A Brief Manual on How to Clean, Pluck, Hang, and Freeze Game, and How to Cook by the lnternal Temperature Method

- by Leigh Perkins

Reprinted by permission of the publishers, Lyons & Burford, from
"The Orvis Cookbook" (£19.00). All rights reserved.

The Meat Thermicator

This is a very precise instrument manufactured by the leading thermocouple -instrument company. The president of that company developed this instru-ment in cooperation with Orvis for the gourmet game and meat cook, and because of our common interest in game and meat cookery, we have made this sophisticated commercial instrument available to the public. It gives an immediate internal temperature reading of anything the retractable needle is placed in. This is the secret to meat cookery perfection. The needle is less than 1/16 inch in diameter, minimizing any loss of juice from puncture. The needle is retractable and can be set to the proper depth, so that if one is cooking a steak 1½ inches thick, the needle can be set at 3/4 inch.

Although sensitive, this instrument is not delicate. We have tested these instruments for fourteen years, carrying them on canoe trips and in suitcases checked on planes (a real test). If for any reason you doubt the Meat Ther-micator's reading, check by placing it in boiling water. If it doesn't read 212° at (approximately) sea level, it can easily be adjusted using the setscrew on the front.

The temperature reading is instantaneous. One can reach over hot coals or into an oven without disturbing the cooking process. The dial reads in degrees Fahrenheit, and it is charted for the proper internal temperature for various game and meat. Even if you are not a game cook, this instrument will save its cost in ruined charcoal-grilled steaks or beef roast in a season or two.

The Art of Cooking Game

Warning: The internal temperatures in this book are based on Meat Thermi-cator readings. Do not expect the same results with ordinary meat thermom-eters. Our tests show that meat thermometers will not work at all on small game and invariably read considerably higher than the accurate Meat Ther-micator on larger birds and roasts.

Despite motion pictures showing the glamorous heroine ordering pheasant under glass, or champagne and quail, there has been a fairly universal mis-conception by hunters' helpmates that wild things are unclean, strong of odour, and generally unpleasant as table fare. Cookbooks have taken this attitude into account and in recipes for wild duck and other game have lavished pages on recipes for game that require hours for preparation. Usually the recipe involves a marinade and an elaborate sauce. This means the hunter's cook must start the day before or at least in the early morning of the day of the game dinner. At best it is an ordeal.

The typical game recipe almost always finishes by saying "roast until tender," and the cook takes this to mean "cook the hell out of it." Whatever she would have done to pot roast, she will do to game. Hers is a reasonable assumption, because after passing the critical internal temperature of between 120° and 150°, all meat gets tougher and tougher until it reaches the totally flavorless stage at 190° when it falls off the bones.

Cooking game is much like cooking a soft-boiled egg. There is a critical degree of internal temperature. One can arrive at it by calculating time, tem-perature, and thickness or weight of meat. There is one major problem in this method—temperature. When charcoal broiling, oven broiling, or pan frying it is difficult to tell the temperature. Roasting can also be misleading. Oven thermostats are often 75 degrees off. In almost every home oven there are hot and not-so-hot areas. Of two ducks, both 1½ pounds, placed in the same oven, one can come out well done and one medium.

The real crux of the matter is the internal temperature of the meat. It is somewhat significant how the meat arrives at the proper temperature, and there are degrees of preference. One can cook certain birds at a high temperature (450°) for a short time, for instance eleven minutes for quail and nineteen minutes for a mallard duck. Or one can use a lower temperature (350°) for a longer time, forty-five minutes for pheasant, for instance.

There are reasons for this difference in approach. Duck is fat and self--basting and can stand a high temperature. Some people prefer it rare, equivalent to rare steak, (internal temperature 120°). One hundred thirty to one hundred forty degrees gives you a medium-rare bird—firm meat all the way through with a deep pink center. Anything over this is overdone and on the way to being tough and flavorless.

The internal temperature range of cooked quail should be 130° to 150°. The quail is small enough so that in eleven minutes the outside will not dry out. High heat for a short time seals in juices.

On the other hand, pheasant, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse have very little fat and require a slower cooking time. With these birds the ideal oven temperature is 350°.

