Waterfowl and Dry Aging


Once again, we are winding down the waterfowl season. And it is incredible just how many out there never get to enjoy this meat source at its maximum potential.

A more dedicated group of outdoorsmen you will not be able to find.

There are many styles of hunting waterfowl and there are just as many antidotes to prepare them for cooking. Water-fowlers, for as dedicated as they are about their pursuits are probably the biggest victims when it comes to accurate information about the proper handling of this often misunderstood meat source. We have been pursuing these wonderful creatures for a very long time and many folks handle ducks and geese the way that they were taught or, as I have heard for years, “that’s the way we always did it.

I can’t begin to tell you how many people want to know, “ how do I get rid of that gamey, muddy taste of my – ducks & geese. And, “it always comes out tough” or worse “I love to hunt ducks and geese but boy oh boy I can’t get anyone to eat’em!” Well, we can address all of those issues at one time.

The first thing we need to understand is what waterfowl are- they are the equivalent to Olympic athletes. When you think about it, all they do is migrate thousands of miles only to return a couple of months later. Have you ever wondered why their muscles are so dark? Well they have this process called “re-oxygenation,” it allows them to fly for hundreds of miles at a time – they have twice the amount of capillary blood than a land animal. Hence the deep dark almost eggplant color of their flesh. This extra blood keeps their heart and lungs supplied with the needed oxygen during these long flights.

This is great for the birds but not so much for us. The capillary blood that's in your muscle structure is the broken down bi-product of what you eat. So, if you’re a duck eating aquatic plant life out of the bottom of a muddy slough and that flesh is consumed in its fresh state it's going to taste like the bottom of a muddy slough.

The only NATURAL way to remove this excess blood AND breakdown this highly developed muscle structure is through “DRY AGING.”

The finest restaurants throughout the country dry age their beef for 21-28 days. In the domestic meat department, this is over kill. These are incredibly underdeveloped muscle systems compared to wild game animals. But its the only natural way to breakdown the highly developed muscle systems of wild game animals. My philosophy is to "heal the wound and throw the band-aide out."

Yes, I know there are thousands of myths and remedies for making your ducks and geese tender and eliminating the gamey muddy liver flavor often associated with these creatures. Including a variety of brines, milk, buttermilk, baking soda and so on…DON'T DO IT PEOPLE!

Pure and simple, ducks and geese are aggressive in taste and tough because they are completely saturated with this blood. After doing wild game cooking seminars for nearly twenty years I ask one question when addressing this issue with my fellow waterfowlers – would you do that to a beautiful piece of ribeye steak?

100% of the time the response has been, "of course not".

I am a big fan of brining, BUT brining has its place – with all white-fleshed meat (pheasant, chukar, quail, wild turkey, chicken, turkeys and pork both domestic and wild). Assuming that the good stuff goes in and the bad stuff goes out is a culinary misnomer. Again, refer to my example using the ribeye. During the brining process the salt penetrates the proteins creating a matrix that locks in the moisture. Great for your upland birds but not so much when it locks in the capillary blood soaked moisture of a fresh duck or goose.

If you soak a piece of any meat long enough you will dilute the blood… along with any hint of flavor. The rules of harvesting an animal should be the same across the board – waterfowl, big game, domestic animals et al. Quick clean kills, followed by evisceration and the removal of any contamination or bloodshot, followed by cooling and proper storage.

Dry Aging can happen at any time, either before you put your ducks in the freezer or as your pulling them out. Dry aging is nothing more than the draining of the capillary blood and the evaporation of the internal moisture of the muscles. Without the blood the taste become very delicate and mild. Without the internal moisture the fiber structure of the muscle tissue breaks down and becomes tender. Tender and Delicate, then you won't need the "habanero, teriyake, honey, sake, soy glaze" to get everyone to eat it.

Dry aging takes time (see the dry aging time chart)

All you need to accomplish this is –

1.    A tray or plate large enough to hold your birds.

2.    A screen or rack that will keep the meat from sitting in its blood

3.    A refrigerator

4.    Time and patience!

This process can be done before the birds are frozen (right after the hunt) or, as needed as you take them from the freezer. It doesn't matter when it happens, just that it happens. When removing them from a freezer – take your wrapped birds and place it on a plate or tray in the refrigerator. Leave the wrapper intact. We want to slow the defrosting process down as slow as possible. This will allow the meat to retain its natural juices. To completely defrost the average duck will take about two days. When it is totally thawed out remove the wrapper. Discard the blood that has purged out. I cut out the backs and place them cut side down on the racks. Dry off the birds and place them onto the rack. Place the rack on a tray that will catch the draining blood.  Place the tray/rack into the refrigerator, uncovered. Make sure there is good air circulation around the meat. The exact amount of time needed to properly age will vary – on average; it will take between 3 – 7 days (after the meat has defrosted) for ducks, 8 – 14 days for geese.

You will want to dry age your birds in whole form, skin on. This way the skin and bones get a dark dried out glaze and not the meat. Giving you 1) a great yield and 2) the extended time necessary to achieve proper dry aging (with tender results). Naked breasts will dry out too fast.

 The color of an aged waterfowl will go from an eggplant purple color to the color of a piece of veal. You can tell if your birds are aged enough by squeezing the breast meat with your fingers. If the meat yields to the pressure, it means the fibrous tissues are broken down and it is ready. If it feels rubbery and bounces back, it might need a little longer. Once you have Dry Aged your birds, and trust me once you do this you'll never handle your birds any other way, I recommend boning the breasts out, discarding the dried out bones, trim off most of the fat and any darkened meat. I save all the legs from my ducks and place them into a freezer bag until I've collected enough to put them to use. I've made meatballs, soups, stocks, sauces, and chili, bolognaise sauce for pasta and also mini smoked duck hams with the legs. It does take some work but that’s the fun part of cooking. Sharing your discoveries with your friends and family is a great gift.

Dry Aging, although timely, will give you results you never thought possible This process gives you the best of both worlds, tender and mild. If you thought your favorite waterfowl recipe was good before…wait until you try it with an aged piece of meat! Now, I don’t think you can ask for more than that. You’ve worked very hard for your harvests, enjoy them to their maximum potential. I can’t tell you how many dinner guests of mine where amazed at the tender, subtle flavors of my wild waterfowl meals. Your guests will be just as amazed.

Recommended Dry Aging time for Red Meat Birds

Doves 1 day
Band-tailed pigeons 1-2 days
Teal (sm. ducks) 1-2 days
Widgeon (med. ducks) 2-4 days
Sprig/Mallards (lg. ducks) 4-7 days
Specks/Snow Geese 7-10 days
Honkers 10-14 days`

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