Jack Hennessy takes on plucking wild birds this week in “Braising the Wild.” It is timely as we enter fall and bird hunting begins, well began on Sept. 1 with the dove opener.
As always, I learned much about handling wild game.
PLUCKING BIRDS 101
Before we get knee-deep into bird recipes this fall, I feel it necessary to examine the methods and benefits of plucking wild birds. Hank Shaw is the godfather of plucking birds and goes very in-depth on his website. While our techniques for different birds may vary, we both agree: flavor resides in the skin, and it’s often too valuable to ignore.
WHEN NOT TO PLUCK
If a bird’s already been field dressed. The cut in skin will cause the skin to shift and potentially rip as you pull at feathers.
If you’ve turned that bird to hamburger with your shot, best to field dress and skin.
If you plan on braising the bird or part of it, just skin the bird or that part since since turns to gelatin during a slow simmer.
If the skin retains a flavor you don’t care to taste, as is often the case with a diver duck or coots or perhaps even snow geese, best to discard skin.
If I am going to pluck a bird, it’s my goal to pluck it upon returning from the field. The skin is warm with body heat and the feathers come out easily. For basically every feather aside tail and wings, pull against the grain (opposite the direction the feather rests).
Your thumb and fattiest part of your index finger are your pincers. The motion is similar to a casino poker dealer slinging cards—it’s all in the wrist, with a little forearm action, too. Grab hold and start dealing feathers.
It’s a messy job. Make sure you’re plucking outdoors or in a garage, someplace your wife or mother-in-law has approved, and perhaps consider putting a large trash bag underneath.
For the wings, for smaller to medium birds, I cut off every section of wing that isn’t the drum stick. I roll the wings in to loosen tendons then cut off with a knife (this avoids plucking those sections altogether). For larger birds like turkeys and Canada geese, I only cut off the tips.
For tail and wing feathers, with their large vanes at the bottom, pull those straight out. You may need a set of (not your wife’s) tweezers to pull out pin feathers (those little things that look like plastic ends of shoe laces).
Often, no matter how well you pluck, you’ll have flloplumes (those hair-like feathers) left over. You can either singe those with a lighter or just cook with them on, as I do. I’ve never noticed an adverse flavor from leaving them on.
FOR LARGER BIRDS
When it comes to turkeys and Canada geese, I personally only pluck the breasts before butchering the bird. Because I slow-cook those wings and legs for tenderness, and because skin turns to mush this way, there is no reason to pluck those sections.
OTHER PLUCKING METHODS
I’ve frozen ducks whole for a few days and then plucked when they were slightly thawed. This works because waterfowl skin is tougher, but other birds with more delicate skin, that skin becomes gummy after freezing (from moisture( and will make for difficult plucking.
I have dunked some of my birds in simmering paraffin wax (Google Hank Shaw’s method for more details), but I almost always have to still manually pluck individual feathers.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You, for sake of flavor, owe it to yourself to learn how to pluck. Skin on waterfowl is avian bacon. Other skin adds both texture and flavor when cooking. Best of luck both bagging and plucking birds this year.