Game has a reputation of not being for the faint of heart, and gamy has been used to describe a range of tastes a lot of people find unpleasant. Numerous reasons have been proposed as the source of these flavors, and each probably has a hand in at least some cases: a rich flavor of red meat/blood can be found in game that hasn’t been bled very well; some male game animals have musk glands, and when these contaminate the flesh, you can have musky-tasting meat; sometimes game can be hung too long and in temperatures that are too warm, making bacterial action a possibility; the animal’s diet can affect the taste of its meat; when the animal has been chased, hormones such as adrenaline and chemicals like lactic acid can build up in the meat, affecting its taste; and finally the meat of some animals has some particularly pungent organic compounds, such as what you find in goat meat. Regardless of these factors though, and sometimes because of them, people who love assertive flavors delight in the taste of game.
Game birds, though, can be a bridge between the bland homogeneity of farmed meat and the assertive flavors of wild game on the hoof. Prepared correctly, they can be a welcome change from everyday fare, and cooks regularly use them to celebrate special occasions. Wild game birds not only make for healthier eating by virtue of being leaner meat, they’re also a more ethical option than factory-farmed meat since the animals get to live natural lives. Here are some of the best and most popular game birds:
1. Quail – these small birds are more known for their eggs than for their meat, which is a shame since their flesh has been delighting epicures for centuries. At its best, quail can be meaty, juicy, and tender, with a pleasant but subtle gaminess. Their small size means they need to be cooked quickly though, around ten minutes, in order to retain their juices. You also need to make sure you have enough for each diner-generally around two per diner if serving them as an appetizer, or three if used as a main course. Quail can stand up to more aggressive spicing than chicken due to its mild gamy flavor, and it takes on flavors better than other meats. A red wine marinade will do very nicely, and for a really luxurious treat, quail pairs well with foie gras.
2. Ruffed Grouse – these are larger than quail, in fact looking more like small wild chickens, with a more assertive flavor and light meat. They can improve in tenderness if hung for a few days, and cooking time should be less than for chicken. Many game aficionados consider grouse the most delicious game bird, and they can substitute for chicken in any recipe for a delicious upgrade. The most recommend methods of cooking though are either deep frying or wrapping in bacon and then grilling or baking in an oven.
3. Chukar Partridge – also called red-legged partridge, these birds were introduced to the US from Asia, and their numbers are enough that despite their popularity among gourmets, there’s plenty to go around. These fat-bodied birds weigh a pound and a half each, are about the size of a Cornish hen when dressed, and are similar to quail in taste and texture, with a flavor that’s been described as nutty and mild. They also do well in any recipes calling for quail, though their larger size means you have to adjust cooking times and serving sizes appropriately.
4. Grey Partridge – otherwise known as the Hungarian Partridge, or Hun, this bird has always been a delicacy, and its distinctly flavored, slightly gamy dark meat has been prized by gourmets from Roman times up to the present day. Weighing in at half a pound to one pound, they are usually prepared whole and baked in an oven. Nuts, autumn fruit, and mushrooms all have flavor profiles that have long been associated with this bird, and they do well as either stuffing or sauce.
5. Pheasant – the game bird most often associated with royalty, with the male’s large size and colorful plumage making it a prize hunting trophy. Pheasants are as well-apppreciated on the dinner table as they are in the hunt. Their larger size makes them a good centerpiece for celebrations, and in the case of farm-raised birds hung for a minimal amount of time, the flavor is mild enough to be acceptable even to people who dislike game. Those who prefer a stronger taste can opt for wild birds that have been hung longer, up to a week, which allows the bird’s flavor to develop more. Cooks who use pheasant should pay special attention to the difference in taste between wild and farm-raised as well as between minimally hung and well-aged, since seasonings should be strong enough to enhance the bird’s taste without drowning it out.
In general, cooking methods for game birds should account for their being leaner than farm-raised fowl, and thus quicker to dry out, so techniques like brining or adding a bit of fat in the form of butter in the stuffing or larding with bacon will do wonders. Encasing in a batter or crust and then either baking or deep-frying is also a good idea since the coating protects the flesh from drying out.
Wine pairings for these fowl usually involve a more assertive white wine or a lighter red, but marinades, spicing, and sauces will all have an effect on the relative heft of the wine needed – barolo or cabernet sauvignon in the sauce will allow pairing with a tannic red, while eastern spices will match well with the spice of a good syrah. For those who want to keep it casual, a good beer will do great as well. Happy eating!