Use these techniques when hunting, preparing, and cooking your upland game birds to avoid encountering pellets in the meat
Truth be told, there is no foolproof method for ensuring that you never serve shot in the birds that you cook. However, there are several techniques to help reduce the chances of doing so, as well as some things to keep in mind if you’re worried about dishing out a smattering of shot with your upland meals.
Hunting techniques to avoid too much shot
As you might have guessed, reducing the likelihood of serving shot in your meat starts when you first step afield, not once you’re back in the kitchen. For starters, it’s a matter of shotgun choke choice, and if running tighter chokes—as you might do for late-season roosters—knowing how long to hold off on squeezing the trigger if the bird flushes close. I hunt with an over-and-under shotgun with an improved cylinder choke in my first barrel and a modified choke in my second. If I miss the first (closer) shot, I need that tighter choke to knock the bird down at a greater distance, allowing the shot pattern to open up a little later. Of course, a tighter choke means a tighter shot pattern and potentially more shot in your birds—especially at close range. For example, my father-in-law hunts with a fixed full choke and he rarely misses. He also doesn’t wait for the birds to get out very far, so if one flushes at the dog’s feet, that bird gets knocked down at 10-15 yards and is peppered with shot. That bird likely becomes hamburger.
If you’re an expert wingshooter running a proficient dog, you’re likely targeting wings which means fewer pellets in your meat. That is the way to go, if this style of hunting suits you.
Finding and removing shot while cleaning birds
No matter what, if you kill a bird with a shotgun, you’ll have to contend with potential shot in the meat. The first step to avoiding shot in your meal is to inspect the shot holes while cleaning your birds. Once plucked or skinned, you’ll notice that most shot holes are also accompanied by a wet, thin string of feather(s). That’s because the shot pushes bits of feather into the meat along with the pellet. If you are breasting out the bird, examine the backside of the breast. Is there also an exit hole to accompany the front entry hole? If not, chances are that pellet is still lodged inside of the breast. For big spring turkeys, even though aiming for the head means that shot rarely ends up in the breast meat, I have found a couple pellets in the breasts because those pellets will rarely (if ever) penetrate and pass through all of that muscle. What this means, though, is that your smaller birds with smaller cuts of meat are less likely to contain shot, while your larger birds have denser meat and are more likely to retain shot.
If you don’t see exit holes and you wish to serve the breast whole, you can gently work a toothpick into the hole and see if you can fish the pellet out. Alternatively, you can cut the meat into strips for future fajitas, making it easier to find the pellets. The bottom line is that shot is much easier to find in raw meat than it is to find in cooked meat—there is a distinct difference in texture. So if you wish to put in the effort to remove shot, I doing so while the meat is raw.
Cooking techniques that help prevent serving shot pellets
The next safety measure you can take is to decide how you plan to prepare the bird. If my bird is pretty heavily shot-up, I will likely turn the bird into a burger, snack sticks, or work into some sort of recipe that requires braising and shredding the meat. Grinding the raw meat helps you find any pellets while processing, while braising and hand-shredding meat once it is fully cooked and falling apart will allow you to easily pick out the shot.
Note: if you are concerned about putting shot through your grinder plate, opt for the coarse grinding plate. I also recommend initially cutting the meat into chunks and searching for shot that way prior to grinding. Once the meat is ground, you can sort through the ground bird meat (while wearing gloves, of course) to pick out shot if you so desire.
Deboning is also a great technique that allows you to check for and remove shot. However, some recipes call for bones, since bones add flavor. For example, I made Pheasant Vesuvio for Pheasants Forever’s Wild Game Cooking Stage at Pheasant Fest a couple years ago. After the demo, I was asked how to serve the dish if worried about shot. In that case, I suggested deboning first, then adding the bones back into the skillet with the deboned meat. This way, you can check for and remove shot but still imbue dish with rich flavors that come from slow cooking with bones.
Lastly, we all know the sage advice: “Chew slowly.” It’s a line I give my wife and daughter whenever I set down a plate of wild-shot game. It’s important to make the distinction between a bird that’s been shot with lead versus steel, as anyone who has bitten down on both types can attest that steel is not ideal between your teeth. It’s a much harder metal than lead with no give. Therefore, if you shot an upland bird with steel, label that bird accordingly—it may determine how you prepare the bird and for whom you prepare it. Additionally, consider labeling those “busted up” birds prior to placing in the freezer. If my mom or other grandparents are visiting, I might sort through my freezer for what to prepare and will set aside any birds labeled “busted” or “steel.”
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.