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Brines vs Marinades: Which Method is Better for Waterfowl?

Settling the debate on tasty waterfowl prep.

Brines vs Marinades: Which Method is Better for Waterfowl?

When it comes to cooking your birds, you should do what your tastebuds prefer, but you'll likely need to spend some time to dial in to know exactly what you like. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss,” right? That doesn’t apply to cooking your waterfowl. The slogan, “The more you know” is far more applicable and should govern how you prepare your birds.

While I break down here the differences between brines (both wet and dry) and marinades, there remains one common important factor between them. If you take only one bit of info from this article it should be this: Salt is important. Salt opens up your tastebuds—like how a dash of water in whiskey or scotch enhances it, allows it to breathe and thus taste better. But salt also binds to muscle fibers and during cooking, that prevents moisture loss, meaning your meat will also end up tasting juicier, even if overcooked.

Truth be told there is a lot of science that plays into why a meal can taste incredible, or awful. With this article, it’s my goal to add a few more arrows to your culinary quiver, thus equipping you with a versatile, deadly set of broadheads that will make sure you kill it in the kitchen every time.


Dry Brine Overview 

  • This could be a rub or just plain kosher salt, but the concept remains same as a wet brine: salt binds to muscle fibers and retains moisture.
  • With a dry brine (no water), salt on exterior of meat absorbs moisture from the meat which dissolves the salt into sodium and chloride ions that penetrate deep and work their way to center of meat.
waterfowl meat
Brines can be helpful to draw out extra blood and gaminess from waterfowl. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Wet Brine Overview 

  • Salt in the brine penetrates deep and binds to muscle fibers, helping to reduce moisture loss by upwards of 50% during cooking.
  • A salty brine will also extract residual blood, resulting in a cleaner looking and tasting cut of meat.
  • A brine can imbue meat with flavor, but similar to a marinade, only at surface level, likely no deeper than an 1/8 inch.
  • A brine requires more time to both prep and properly put to work, as meat, generally speaking, should need to soak in a brine longer versus a marinade.

Wet Brine Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon cold water
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 bulb fresh garlic, smashed
  • 8 ounces fresh ginger, smashed
  • Zest from one orange


Marinade Overview 

  • Marinades may penetrate meat upwards of 1/8 inch over 24 hours, rarely farther.
  • Acids can denature exterior of meat for a sense of tenderness; however, too much acidity can turn exterior meat to mush, especially over longer periods of time.
  • While oil does not penetrate meat, it will help the meat sear evenly over heat and assist with crust on exterior.
  • Sugar in a marinade will also assist with creating a crust as it helps caramelize meat when cooking in what’s known as the Maillard reaction (a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinct flavor).
  • Additional flavors in a marinade (aside from acids, salt, and sugar), though only penetrating perhaps an 1/8 inch, will balance well with biting into meat, as while chewing, unflavored center of meat will mix with exterior for a complete sense of “marinated meat.”
  • Sealing marinades in with meat using a chamber vacuum sealer results in marinade penetrating deeper in a shorter amount of time due to the pressure (air is removed from chamber then pressure between chamber and bag are equalized, forcing the marinade deeper into meat). *MEAT!’s chamber vacuum sealer (meatyourmaker.com) was used for this recipe.
waterfowl meat on grill
Marinades can help add a tasty, crunchy crust when grilling waterfowl. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Marinade Ingredients:

  • 1 cup freshly squeeze lime juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, minced
  • 3 jalapeños, seeded and minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3 large cloves of fresh garlic, smashed

When to Brine, When to Marinade?

When possible, I do recommend a simple wet saltwater brine prior to freezing any waterfowl to remove residual blood (versus freezing waterfowl with remnants of blood, which could taint flavor). When prepping to cook, choosing between a wet or dry brine or a marinade is likely a matter of personal preference. A solid brine is basically insurance that even if you overcook your waterfowl past medium-rare, it will taste juicy due to moisture retention (thanks to brine). If looking to add some flare in terms of flavor, perhaps a marinade is the way to go. A dry brine in the form of a rub is perhaps the middle ground, as salt will bind to muscle fibers and help retain moisture while other spices will imbue meat with flavor. I recently use Meat Church’s Holy Voodoo on some duck breasts with great results. For that recipe, you can check out @MadeWithMeat’s February 24, 2021 Instagram post.

Personally, I usually operate from a purist’s point of view and believe wild game should taste like wild game. I don’t try to mask natural flavor tones via marinades and other spices. I have found flavors such as ginger and coriander can assist with neutralizing overly scuzzy flavors, typically found with divers or even mallards who spent a lot of time dieting on less-than-fresh ponds. So I include those flavors in most of my bird wet brines. But, ultimately, the choice is yours. It’s my job to arm you with the knowledge to make the best choice for what you prefer. This is a recipe to help you test the flavor differences in a brine versus marinade. What was better? Reach out to me on Instagram: @WildGameJack and let me know.

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