Gambling has a reputation for not being for the faint of heart, and gamy has been used to describe a variety of tastes that many people find off-putting. Numerous reasons have been proposed as the source of these flavors, and each probably has something to do with at least some cases: a rich red meat/blood flavor can be found in game that hasn’t bled very well; some male game animals have musky acorns, and when these contaminate the meat, you can have musky flavored meat; sometimes game can be hung too long and in temperatures that are too hot, making bacterial action possible; the animal’s diet can affect the flavor of its meat; when the animal has been hunted, hormones such as adrenaline and chemicals such as lactic acid can accumulate in the meat, affecting its flavor; and finally, the meat of some animals has some particularly pungent organic compounds, such as those found in goat meat. Regardless of these factors, however, and sometimes because of them, people who love assertive flavors revel in the flavor of the game.
Game birds, however, can be a bridge between the smooth consistency of farm-raised meat and the assertive flavors of live wild game. Properly prepared, they can be a welcome change from everyday food, and cooks use them regularly to celebrate special occasions. Wild game birds are not only a healthier diet by virtue of being a leaner meat, but they are also a more ethical choice than farm-raised meat, as the animals are able to lead natural lives. Here are some of the best and most popular game birds:
1. Quail: These little birds are better known for their eggs than their meat, which is a shame, as their meat has delighted foodies for centuries. At its best, quail can be meaty, juicy and tender, with a pleasant but subtle taste. Their small size means that they need to be cooked quickly, about ten minutes, so that they retain their juices. You also want to make sure you have enough for each person, usually about two per person if you’re serving them as an appetizer, or three if you’re using them as a main dish. Quail can withstand more aggressive seasoning than chicken because of its mild, peppery flavor, and it takes on flavors better than other meats. A red wine marinade will do just fine, and for a truly luxurious treat, quail pairs well with foie gras.
2. Ruffed Grouse: These are larger than quail, in fact, more like small wild chickens, with a more assertive flavor and light meat. They can improve their tenderness if they are hung for a few days, and the cooking time should be less than that of chicken. Grouse is considered by many gamers to be the most delicious game bird, and can substitute chicken in any recipe for a delicious upgrade. However, the most recommended cooking methods are 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 are so numerous that despite their popularity with foodies, there’s plenty for everyone. These fat-bodied birds weigh one and a half pounds each, are about the size of a Cornish hen when dressed, and are similar to quail in flavor and texture, with a flavor that has been described as nutty and mild. They also work well in any recipe that calls for quail, though their larger size means you need to adjust cooking times and portion sizes accordingly.
4. Gray Partridge: Also known as the Hungarian partridge, or Hun, this bird has always been a delicacy, and its distinctively flavored, slightly peppery dark meat has been prized by gourmets from Roman times to the present day. Weighing from half a pound to a pound, they are usually prepared whole and baked in an oven. Nuts, fall fruits, and mushrooms have flavor profiles that have long been associated with this bird, and they work well as a filling or sauce.
5. Pheasant: The game bird most associated with royalty, the male’s large size and colorful plumage make it an award-winning hunting trophy. Pheasants are as prized at the 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 that hang for a minimal amount of time, the flavor is mild enough to be acceptable even to people they care about. They don’t like hunting. Those who prefer a stronger flavor can opt for wild birds that have been hanging longer, up to a week, allowing the flavor of the bird to develop further. Cooks using pheasant should pay special attention to the difference in flavor between wild and farm-raised, as well as between low-hanging and aged, as the seasonings need to be strong enough to enhance the flavor of the bird without drowning it.
In general, cooking methods for game birds must take into account that they are leaner than farm birds and therefore dry faster, so techniques such as brining or adding a little fat in the form of butter in the stuffing or lard with bacon Works wonders. Wrapping in a batter or crust and then baking or frying is also a good idea, as the coating protects the meat from drying out.
Wine pairings for these birds generally involve a bolder white or lighter red wine, but marinades, spices, and sauces will have an effect on the relative weight of wine needed: barolo or cabernet sauvignon in the sauce will pair with a tannic red, while oriental spices will go well with the spice of a good syrah. For those who want to keep things casual, a good beer will do the trick too. Happy eating!