April 14, 2023
Every waterfowler has their version of the story: A morning where we piled “x” number of ducks and “so and so” carved off enough meat pondside to feed the whole blind. It’s the complete experience—headlamps floating like fireflies while the crew chucks decoys in the dark, bitter-cold hours before dawn. The carnival of calls at first light. The aroma from a line of shotguns cutting an incoming group—a smell sweeter than candles on a cake. Then, finally, flavoring the fresh fruit of one’s labor, meat that an hour before was hanging from a dog’s mouth. Few mornings top this.
Here, I will share several tips to make the cooking session both easy and delicious. It won’t look fancy, but it’ll taste just as good or better than a plate of duck you’d pay $40 or more for in a high-end restaurant.
HAVE A COOLER IF WEATHER IS STILL WARM
Whether early season or during those unseasonably warm days while hunting, make sure to have a cooler with you so you can quickly cool off your birds and any butchered meat. Any cooler will do. I recommend ice at the bottom with a piece of Styrofoam between the ice and your birds (to keep the birds and meat dry) with the drain unplugged to allow any excess water to seep out. The goal is to keep your birds both dry, cold, and clean at all times. If you don’t need a cooler to do this—if the temps outside are between 32- and 40-degrees Fahrenheit—feel welcome to stack the birds and meat anywhere they will remain clean.
GIVE A PLUCK
The best meat to grill immediately is the breast meat, but you’ll want to pluck the feathers from the breasts for better flavor. Waterfowl skin is the bacon of birds. Don’t toss it. Take the time—literally 5 minutes at most per bird—to pluck feathers from the breast and alongside it. You’ll find when butchering out the breasts, there are always feathers remaining on the sides, so pluck along the ribs, below the wings, more than you think you might need to.
Use a Bic lighter to singe off any small hairs. Pull the tenderloins (small slivers of meat on back of breasts) and set them aside for later or grill hot and fast with salt and pepper. Tenderloins are a separate cut from the breasts and will therefore cook unevenly if you try to cook them together with the breasts.
BRING A WATER BOTTLE WITH A SALTWATER BRINE
A day or two before hunting, simmer a ratio of half cup kosher salt to 1 gallon water. Cool it and add to a stainless steel or plastic water bottle. Keep that water cold, borderline freezing. After plucking and butchering out your breasts, soak them in that saltwater brine for a half hour. Goal here is not to brine but to rather allow the saltwater to extract residual blood, resulting in a cleaner cut of meat, while also cooling that warm meat to a colder temp. With this basic recipe, we want to start with a cold cut of meat. After a half hour, remove the breasts and thoroughly rinse with clean, cold water (meaning you will want a second, separate water bottle).
PAT-DRY FOR A BETTER SEAR
After rinsing off the breasts, pat-dry and perhaps leave in the cooler or blind with ample airflow to allow to completely dry for 20-30 minutes. A dry piece of meat creates a better sear and a better crust of skin.
SALT & PEPPER AND START WITH A COLD PAN OR SKILLET
When ready to cook, lightly salt and pepper both sides of your duck or goose breasts. (You’ll likely want to bring a plastic container with a simple mix of kosher salt and ground black pepper.) Add those breasts to a cold skillet or pan over a camp burner. Ignite burner and set to high. For this recipe, I used a Coleman Portable Bottletop Propane Camp Stove, which you can get for $40 on Amazon or most anywhere they sell camping supplies. It’s small, compact, and gets the job done. My skillet was cast-iron and 10 inches wide, as I believe your skillet or pan should match the size of your burner or come close.
Add breasts skin-side down so fat can render and lend flavor to the skillet. Once the skin is brown and crisp, after 6-10 minutes, flip the breasts to add a crust to the other side. Because this side is starting its sear when the skillet is hot (versus the skin side that started when skillet was cold), adding a crust to this side will only take 3-4 minutes. Once you have that crust on underside, cover the breasts with a pot lid and allow to cook for 2 minutes. Flip back to the skin side and cover for another 2-3 minutes. (These suggested times are for mallard-sized breasts. For smaller breasts, you may wish to cover for half that time. For Canada-geese-sized breasts, you likely want to double that cover time. The sear times should remain about the same, as the time to sear the exterior should be fairly universal.)
After covering for an appropriate amount of time, remove and allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving. If it’s cold enough you don’t need a cooler, make sure to cover your breasts with aluminum foil while they rest. During the rest, juices will evenly redistribute throughout meat while the carryover effect (hot exterior layers of meat) will gradually continue to cook the interior meat.
The end goal is always medium-rare. Waterfowl flavor decreases exponentially for every degree past 135, so remember you can always cook more if underdone, but you can never cook less if overdone. Serve with an orange slice. Remind those eating to “chew slowly” to avoid cracking teeth on steel shot. Create memories.