Waterfowl Cooking Secret: Brine Your Birds

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How to brine ducks. It's a fool-proof cooking secret used by professional chefs

Christmas is upon us. Amongst the overwhelming joy of spending time with family and friends comes that nauseating feeling of an over-extended budget. I blame my wife for letting the gifts get out of hand, but what the heck, it’s Christmas. And, for many of us, a tradition at Christmas is to cook and eat entirely too much. A few hardcore sportsmen will cook ducks and geese for their sister-in-law, but many hunters are chicken, worried they’ll hear “it’s a little gamey." Fear not, my fellow fowlers, for I have found the secret.

I began cooking ducks about the same time I began shooting them with some regularity. And just like my introduction to the sport, I began without a set of rules or a mentor. I just tried a bunch of things, took the usual Internet advice, and failed miserably. Then, one day, I tried a new technique to “prepare” my meat prior to cooking. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had stumbled onto a technique that top chefs use to condition wild game for both taste and moisture. The official name of the technique is “brining," and today I wouldn’t cook without it.

As many of you know, brining is basically soaking your food in a saltwater mixture prior to cooking. Everybody brines fish prior to smoking, and many brine meats. The technique originated back in the days before refrigeration when meats were carried across oceans on ships. Corned beef got its start that way – you’ll remember that next year on Patty’s Day. In those days, the process of salting meat was done to preserve it; today, brining takes on a different purpose.

When you soak meat in a saltwater bath, a process called osmosis begins, where the saltwater mixture moves into the cells of the meat. This causes a change in the protein structure and causes the meat to retain moisture throughout the cooking process. In addition, it forces out some of the moisture from within the meat, most notably, blood. When wild game is brined, it turns noticeably paler throughout the process. Much of the “gamey” flavor is removed, and the meat naturally retains more moisture when cooked. That's a good thing since wild game is low in fat and, therefore, has a tendency to dry out. The result: prime rib of the sky.

I kid you not when I say I cooked a mallard the other day that would pass for a filet. The brining process was the key. I do it the old fashioned way: throw a few breasts in a bowl, cover with water, and salt very liberally with sea salt. Many types of brine also contain sugar – something I haven’t found I need when preparing ducks or geese. I then soak in the saltwater until the water gets a good stain from blood, dump, and refill with brine. I’ll change the water about three times over a 36-hour period, and then the meat is ready to cook. You can’t really overdo it. The meat will be a little saltier, so adjust seasoning in the cooking process accordingly.

There you have it, my friends. The best way to prepare wild game without the use of a deep fryer. Try it over the Holidays for the family. And tell your sister-in-law it was steak.