May 24, 2022
By Jack Hennessy
Fishy. Gamey. Scuzzy. Gross. The list of words used to describe the flavor of diving ducks, mergansers, and sea ducks is a long one, sometimes laced with expletive slang. More so than any other waterfowl, these birds wind up in the dog’s bowl versus on the family table. While we will never be capable of making a merganser taste like a soybean-fed mallard, there are some steps we duck hunters can take to make these waterfowl edible at the very least and, in some cases, even enjoyable.
See the author's "Complete Guide to Processing Waterfowl" to ensure your birds are fit from field to fork!
Diet Means Taste
What an animal eats plays a large role in how they taste. Because divers, mergansers, and sea ducks feed on fish, snails, clams, and other invertebrates under the water, their meat, and especially their fat, take on these flavor tones and will be present when cooked.
Skin or Pluck?
A great deal of flavor resides within an animal’s fat and in the case of waterfowl, a large portion of that fat resides in the skin. While I will preach plucking your mallards and your Canada geese—citing the line that “skin is the bacon of waterfowl”—in the instance of divers and sea ducks, you may wish to skin these birds in an effort to eliminate a large portion of those fishy flavor tones.
The Power of a Brine
A saltwater-based brine not only pulls out residual blood from game, it draws out oil and, to some extent, neutralizes adverse flavor tones. Adding freshly smashed ginger also helps with this, as ginger plays a small role in dialing back any harsh aspects of game.
The brine water recipe is simple: 1 gallon water, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 1/2 cup white sugar, 6 to 8 ounces fresh ginger, smashed. Bring all to a simmer and stir until sugar and salt is dissolved. Put in fridge to cool and add waterfowl only once brine is cool. Let your game brine for 6-10 hours then completely rinse under cold water before cooking.
Buttermilk & Apples
Several years ago, when volunteering at a men’s shelter that also served wild game in its soup kitchen, the chef showed me how he soaks venison in buttermilk mixed with sugar and apples (then rinses) in an effort to disguise the wild-game flavor profile. Because he wanted to fully nourish his residents and the needy of the community, he didn’t want them to ever turn up their nose because of any “gamey” tastes. While I don’t recommend this for your venison, it did seem to work for him and during my visits, I didn’t hear any complaints from those dining at the shelter.
In regard to divers, mergansers, and sea ducks, those fishy notes are perceived mostly by the bitter region of your taste buds. How do we offset bitter in the culinary world? With sweetness and fats. A soak in buttermilk with apples will help with this. You may even wish to brine according to the above brine water recipe then soak in buttermilk with apples for a few hours before preparing.
Marinade with Fresh Fruit, Herbs, & Wine
A combination of aromatic herbs and the sweetness of fresh fruit like apples or oranges, combined with some smashed garlic and a little bit of white wine works as a fantastic marinade. I sealed all these ingredients together and let the package sit in the fridge for a few hours. Next, the duck breasts were sous vide cooked at 110 degrees Fahrenheit for a half hour and then reversed seared. The duck alone was amazing. The blueberry beurre blanc made it next level (more to come on that soon).
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The Best Ways to Cook Divers, Mergansers, and Sea Ducks
My former boss in Spokane, Washington loved to turn his divers into “Duck Parmesan”. This cooking process involved a buttermilk soak with a toss of Italian breadcrumbs, a pan fry, and finally, putting the dish in the oven to melt cheese overtop and serving with warm marinara.
I’ve gone on to take his recipe a few steps further. After a buttermilk soak, toss the breasts through a mix of flour, cornstarch, and spices, then dip in egg wash, add another coating of flour and cornstarch, then pan fry in peanut oil. This is great method for cooking divers, mergansers, and sea ducks. You can also just marinate the meat and toss in breadcrumbs and flour and fry.
Crock pots are also great for turning these birds into delicious, shredded meat. I recommend brining them first (according to steps above) then adding to a crock pot on low along with some of your favorite sauces and maybe a diced onion and some tomatoes—or even sliced jalapeños if that is your thing. Over the next several hours, this low-and-slow method with tenderize the meat while the ingredients will imbue it with flavor.
There are of course other cooking methods, but the last one I will cover here, is pairing your divers, mergs, or sea ducks with a rich sauce. In this case, I am speaking to a sweet beurre blanc, which is basically a butter sauce. As you may recall, fat and sweetness help balance out the bitter, adverse flavor innate to these birds. I usually leave the skin on—I can’t bring myself to skin these birds during prep—but the option of whether to pluck or skin here is entirely up to you.
Any questions or comments, please reach out on Instagram: @WildGameJack