Dark-meat birds such as duck and woodcock have muscles designed for long duration flights. These migratory birds tend to get tough and unpalatable above 150°.

White-meat birds—quail, ruffed grouse, pheasant—have high-energy mus-cles for short duration flights. These birds can rarely sustain flights of over one mile. Ideal internal temperature is 130° to 150°. Our preference is 140°, which produces a firm but moist center. Cooked to a temperature of 150° the bird is still tender but a little more firm. Over 150° internal temperature all game birds begin to get tough and flavorless and are a loss, except as the base for some fancy sauce.

A Brief Game Primer

DOVE

It is best to hang doves under refrigeration for 4 days in the feathers (hanging ideally means hanging by the neck in a cooler, but they can simply be placed on a refrigerator shelf.) They are almost as good if you want to eat them immediately, but they tend to be a little tougher 12 to 48 hours after killing them. It is not necessary to draw the birds until after hanging and plucking.

Plucking: The dove is very easy to pluck because it has loose feathers and firm skin. They pluck well on a mechanical duck plucker. If you hunt early in the season, the bird may be covered with pin feathers almost impossible to pluck. Don't worry—leave the pin feathers on while cooking and skin the bird before serving. Place the crisp bacon you have basted it with back on top of the bird before arranging on a serving platter.

Freezing: Dove may be frozen in water. Put 6 or 7 in a 1-quart plastic container, fill with water, and freeze. Frozen birds are not as good as fresh-hung and should not be kept more than 5 to 6 months.

Roasting: Roasting time should be 8 to 10 minutes. The internal temperature should be 130° to 150°. At 130° the centre will be deep pink. At 140° (our preference) the centre will be light pink. At 150° the centre will be brown all the way through but still moist and good. Plan 2 doves per serving for small appetites.

DUCK

There have probably been more of these wonderful birds brought home with pride and then ruined in the kitchen than any other bird. If anyone says he likes duck well done, you know right away he would rather have hamburger, and that is what we suggest you serve him.

Ducks present some new and interesting problems because the duck's diets can affect the flavor. This should not eliminate them as table birds, but they do require varied preparations. Mallard, black duck, pintail, widgeon, teal (all types), shoveler, wood duck, canvasback, redhead, and ring-necked duck are always excellent and should be prepared in the regular way.

The following ducks can be just as good at times, but at other times they include fish and shellfish in their diets, which can affect their flavor: greater and lesser scaup, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, and bufflehead. As for gadwall, this guy is a special case. Ninety-nine percent of the time he is just as good as mallard, but once in a while he will eat something that affects his flavor, and about this you need have no doubt—when you clean him you will know right away and no one will have to tell you to throw him out.

Once I shot 3 gadwall during the same hour in the same place. Two were excellent and one no good. Give them the benefit of the doubt until cleaning.

Ducks that always have a problem are golden eye, American merganser, red merganser, old squaw, and scoter. Now for the good ducks.

Preparation: Hang them in their feathers, head up, in a refrigerator or cooler for 4 to 6 days. It is not necessary to draw ducks before hanging unless they are badly gut-shot.

Plucking: First, with anvil-knife-type pruning shears cut wings and head off as near the body as possible. Cut 1 leg off just above the joint (leave the other on as a handle for the following process).

If plucking by hand, take most of the outer feathers off back, flanks, and tail. Prepare a 2-gallon bucket (not plastic) by filling ½ full of water adding ¼ pound paraffin for each duck to be cleaned. Boil the water until the paraffin is melted. Let cool about 10 minutes.

Now submerge the duck in the bucket so that when it is pulled out the feathers and down are totally coated with paraffin. Lay on a newspaper for 5 minutes to cool. At this stage it should be simply a matter of peeling off wax, feathers, and down together, just like peeling a tangerine.

If you have an electric duck plucker, leave all appendages on until after plucking on the machine for 1 minute.

Cleaning: Cut a large opening in the rear vent. The crop and windpipe may be removed from the front—pull everything else out through the rear cavity. Save heart and liver for sautéing or making duck liver pâté.

Freezing: First, it is not recommended to freeze any of the ducks that may have fed on fish or crustaceans. They are perfectly good fresh, but often become strong or rancid when frozen.

