Ruffed grouse embody the flavor of fall in the Northwoods; learn cooking and handling tips to make the most of this prized bird
I will forever fondly recall my first ruffed grouse hunt in northern Minnesota, courtesy of Jared Wiklund from Pheasants Forever along with his black Lab, Koda, and his English Pointer, Jax. We both nearly limited out and I was immediately hooked on these birds—the walk through the season-changing woods, the thunderous sound of a grouse erupting from yards in front of a dog’s nose, and then trying to fold that bird as it zigged and zagged between hardwoods. Like golf, when it comes to forest grouse, I have my stellar shots and my far-from-stellar, borderline-embarrassing shots. That’s part of the fun with swinging on these agile birds: sometimes you make hamburger from tree bark and sometimes you bag feathers.
It helps, of course, that ruffed grouse is very tasty; it is often a Northwoods hunter’s favorite table fare. Here’s how to get the most out of these fine birds.
(Based on 100-gram/3.5-ounce serving)
28 grams protein
1.3 grams fat
Ruffed grouse meat overview
Nearly every Northwoods hunter that I met during my years in Minnesota cited, without hesitation, ruffed grouse as their favorite bird to eat. Perhaps it’s how this bird embodies the fall hunting season more so than other birds, from the hunt through the changing colors of the woods to the aroma of the bird itself. The meal should be cherished to fullest.
I’ve heard ruffed grouse described as tasting like “funky chicken” or comparable to mild-flavored birds like pheasant, though slightly sweeter. Their taste will vary depending on the individual bird’s diet and potentially the season in which you bag your grouse, as what they eat factors into their flavor. That diet will also depend on the location in which you folded your birds.
Ruffed grouse feed on leaves, buds, and fruits of ferns, shrubs, and woody plants. Throughout the fall, they may take in fruits and acorns. During winter in the northern part of their range, they will feed on the buds and twigs of aspen, birch, and willow. In winter in the south, these birds forage on the leaves and fruit of greenbrier, mountain laurel, Christmas fern, and other green plants. All this is to say that while this bird has a mild flavor and can fit in almost any recipe that would call for chicken, differences in habitat, season, and diet will add nuance to the flavor profile.
An average-size ruffed grouse weighs a few ounces over a pound and, once deboned, will likely result in 7-10 ounces of meat.
General methods for cooking ruffed grouse
For whatever reason, when it comes to grouse, so many hunters recommend the “stepping on wings and pulling up” method for butchering. Please don’t do this. I also know there are a good sum of folks who bridle at the suggestion of plucking your birds, but distinct Northwoods flavor resides in that skin. So, yes, please give a pluck, and keep all cuts—even if you don’t take the time to pluck the birds.
You can spatchcock these birds, pellet-grill, oven-roast, or even can-rotisserie these birds. I’d even suggested aging them for deeper, more concentrated flavor and then brining the meat prior to cooking.
Grouse breasts are best served at an internal temperature of 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit and, ideally, nothing past this. If cooking the bird whole, I may place the breast meat on an ice pack so that it stays cool while the legs come to room temperature. This way, the legs get a head start in the cooking process and will reach that ideal 180-190 F at about the same time as when the breast hits 160 F.
Wings, legs, and thighs
Like most wild birds, these harder-working cuts require a bit more time and higher internal temperature in order to tenderize. Aim for 180-190 degrees F internal temperature and, as mentioned above, bringing these pieces to room temperature prior to cooking will help get the legs to the correct temperature without overcooking the breast meat.
Tucked behind the breast, the tenderloin is a separate, more tender strip of meat. It’s fairly small on a ruffed grouse, but you can still separate from the breast and cook on its own, if you like.
Giblets (gizzard, liver, neck, and heart)
The giblets are quite small on these birds, but they are indeed edible, tasty, and worth trying to save and cook, even if just once.
Gizzard: To clean a gizzard, first cut open the gizzard and wash out the grit in a large bowl of 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 of only ruby-red meat. Use a good fillet knife to trim off the silver skin and that membrane-like grinder plate (which almost feels like sandpaper). It can sometimes help to freeze the gizzard for an hour to facilitate trimming.
Liver: The grouse liver is worth smoking for dog treats or saving them until you have enough to turn into pâté.
Heart: The heart is small but delicious, like any wild bird heart. A very quick roll through a hot, oiled skillet with a tiny pinch of salt is the way to go, or perhaps a brief fry in bacon grease (no added salt in this case).
Neck: I have never saved the necks from ruffed grouse but you could try, as their neck size is likely the smallest you’d consider adding to a gravy and picking out bits of meat from the bone.
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.