Learn the basics of greater prairie chicken meat, the typical flavor profile, and techniques for cooking it to perfection
A couple weeks ago, Jim Millensifer, my wife, and I sat on a lek at dawn watching lesser prairie chickens perform their mating dance. Even before sunrise, we started to hear the males’ low booms, made by air passing through their syrinx and amplified by their esophageal air sacs. It was indeed something special—listening to and watching these birds, a species that was here millennia ahead of my ancestors.
Jim is president of The Kansas Governor’s Ringneck Classic, which benefits the Northwest Kansas Conservation Foundation, and he regularly hosts people from all over the country each spring for these lek dances. He’s also a big greater prairie chicken hunter (you can’t hunt lessers as they are a threatened species) and set me up with a couple frozen birds before I headed home.
“Hunting something that’s indigenous—something that’s been here for 5,000 years or longer—that is significant,” says Jim. “I started hunting chickens and fell in love with them. There is a mystique, as these birds are all descendants of the birds that roamed these plains with the bison and that makes them the biggest trophy there is, in my opinion.”
These birds are also significant in terms of flavor and somewhat of an anomaly among upland birds. I explain why in this profile. The general nutrition information, to be honest, is slightly speculative as there is no nutrition guide for these birds. With characteristics similar to migratory game birds, prairie chickens align more closely to them than to forest grouse in terms of nutrition.
Read: Prairie Chicken Pomodoro
(based on a serving of 100g or 3.5oz)
Greater prairie chicken meat overview
Greater prairie chickens are one of those few “opposite upland birds” as I call them, meaning that unlike a ring-necked pheasant whose legs are darker than its breast meat, a prairie chicken’s breast meat is a dark red, with its legs being slightly less red. This is due to a higher concentration of myoglobin, which is a protein responsible for binding oxygen and iron to muscles. More athletic birds (and more athletic bird muscles which, in general, are those working for extended periods of time) contain higher amounts of myoglobin, while fast-twitch muscles—on the breasts of a wild turkey, for example—contain less myoglobin and are therefore lighter in color.
So why is prairie chicken meat red? Biologists believe that the birds used to be migratory and followed the bison. If you’ve hunted them, you likely noticed that they fly farther and for much longer compared to pheasant or quail, thus requiring a greater supply of oxygen to get pumped into those breast muscles.
Greater prairie chicken meat has distinct earthy tones with hints of beef, due to the higher levels of myoglobin. Strong accompanying flavors won’t overwhelm or hide the flavor of this bird, meaning it’s very versatile in terms of recipes.
A typical greater prairie chicken yields upwards of one pound of meat if all cuts are kept (including bone-in legs and wings). Breasts weigh anywhere from three to four, maybe five ounces. Greater prairie chickens can weigh up to 42 ounces, so if you shoot a larger bird, you may obviously net more than one pound of meat.
General methods for cooking greater prairie chicken
All cuts should be brined to retain moisture. Doing so can cut your moisture loss in half, keeping your game meat juicier.
Greater prairie grouse breast meat is best served rare or medium rare, with an internal temperature of no more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wings, legs, and thighs
Same as nearly every wild bird, these muscles contain large amounts of collagen, which will toughen meat prior to tenderizing. Using low-and-slow cooking methods, collagen will turn to gelatin and the meat will finally yield. The final internal temperature at this point is likely closer to 180 F or higher. A common method for cooking any of these cuts is a 3-or-more-hour braise in water, stock, or other sauces, followed by a quick sear or brief smoke to add texture to outside of meat.
Tucked behind the breast, this is a separate, tender strip of meat with different muscle striations than the breasts. The tenderloin has a small, thin tendon running through it. Same as the breast meat, don’t cook it past medium-rare unless you are smoking it. Some cooks remove the tendon before cooking, though I personally don’t bother with this.
Giblets (gizzard, liver, neck, and heart)
Giblets are smaller on these birds (compared to turkey, for example) but are certainly edible.
Gizzard: Hank Shaw offers great advice on how to clean a gizzard here but the main thing to remember is to first cut open the gizzard and wash out the grit in a large bowl with lukewarm water. Dump that grit water in your backyard—do not put down your drain, as that grit can mess up your pipes.
From there, work toward your goal: ruby-red meat only. Use a good fillet knife to trim off the silverskin and that membrane-like grinder plate (what almost feels like sandpaper). It sometimes helps to freeze the gizzard for an hour to facilitate trimming.
Liver: Throw through flour and fry it, turn it into pâté, or even smoke it as a treat for the puppies.
Heart: Clip away any connecting arteries so it’s just the heart. Cook to no more than medium-rare.
Neck: If you’re really feeling ambitious, you can save this to add to gravy or whatever liquids you use for braising for added flavor, though with its smaller size, it’ll be hard to pick off any meat bits.
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.