The mallard, wood duck, and teal group will last up to 8 months if frozen in water in quart containers or bags. Most ducks fit snugly into a quart freezer bag (not the zip type), and frozen by this method will retain their flavor for 5 months.

Roasting: Preheat oven to 450°. Place duck in open pan with a splash of water and cook until Meat Thermicator indicates 120° to 140°. At 120° the meat is moist and tender, red but firm. At 130° the meat is deep pink like medium -rare steak (our preference). 140° produces a pale pink meat similar to medium steak.

To prepare and cook the scaup, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, and buffle-head, draw before hanging and roast immediately after hanging. An alternate method that is foolproof is to fillet the ducks after plucking, remove skin and all fat, and saute for approximately 4 minutes on a side until the internal temperature is between 120° and 140°.

For scoter, old squaw, golden eye, American and red-breasted mergansers, we only recommend filleting and sautéing when birds are fresh, before hanging. Prepared this way they are surprisingly delicious. Do not attempt to make duck soup from these ducks' carcasses.

Some approximate oven times: mallard, black canvas back—19-21 minutes; redhead, greater scaup, pintail, gadwall drake—17-19 minutes; wood duck, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, gadwall hen, widgeon, hooded merganser, shoveler—14-17 minutes; teal, bufflehead, ruddy duck—13-15 minutes.

Preparing for Table: If you have a hearty bunch, serve each person a whole duck. Preferably, fillet the duck and serve fillets with skin on, unless the pinfeather condition makes it more appetizing to remove skin. To fillet, use a sharp knife, preferably with rounded point, and cut down next to breastbone, staying as close to bone structure as possible. Make a second cut under wing and leg, taking as much meat as possible to meet the first cut. If one tries to do it all in 1 cut, much meat will be missed. Most people will find the fillets more appetizing than the whole duck. This way, only the breast is served. The rest of the carcass contains much meat that is difficult to get at and the legs are quite tough. We recommend pressing the juices in a duck press, or making Duck Soup from the carcasses.

Another way to prepare wild duck fillets is to fillet the ducks as described above, then remove the skin and sauté 5 minutes on each side on very low heat. The internal temperature should be 130° to 140°. The fillets will be an appetizing brown with the centre only slightly pink. Jessie Hill, the greatest game cook I know, figured this method out to initiate the newcomer to the delights of wild duck.

A close friend of mine was having a big dinner for a large number of VIP's and had collected some 18 wild ducks. The south Georgia farmhand who was commissioned to pluck the ducks had heard about some shortcut, dipping the duck in "parafeen." Unfortunately over the telephone, paraffin was interpreted as kerosene. Eighteen ducks were buried, and I believe the VIPs ate ham that evening. Old proverb: There are lots of ways to ruin a wild duck.

GOOSE

Wild geese have the reputation of being tough, dry, and rather inferior table fare. This is absolutely right if you follow the typical goose or poultry recipe.

There is great variation in geese as to age and weight. Geese should be drawn and hung under refrigeration or outside at 40° to 50° for 5 to 7 days, in the feathers.

Pluck and prepare as for duck, except allow 2 pounds of paraffin for each goose. They pluck well on a mechanical duck plucker but it is necessary to singe the small hairlike feathers off afterward.

Place in open roasting pan with ½ cup water. Place in an oven preheated to 350° for approximately 12 minutes per pound. Internal temperature should be 130° to 140° when done. The goose will be tender and moist at 130°, firmer and drier at 140°.

Geese may be frozen in freezer paper but we do not recommend keeping them more than 5 months.

OCTOPUS

To clean, cut off the tentacles between the eye and the beak. Save them. Squeeze out the beak between your thumb and forefinger and discard it. Hold the blade of a large knife almost flat against the body and scrape toward the open end of the body cavity. (If you cut through the skin, move the blade closer to parallel to the body.) Turn the body over and repeat this procedure. By now all of the entrails should be squeezed out. Dispose of them. If you can feel any remaining entrails in the body, remove by hand or spoon.

If you are using squid, stab the transparent quill that protrudes from the body with a knife and hold it fast. Pull the body away. The quill should remain under the knife—discard it.

Cut the body and tentacles across to make rings—½ inch is a good size for the recipe in Chapter 5.

