A versatile meat, pheasant can be used in many different dishes
The venerable ring-necked pheasant, the most-hunted upland bird in America. Most of us are likely aware the bird hails from East Asia and, despite its popularity in the United States, is not native to our country. Nevertheless, hunters young and old, bird-dog fanatics or bird-dog-less, head afield in the hundreds of thousands each year to chase that unforgettable cackle.
Millions of these birds are plated each year, so logic dictates some general culinary info might benefit us orange-clad diehards that chase this bird’s iconic luminous plumage.
(Based on a serving of 100g or 3.5oz)
Pheasant meat overview
Pheasant is likely the most common game bird being served on family tables throughout the year. The reasons for this are simple: Pheasants are a blast to hunt, which is often easier in the early season (versus late), and regardless of your state, you can likely locate huntable pheasant land, even if that location is a game farm.
Wild roosters, when cooked, tend to have a grayish hue to meat (even the breasts). This could be due to their diet (versus grain-fed pen-raised birds) or a slightly higher level of myoglobin (a protein responsible for storing and carrying oxygen to hard-working muscles).
It’s also my belief this bird’s Far-East origin is a reason why this bird fits so well into many Chinese and Japanese recipes. However, it is indeed a versatile game bird, meaning it can be incorporated into classic dishes—even the American cheeseburger.
This will depend on whether you are dining on pen-raised or wild roosters. Especially for pen-raised pheasants, it’s easy to summarize as “tastes like chicken,” though wild roosters, especially older ones, will offer more unique flavors from years of consuming an eclectic diet of seeds, corn, greens, bugs, and likely much more. Habitat also plays a role, as a western Kansas rooster will dine on corn, and in the late season, lines of yellow fat will run through the meat, similar to some farm-raised pheasants. As we all know: Fat equals flavor, so whatever is creating that fat is also shaping flavor.
The average rooster, weighing 2 1/2 pounds, will yield one pound or a little more if all cuts are kept (including bone-in legs and wings). Breasts weigh between four to five ounces, generally speaking.
General methods for cooking pheasant
It’s recommended all cuts be brined to retain moisture. Doing so can cut your moisture loss in half, keeping your game juicier.
Pheasant breast meat is best served at 160 degrees Fahrenheit internal temperature or a little past this. Sous vide techniques allow for lower final internal temp if cooked over a longer period.
Wings, legs, and thighs
Like most wild birds, these muscles on pheasants contain large amounts of collagen, which will toughen before tenderizing. By applying low-and-slow cooking methods, collagen will eventually break down and turn to gelatin, thus tenderizing the meat and adding moisture. The final internal temperature at this point is likely 180 F or higher.
Pheasants are the largest bird I’d recommend roasting whole. One tip: Let the bird come to room temp for 1 to 2 hours before roasting but keep ice packs on the breasts, as, ideally, you want the legs at a higher temperature compared to the breasts when finished.
Tucked behind the breast, this is a separate, more tender strip of meat with different muscle striations than breasts. The tenderloin has a small, thin tendon running through. These cook fast, so a hot sear to get them to a crispy yet tender 160 F is perfect.
Giblets (gizzard, liver, neck, and heart)
Giblets are small on these birds but are certainly edible and very tasty. While the texture is different than other muscles, gizzards still offer rich flavor.
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 it down your drain, as that grit can mess up your pipes.
From there, work toward your goal: ruby-red-only meat. Use a good fillet knife to trim off silver skin 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: Pheasant liver is small, but the more you have, the more options you have. You can throw through flour and fry, turn into pâté, or smoke for a treat for the pups.
Heart: Clip away any connecting arteries so it’s just the heart. Lightly salt and pepper and cook to no more than medium-rare. Fun tip: Consider cracking fresh black pepper over the heart and fry in bacon grease.
Neck: I rarely (if ever) save the neck on pheasants as very little meat exists here, but if you are persistent you can likely pick off some bits if you toss in a gravy.
As always, reach out to me on Instagram (@WildGameJack) with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my wild game recipes and cooking instructions here.
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.