Essential Waterfowl Recipes: Marinade Secrets

By author of The Duck Blog

The science behind the soak

Throughout our recent series of recipes, we’ve explored numerous methods for preparing and cooking waterfowl. Today, we explore a basic used in nearly every hunter’s kitchen: marinades. While we’ve all taken the easy way out, simply dunking ducks in Italian dressing and calling it good, here, we’ll take a step back and discuss methods that are just as easy, but offer much better results.

We’ll investigate the science end of marinades a bit, dispel an old myth and pose a few new questions. More goes into marinades than what I thought, and my research leaves me starving for more. 

marinade poured over waterfowl meat

To start, let’s back up and investigate from the beginning. It’s believed that the use of marinades date back to pre-Columbian Mexico, where locals cooked in papaya leaves to increase the palatability of meats. As it turns out, they were onto something, as papaya offers reactive properties from a substance called papain. In fact, papain is used in many commercial marinades and, more often, tenderizers. It’s protein-digesting enzymes help break down tough connective tissues in meats.

Seeing how I’m not a central-American native with papayas growing in the backyard, I’ve used my own blend of secret ingredients to create marinades for years. Doing so has left me with mixed results. Some have created ducks and geese that tasted like they were cooked by Bobby Flay, others by my labrador retriever. Again, research saves the day.

Looking into the basics of marinades helps clear things up. Each must contain three basic elements: an oil, a component to break down meat proteins and a spice or flavoring agent.

Oils can be just about anything you want: from inexpensive cooking oils to the fanciest olive; coconut oil is a favorite of mine. The flavor component follows suit allowing for experimentation. Most marinade recipes for waterfowl combine a relatively strong, earthy spice like rosemary, with a little heat from cayenne or a healthy shot of black pepper. 

The “breakdown factor” can be a little more tricky. After fairly extensive research, it appears most chefs differ in opinion on just what happens when meat is submerged in these components. Most commonly agree that the flavor is changed, however the tenderizing aspect is a subject of debate.

To simplify a bit, choose your break-down component, again, as one of three elements. Acids, alcohol or vinegar. Red wine, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, pineapple; all are included. Just think of anything that gives you heartburn.

Further investigation found milk and buttermilk also included in many marinades. Apparently they have a nature all of their own, possibly from the calcium within, that helps to break-down meats. While I’ve had great success using milk to take away some of the stronger tastes of bold fish and seafood, I haven’t yet tried it on ducks. Maybe you should. 

Looking at the other possibilities, I’ve always loved red wine for marinades, and vinegars are a no-brainer. Citrus juices take a little more time to work, and help in the taste factor. 

A key trait to remember is that marinades can, and often do, combine several of these ingredients, like citrus fruits and vinegars. 

There’s nothing wrong with that - they don’t work against each other. 

One other quick tip: a long time ago, I read a catchy saying: your marinade should taste good, so it’s good to taste it! I’ve found that to be invaluable when preparing.

One common myth is that marinades penetrate deep into meats like waterfowl, and that, in the case of length of time to marinade, longer is better. For the most part, I’ve found this not to be the case.

As I looked into it more, I found numerous articles that confirmed my results: in the case of dense meats like the birds we hunt, marinades only penetrate lightly. Fish and seafood, however, will take them deep, so consider that when making a combo meal on the grill. 

In any case, most of the principles of marinades occur relatively quickly after initial contact with the meat, and three-day soaks benefit little. A good rule of thumb is the four-hour to overnight time-range for the most part. 

Finally, in the case of most wild game, marinades should have a healthy dose of salt. Coarse kosher and sea salts are favorites, but don’t overlook worcestershire and soy sauce to achieve the same goal.

So there’s the basics. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and experiment a bit on your own using our guidelines. To sum up, here’s a real basic marinade for starters to kick your taste buds into gear:

  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire and / or soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry herb mix using any combination of rosemary, chives, bay leaves and / or thyme
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • A good shot of a citrus juice 
  • Enough oil to make a nice creamy texture when mixed