PARTRIDGE OR RUFFED GROUSE

The ruffed grouse is considered by us to be the greatest of delicacies. Of all the gallinaceous birds common in the United States, this bird has a far different diet from the others. Its food consists mostly of berries, greens, fruit, and buds. Grouse eat very little grain. This diet produces a flavor all its own.

Grouse should be hung under refrigeration at 40° to 50° for 4 to 6 days. They should be drawn before hanging. Liver and heart are small but excellent sautéed or made into pate and spread on toast under the cooked bird.

Preparing: This is probably the most difficult bird to pluck because the skin is very tender. The only method is to dry-pluck. One must be patient and pluck feathers a few at a time, especially around the breast, or the skin will tear. It is difficult to avoid a few tears and one should not despair if this occurs.

There is little meat on the wings and they should be clipped off at the first joint.

Freezing Grouse: In the past we have frozen grouse, after hanging and pre-paring, in a quart plastic container filled with water. Recently we learned from hunting companion Bill Cheney of freezing in the feathers. We have tested this against freezing in water and find it superior.

The grouse must be drawn and hung 4 to 6 days. Clip the head and neck off and pull tail feathers. Clip legs off at the first joint. Leave wings on, but trim off about 2 inches of primary feathers. Fold wings tight against the body and slip breast into a 1-quart plastic freezer bag {not zip type}. Grouse should fit snugly with just enough room to tie off with a twistie. Press out all air when sealing. Birds will last 6 to 8 months this way with no loss of flavor. When plucking after freezing, let thaw about 1 hour, then pluck. The meat is still frozen but the skin has thawed and plucking is relatively easy.

Roasting: Place birds in an open pan, breast up, with a splash of water. Place 3 half strips of bacon over each breast and put in preheated 350° oven for 35 minutes, approximately. Internal temperature is critical and should be 130° to 150° when done. The breast is the whole show because the legs are quite stringy.

PHEASANT

Hang 5 or 6 days under refrigeration. The skin and feathers are similar to a chicken's. The skin is reasonably firm and pheasant can be dry-plucked or dipped in scalding water and wet-plucked. Pheasant does not pluck well on a mechanical duck plucker. Clip off wings at first joint, legs at joint, and neck close to body. Pheasant may be frozen in feathers as described under grouse, only use ½-gallon freezer bags. Liver and heart may be sautéed or used in pate.

Roasting: Place in open pan with splash of water, breast up. Cover breast with 4 full strips of bacon. Place in a preheated 350° oven for 35 to 50 minutes, depending on size. Test with Meat Thermicator. Internal temperature should be 130° to 150° when done. We recommend 140° for best flavor and moistness.

QUAIL

It is best to hang quail under refrigeration for 4 days in the feathers.

Plucking: There is no shortcut if you don't have a duck plucker. Quail skin is tender and if you try to pull off too many feathers at a time you will tear the skin. After a little practice one should be able to prepare a bird in about 5 minutes. It is worth the effort because without the skin the birds dry out during cooking.

Cleaning: Snip off legs just above joint. Wings can be trimmed right to the body because there is very little meat on them and they are difficult to pluck. Trim the neck right to the body. I find the knife-anvil pruning shears work better for this than game shears. To clean, enlarge opening at rear vent and clean out insides. The crop can be removed from the neck cavity. The crop is a little food-storage pouch and pulls right out. Discard it. Wash, clean, and dry bird. Save the heart and liver. They don't amount not much in size but they are delicious sautéed on toast, or if you have enough (at least ½ cup, you can make a wonderful quail liver pate.

Freezing: Preferably, freeze in water-filled heavy plastic containers available at hardware stores or freezer plants. Birds will last up to 9 months this way. If frozen in freezer paper or baggies, we recommend eating within 5 to 6 months.

SNIPE

Hang for 4 days. Prepare as for quail, except snipe is a delight to pluck because the feathers come off very easily and the skin is very firm. If early in the season, the bird may be heavily pinfeathered. Again, don't bother with them; cook in pinfeathers and skin before serving. Often, even on cleaned birds, there will be some very fine hairlike feathers left. These can readily be singed off over an open flame. We do not recommend freezing snipe for more than 6 weeks, and they are far better not frozen at all.

