of spoilage.
I also advise not plucking any birds you plan to hang. Keep them intact. A skinned bird, over several days, will develop a candy shell, similar to what deer hunters see when aging their game. You can’t eat this and have to carve and discard. The layer of both feathers and skin prevents this.
How long to age ducks and geese:
- Teal or similar size: 3-5 days
- Wood duck or similar sizer: 5-7 days
- Mallards or similar size: 7 to 10 days
- Canada goose broken-down cuts or similar: 7-10 days
- I personally don’t recommend going past 10 days for any species of ducks or geese, but if you feel compelled to do so, please let me know what taste science you discover.
HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR BIRD IS SAFE TO EAT AFTER AGING
Properly aged meat may appear darker and color and have an earthly, potentially nutting smell. Should you discover other colors on meat—anything shade from green to brown to gray—it might be time to toss it. Also, if your nose has an adverse reaction upon smelling, if you detect pungent, sour, or ammonia-like aromas, that means that meat has spoiled. “When in doubt, throw it out.” But if you follow the above steps, you should be fine. Still, make sure to check before cooking.
CAN YOU FREEZE AGED BIRDS?
Absolutely, but I would advise aging BEFORE freezing. Upon freezing, any meat is going to lose moisture. It has something to do with science, ice crystals forming in protein fibers, rupturing cells that might have normally retained moisture, and that minor damage from ice forming in meat causes the leakage upon thawing out. Because moisture evaporation is the fundamental aspect of aging, you want to start with the original amount of moisture to ensure the whole process occurs as intended.
Reach out to me on Instagram (@WildGameJack) with any questions or comments.