There's more to grilling waterfowl than meets the eye
Without question, the most common method of cooking wild ducks and geese is on the grill. There’s something about getting outdoors on a crisp fall day and enjoying the rewards of a recent hunt. It just seems right to prepare wild game in the wild.
While nearly all of us have some degree of grilling experience, preparing waterfowl this way can be a bit tricky. When compared to a choice cut of beef, pork or chicken, wild game presents challenges due to it’s low fat content. That, coupled with modern quick-cooking propane grills, often leaves us with less-than-scrumptious results.
Fear not. As part of our continuing recipe series, we’ll get a little more in-depth with this popular cooking method. Grilling ducks and geese can be tricky, but, when done right, it’s one of the easiest and best preparation methods. The key is to remember a few simple tips:
Preparation is vital. When grilling ducks and geese, more time should be spent preparing the meat than cooking it. Our previous installment covered marinade basics. Marinades, as well as dry rubs, really aid in the overall taste of prepared game. Not only will they help flavor the meat, marinades and rubs actually aid in breaking down tissues that lead to tough birds. These initial steps are vital before lighting the grill.
Plucked birds reign supreme. Like everyone else, when I'm in a hurry, I simply skin and breast-out most birds. But each hunting season, I find myself plucking more, as leaving the skin on the breast simply creates better flavor. The key is the underlying fat membrane: it helps add moisture and flavor throughout the cooking process. Rendering duck breasts on a stovetop results in epic flavors, but similar results can be obtained on the grill. By using a teflon-coated grill mat and cooking skin-side down, that rendered taste carries over to the outdoor cooktop. Cook plucked breasts 90% of the way in this method, and flip the meat for the last minute or two of cooking.
Don’t overdo the heat. I’ve found it best to only light half of my grill when preparing waterfowl. This allows me to have a hot zone right above the burner, and a separate area of the grill that’s much cooler. When cooking several birds of different sizes and thicknesses, like mallards coupled with teal or geese, it’s important to be able to move smaller cuts off the heat rather quickly. Allow everything to initially sear, but don’t be afraid to back off a bit on smaller birds. As I’ve stated numerous times before, it’s nearly impossible to undercook ducks, especially if you plan to reheat later in the microwave.
It’s best to only flip once. Experienced burger chefs know the importance of putting their meat on the grill, and leaving it alone; the same goes for ducks and geese. The science behind this reason is simple: while cooking, juices are forced up and away from the heat. One single flip results in those juices being pushed back through the meat; however, doing so repeatedly dries it out. Even when moving partially cooked birds to the grill’s “cool zone”, keep it cooked-side down until the final stage is set for one single flip, a sear, and removing from heat.
Let stand. I can’t over-stress this step. After any method of cooking, but especially when grilling, allow ducks and geese to stand before slicing. A five-minute break on the cutting board prior to slicing is the minimum. As cooked meat stands, juices that were rushed to the hottest portion of the bird will now flow back through the cut. Ever wonder why it seems your birds get tastier as you’re eating them? The reason is the uneaten portion has been allowed to stand longer.
Grilling is the easiest method of cooking ducks and geese, but, to do so, right, careful consideration must be made at each step. The results are tough to beat.
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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.