Essential Waterfowl Recipes: Brining

By author of The Duck Blog

As we continue the Monday cooking series, we explore an essential method

Last Monday, we got things cranking in the kitchen by opening the recipe vault and exploring the fool-proof method of rendering waterfowl breasts in a pan. This week, our quest to bring you simple, effective cooking methods for ducks and geese continues with another kitchen staple: brining. 

Many of you recognize brining as a trending technique for cooking Thanksgiving turkey. A few of you grill aficionados probably use the method for pork. But, simply put, brining is a home-run for waterfowl. 

Make no mistake: when it comes to brining, many professional resources say it’s a no-no for duck. But they’re talking about artificially fattened farm-ducks, not God’s ducks. As we’ve touched on in the past, that’s like comparing a heifer to an antelope; not even close. 

For starters, let’s investigate the science of brining, without getting overly complicated.

Simply put, brining involves soaking raw meat in a sugar / salt “brine” prior to cooking. Doing so performs three major functions. First, the salt and sugar concentrations are naturally lower within the meat to begin with, so, through the process of diffusion, those materials want to get in. Next, once the sugar and salt achieve their goal, the salt begins to break down the proteins within the meat, causing them to unravel and stick together. Later, this protein complex will be key to the meat retaining its moisture during the cooking process. Finally, during the brining process, the meat also retains water, thus making it more moist.

After brining, once the cooking process begins, the unraveled protein matrix forms a sort of gel, locking moisture within the meat, preventing drying out. This is the main reason so many delicious food products that are slow-cooked are brined before-hand. But, regardless of cooking duration, when it comes to products susceptible to getting dry (like waterfowl), brining is the way to go.

Early on, I always forgot the ratios involved in brining. Once I came across a simple formula online, things got easier.

E-Z Brine:

I pound of meat = 1 quart water, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup salt.

Duck breasts soaking in brine

Quick Tip: the average mallard breast (without skin) weighs about 3 ounces. Figure five to a pound. 

Brining times vary, but to be effective, meat must be fully submerged for at least a couple hours. I try not to exceed an “overnight” time frame of about eight hours in total. Following brining, simply cook meat as you normally would on the grill. 

A couple final tips: First, rinse your game after brining, prior to cooking. The important work is already done on the inside of the meat.

Next, Kosher salt is often recommended by many chefs for a variety of reasons, but, primarily, because it is less bitter than table salt and contains no additives. However, Kosher salt is also less dense, and needs to be used in a higher concentration than table salt in a brine. I usually add about 50% more. In the end, if your food tastes salty, next time use less.

Finally, brown sugar can be used in a higher dose than white sugar, and seems to change the taste a bit. Experiment there on your own.

Brining is vitally important in the waterfowler’s kitchen. Try it once, and you’ll see why. Soon, you’ll be like me, perking up everything in your path, from shrimp on the grill to oven-roasted pork chops, all the while knowing that ducks are still the best.