A Guide to Plucking Pheasants
To hang or not to hang?
The theory behind hanging a bird is to make the meat more tender and add depth of flavour. This is particularly the case for muscly old cock birds that have wandered the fields and hedgerows for a couple of seasons, flying out from under the feet of unsuspecting walkers and strutting their stuff in the spring to impress the local hens! But for the sporting young birds so many of us will now shoot, hanging is a question of personal taste.
So now you have shot your bird, how do you go about hanging a pheasant? In the ideal world, you should try to cool the bird as soon as possible after its been shot, so stuffing them into a game bag or piling them into the boot of your 4×4 for the rest of the day is not ideal – even if often unavoidable! Do inspect your birds before you hang them. If you find that any of them have been shot in the gut or badly torn in the retrieve, then skin or butcher these straight away for cooking or freezing.
At the end of a day’s shooting, we hang our pheasants in braces, from a beam in a shed using twine around the neck. We leave the pheasants completely intact (not plucked or gutted) and hang them by the neck to keep the blood in the carcass. This helps prevent the meat from drying out or freezing if temperatures drop dramatically.
We usually leave our birds to hang for a maximum of 3 days. We find that the younger members of the family prefer the milder taste of a pheasant that hasn’t hung around too long. For old cock birds, we tend to breast these and label the freezer bags accordingly – I use these for my long, slow cook recipes so it becomes deliciously tender during the cooking process.
I’m not completely convinced, but some people say that the bird becomes even more flavoursome if left hanging for up to 7 days, I suppose it depends how ‘gamey’ you like your meat – but you would really need to watch the outdoor temperatures especially in the mild winters we’ve experienced recently.
Preparing your bird for the freezer or oven
If we have had a good day and there are a lot of birds, I don’t think it is ever too young to learn to pluck your first bird – all the family get involved. Many hands make light work! Most importantly, any young or novice guns should definitely be encouraged to pluck their own bird. It really reinforces the idea that shooting is not just about the sport, but about respect for the birds and the satisfaction to be gained from preparing and eating the just rewards of all your hard work!
You’ll find it is much easier to pluck a bird when it is warm – if it has been hanging in your shed or game larder bring it inside to reach room temperature before you start.
Plucking a bird is a messy business, feathers can get everywhere. I remember my mother taking our birds ‘for a walk’ – she would head off up the hill with a bird in her hand and pluck as she walked leaving the feathers to blow away in the wind!
A much simpler and handy tip is to pluck the bird directly into a plastic carrier bag or bin bag. Depending on the weather (and the number and age of plucking assistants!), you may want to do this outside. Put your bag in a sink, or put a clean bin liner in a big kitchen bin, pull up a seat, draw up the sides of the bag and hold the bird inside. Feathers will still escape, so I recommend putting a few sheets of newspaper down too. It can help to slightly dampen your hands when plucking so that the feathers stick to your hands rather than floating up to tickle your nose or down to stick to your clothes.
Hold the pheasant by its legs and back comb the feathers (against the grain), so they are proud of the bird. Using short downwards movements, pluck the feathers away from the bird – straight into the bag. If you find you are pulling away skin from the bird, then you are being too rough. Don’t give up, you’ll soon find a technique and rhythm that works for you. Now hold the body of the bird and pull out the tail feathers one at time. For the legs, pluck the feathers away and down from the bird (but this time ‘with the grain’).
To remove the lower legs, run a sharp knife around the first leg joint, and cut through the main (hamstring) tendon. Then pull the foot away firmly until it comes off, taking the smaller tendons with it. Look out for the spurs on older cock birds – they’re sharp and can hurt!
To remove the wings, feel where the wing meets the body and cut them off as close to the joint as you can.
First, cut off the head at the base of the neck with a pair of scissors. If you don’t have a decent pair of scissors, place the bird on a chopping board and with a sharp knife chop through the neck right where it enters the body cavity. Strip out the gullet, crop and windpipe by inserting a finger, rotating it gently to loosen and break all attachments.
With a sharp knife nick a slice in the skin above the vent of the bird until it comes loose. Reach in to the body cavity with two to three fingers and draw out the intestines, gizzard, heart, coagulated blood, etc – discard these (although you may want to keep the liver). With practice you will be able to pull the guts of the bird out in one go. Check that nothing has been left behind. Wash and dry the bird all over including the body cavity.
Skinning a pheasant
Does that all sound too much like hard work? Well there is a quicker and easier option, but it will mean you can’t roast your bird unless you coat it in fat or bacon.
Cut the head, wings and feet off the pheasant as described above. Having removed the tail feathers, cut the whole tail off, including the bird’s vent.
Place the bird down breast side up and make a cut in the skin just under the breastbone. Work your fingers under the skin and pull it apart from the breast and ease it off all the way round. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come off all in one piece.
Next gut and clean the bird as above, before butchering, cooking or freezing.
Breasting a pheasant
If you are really pressed for time or if you only need the pheasant breasts, a quick alternative is to ‘breast’ the pheasant.
To do this, lay the bird on its back on a flat surface (a chopping or draining board) and spread the wings. Pinch the loose skin on the body cavity between your fingers, lift it up and away from the flesh and slide a sharp knife in. Cut the skin straight down the middle from the neck to the vent, then pull the skin away from the flesh discarding any yellow fat (it’s bitter to taste). Finally get your sharp knife and cut along the breastbone, slicing off the breasts – ready to be washed, then cooked or frozen.
All that’s left now is to think of what recipe you are going to use for your pheasant. Why not try some of ours… Click Here for some examples