Get a perfect, crispy skin on your pheasant with this cast-iron searing technique and finish with the perfect bourbon sauce
The secret to a perfectly seared, tasty exterior on your upland birds isn’t complicated, but rather overlooked from time to time. Searing or browning is also known as caramelizing meat, which initiates reactions between sugars and proteins, thus deepening the flavor. Caramelization should be your goal with any piece of meat thrown over fire.
How do we get there? Bottom line: start with a completely dry exterior. This doesn’t mean a dry piece of meat. We brine the meat ahead of time to ensure that moisture is maintained while cooking. Still, anything other than a very thin, very hot layer of oil between the pheasant and the skillet can cause you to miss that perfect sear.
In my experience, cast iron distributes and retains heat better than most other types of cookware. It may take several minutes to heat up, however. Once the meat hits the skillet, if you don’t hear “applause” or that well-known sizzle, REMOVE IMMEDIATELY and allow the skillet to come up to 400 degrees.
Use a spatula to very lightly press down on the breasts to make certain all surface area makes contact with skillet. Don’t press down to the point where moisture is pumping out of skin, as that will defeat our main objective of a dry exterior.
As far as making a bourbon choice for the sauce, like any sauce that requires alcohol, pick a bottle that you’ll enjoy drinking while cooking. If it tastes good from the glass, it’ll taste good in your cooking. NEVER believe those chefs who tell you alcohol or beer choice doesn’t matter in a recipe.
Ingredients for two servings
For the brine:
1 gallon cold water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup whole black peppercorns
1 cup fresh garlic, smashed
8 ounces (1/2 pound) fresh ginger, smashed
For the pheasant:
4 pheasant breasts, brined
Sunflower or peanut oil (or your preferred cooking oil)
For the sauce:
13 ounces Bonne Maman cherry preserves
1 tablespoon salted butter
1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic
1 teaspoon freshly minced ginger
1 tablespoon freshly minced rosemary
3 ounces bourbon
Light dusting of kosher salt and ground black pepper
Canned, pitted dark cherries in syrup for garnish (optional)
- Mix brine ingredients thoroughly until salt and sugar dissolves. Brine pheasant breasts (skin-on or skinless) for 6-8 hours. THOROUGHLY rinse all sides under cold water upon removal.
- Pat dry breasts and place in fridge in couple hours to completely dry prior to cooking.
- To make sauce, in a medium sauce pot, add 1 tablespoon salted butter and heat on medium-low. Add finely minced onion, lightly salt and pepper.
- Once onions soften, add garlic and ginger and stir as garlic releases aroma. After 2 minutes of stirring, de-glaze with bourbon. Add minced rosemary.
- Once bourbon reduces to half, add cherry preserves and reduce to simmer, continue to stir often for approximately 20 minutes. Sauce is done when a taste test doesn’t make you wince from strong bourbon. Remove sauce from heat once finished.
- To cook pheasant breasts, add a thin layer of sunflower oil to a cast iron skillet. Heat until skillet surface reaches 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Add pheasant breasts to skillet and press down gently to make certain breasts make full contact with skillet. Flip once browned and repeat on other side. Do not press down too heavily to prevent any juices from secreting.
- Cook pheasant completely, then remove and allow to rest for a few minutes prior to adding glaze. Garnish with pitted dark cherries (optional).
Jack Hennessy grew up in the South Suburbs of Chicago and didn't start hunting until he attended graduate school in Spokane, Washington, at the age of 26. Hennessy began work in professional kitchens in high school but didn't start writing wild game recipes until he joined the Spokesman-Review in 2014. Since then, his recipes have appeared with Petersen's Hunting, Backcountry Journal, Gun Dog Magazine, among many others. He now lives with his wife, daughter, and Wirehaired Vizsla, Dudley, in Wichita, Kansas.