Roasting: Place the whole cleaned bird in a pan breast side up with just a splash of water to moisten the bottom of the pan. Place in a 475° oven for 10 minutes. The internal temperature should reach 130° to 150°.

Broiling or Charcoal Broiling: Split down the breast, not the back, with game shears. Broil 4 minutes on a side maximum. Snipe are very rich in spite of their small size. Two per person will normally suffice. For the especially ad-venturous, snipe can be cooked and eaten with the innards. We prefer snipe to woodcock this way because it is possible to cook the innards properly with the smaller birds without ruining the breast by overcooking. When cooking with the innards, set the oven at 400° and cook for approximately 15 minutes. Check with the Meat Thermicator. It should be 130° to 150° internal temper-ature, depending on how rare you like your bird.

VENISON

Preparing: Be sure to skin the deer the day it was killed or as soon as possible. Hang the carcass 10 days to 2 weeks whole or in quarters in a meat locker. It is best to have a professional butcher cut up the meat after hanging and vacuum--package for freezing.

Venison Liver: Many consider the liver the choicest part of the deer. The slicing of the liver is as important as the cooking. With a sharp knife slice across the liver so the pieces are 1 inch thick when possible. Thin slices are bound to overcook. Sauté slices in butter over low heat until internal tem-perature is 120° to 140°. To retain flavor and tenderness the centre of a liver strip must be deep pink (130°) to light pink (140°).

Venison Chops and Steaks: To retain flavor and tenderness, venison must be cooked rare to medium-rare. Internal temperature should reach 120° to 140°. Sauté, grill, or broil as you would any steak or chop. Make sure chops and steaks are cut thick, preferably at least 1 inch.

The best of all is the tenderloin or backstrap. One sacrifices loin chops to take the whole loin, but we think it is worth it. The loin is only 2 to 3 inches in diameter and should be roasted at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes. The internal temperature should be 120° to 140°. The loin is equally good sliced down and across the grain, 1½ inches thick, and grilled.

WILD TURKEY

Wild turkey has the same problem as pheasant—they're dry and can easily be overcooked—and most of us don't get enough of them with which to exper-iment. We can assure you that if you place a wild turkey in an oven and follow directions for most domestic turkey, that is, cook until the internal temper-ature is 185°, you will have only a very poor base for gravy and cranberry sauce.

Wild turkey should be drawn first and hung 7 to 9 days in a cooler at 40° to 50°. Pluck after hanging, either dry (easier than you think), or dip in scalding water and wet-pluck. If frozen in freezer paper, we recommend eating within 5 to 6 months. (With our next turkey we will try freezing in the feathers as described for grouse.)

Roasting: Place the wild turkey in a roasting pan with enough strips of bacon to cover breast. The turkey should be approximately room temperature before placing in the oven. Add 1 cup of water to roasting pan. Roast in preheated 350° oven for 10 minutes per pound and test with Meat Thermicator. Internal temperature should be 140° to 150°.

Note: We recommend leaving the cover off the roasting pan. At 140° to 150° internal temperature the turkey will be done through but firm and easy to carve. The meat will not fall apart but will be moist and have a distinct flavor not found in domestic turkey.

WOODCOCK

Hang for 4 days. Pluck as for snipe. Woodcock are much like snipe as table fare, only larger and with a lighter coating of fat. Prepare in the same manner as for snipe.

We do not recommend freezing woodcock, but if you do, eat it within 6 weeks.

Roasting: Place in a preheated 450° oven for 12 to 14 minutes. Test with the Meat Thermicator. It should be from 130° to 150° internal temperature, de-pending on preference for doneness.

Broiling or Charcoal Broiling: Split bird down middle of breast. Otherwise, the woodcock would be impossible to flatten. No basting is necessary. Nor-mally, about 5 minutes on each side is sufficient, but test earlier with the Meat Thermicator. Internal temperature should reach 130° to 150°. Warning: This bird will get tough if overcooked.

If you want to go the whole way with woodcock, eat him insides and all. First, have 3 martinis and second, cook more slowly. Follow the same roasting procedure, but use a 350° oven for 25 minutes. Test with the Meat Thermicator—the innards should get up to at least 125°. Remember, the heart, liver and little white coil of intestine are all good, but the craw is not. Don't look for a gizzard, because there is none.