In this final installment of our ongoing waterfowl cooking series, we saved the best for last: braising. While braising can be a bit time-consuming, it’s anything but difficult, and leaves ducks and geese mouth-watering and juicy like no other cooking method. Let’s start by defining braising for our purposes.
In essence, braising is nothing more than cooking at low temperature in a sealed pot with included moisture. As we’ll discuss later, I’ve found alcohol to be the secret liquid ingredient when cooking waterfowl, but other forms of moisture can be used.
To braise birds, most recipes call for first browning the meat, and possibly the included vegetables, before transferring them to the braising pot. While this certainly adds to the overall flavor of the dish, it’s not absolutely necessary to the cooking process. I highly recommend browning, and consider adding a little brown sugar to the pan, especially when cooking vegetables like onions. Such caramelization can be a very rewarding process; but be careful not to burn.
To back up a bit, let’s get a little scientific in our explanation of the braising process.
As we’ve mentioned in previous pieces, waterfowl, and many other wild game meats, contain higher levels of tough connective tissues and lower levels of fat than domestic meats. The reason is simple: our ducks have to migrate across the continent. Farm ducks simply migrate to their food dish. Wild birds, therefore, have darker, denser, tougher meats, especially in the breast.
This “toughness” actually comes from the connective tissues, or collagen. When heated and cooked improperly, this tissue becomes incredibly chewy.
I’ve boiled scrap duck meat for my dog and can attest to this: such cooking leaves the boy chewing for quite some time.
To combat this, braising slowly cooks the meat in the presence of moisture, turning the tough collagen fibers to a gelatinous material that softens the dish overall.
Start by browning your birds in a pan with a bit of fat of some kind. I’m particular to coconut oil, but butter or other, more popular oils will work. I like to season my meat prior to cooking with a quick rub intended for pork ribs, but have traded it for simple seasoning salt with great results.
Once the birds are browned - whether they be whole ducks, breasts, legs, etc. - remove them and add a little liquid to the pan. I use red wine for nearly all steps, but straight-up beef broth works well, and even beer can be used. Mix the liquid in with the tasty morsels left in the pan, keep the heat on, and stir.
Next, add your veggie choice. While the standards for wild game are usually onions, carrots and some spice, just about anything can be substituted. For the most part, I like to stick with a crunchy vegetable (celery, water chestnut, peppers, carrots), some kind of an onion and bay leaves. However, taco seasoning can be a nice alternative, chili spices are great, and even soy sauce works well here with ginger and garlic. Brown your veggies, making sure onions turn translucent; fancy cooks call this “sweating”.
Once everything is cooked down, bring your birds back into the mix and place all the ingredients in a braising pot, and cover them with your braising liquid of choice. It’s important, here, to discuss the pot itself.
Chefs swear by heavy braising pots and dutch ovens, and the results can’t be argued with. But I’ve braised ducks in standard sauce pots on the stove, and in casserole dishes in the oven, and loved my food.
The key seems to lie in the amount of room in the container or, in this case, a lack of it. It’s important not to have a lot of empty space left over after all the ingredients are placed in the pot, and it’s equally important to have a decent seal. Too much empty space in the pot allows for excessive condensation on the underside of the lid, which later drips back into the dish and hurts the process. And loose lids allow steam to escape; again throwing off our moisture balance.
I recommend a dutch oven. I have talked to more than one avid cook who found real winners at garage sales for next-to-nothing. Do some looking; dutch ovens are worth their weight, literally, in the kitchen.
The cooking process is the easy part, but fairly time consuming. If braising in the oven, do so at 325 degrees. If on the stove, use a burner set to low. The key is to keep the dish at a light simmer. For the most part, braising times are relative; don’t worry about over-cooking. Longer cook times help more than hurt in this case. Duck breasts can be braised in a couple hours; conversely, whole birds or geese legs may take four or five.
The results will be extremely tender, leaving you to wonder if you’re even eating waterfowl. And, like many types of cooking, experience in braising leads to your own style and variation. The possibilities are endless.
My wife has a habit of only drinking half a bottle of wine. And I know just what to do with the rest.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.