By Steven Schwartz
On a recent pheasant hunt in South Dakota, we encountered a bit of controversy. After a long day of trudging through fields in knee-deep snow, there was a divide in the group—should we pluck our birds, skin them, or breast them out? About half of our group couldn’t feel their extremities, so they quickly removed the breasts and threw them in the cooler. As for the rest of us, we were stuck between plucking and skinning.
We’ve all gotten our fair share of controversy in 2020, but I’m here to raise one last important debate: What to do with your birds after you shoot them. There’s not always a black or white answer, and it depends on the circumstances. But, I’m Team Pluck, and I think you should be too.
First, let’s get this out of the way. If you’re a hunter, you should be saving as much of the meat as possible, which means breasting out a bird is probably not the way to go. You’re wasting the legs and thighs, which may not seem like much meat, but if you sat in the marsh for five hours in 25-degree temps, why wouldn’t you want to savor every bit? If you’re going to do anything, choose between plucking and skinning—it’s the least you can do, and it’s respectful to the birds we love to hunt.
Now that we got that out of the way, here are a few reasons why I think you should pluck.
It’s Not That Hard
Really, it’s not. Especially if you age the bird for a few days or “wet pluck” (we’ll get to that in a bit), the feathers come out pretty easily on most birds. With some practice, you can pluck a duck or pheasant in 20 minutes, and a quail or dove in even less time. And, if you’re like me, processing the meat you’ve harvested in the field is half the fun—so crack a couple of beers, crank the tunes, and enjoy your plucking session in the garage. Maybe you can even talk the kids into helping out.
Skin = Moisture
By keeping the skin on your bird, you’re giving yourself even more protection from dryness during the cooking process. And for ducks, a lot of their fat is stored under the skin—you definitely don’t want to waste it. There’s a lot of flavor hidden in the skin and fat, and it adds another layer of complexity to the taste. By plucking your bird, you’ll have better flavor protection in the freezer, during the cooking process, and once it hits the plate.
Open Up Your Options
Because the skin does so much for protection and taste, it broadens your opportunities when it comes to your work in the kitchen. For example, with the skin on it’s much easier to roast a bird whole, Thanksgiving style, which makes for a great presentation. Beyond that, you have more forgiveness in cooking times for faster preparation and you can even remove the skin and fry it up for added texture on tacos or something similar.
People Will Notice
People learn by watching, and if we’re taking the time to dress our birds for the optimal experience, they’ll be sure to take notice. As hunters, we need to go the extra mile to show that we’re respecting the birds we kill in the field by making the most of the meat we take home. There’s no better PR for our lifestyle than when you take the time and care to prepare your table fare. Plus, skin-on birds just look better on the table, so there’s that too.
Now that we’ve tackled the “why” let’s talk about the “how.” But first, a quick note.
While plucking is optimal, sometimes it just doesn’t work out and that’s OK too. Case in point, I had to bail on plucking a bird because I simply peppered it too much with my shot, and the skin was tearing. So, do the best you can, but if it’s going to be too difficult, don’t lose any sleep over it. Just like anything else in the outdoors, things rarely go to plan—especially if you’re not always the best shot, which is especially true in my case.
For both methods, be sure to use more of a “pop” than a “pull” when plucking the feathers. Pulling is actually harder and will result in more skin tears. For areas where the skin is shot or torn, put plenty of pressure on the skin to immobilize it before plucking the feather. Lastly, be sure to take extra care around the breast, because the skin can be tender and that’s the area most people will notice on a bird when it’s prepared for the table.
This is my favorite technique because of its simplicity. I find that it’s best to let the birds age for 3-5 days before plucking (but you can get it done same-day if you need to). If you’re in a cooler climate (under 55 degrees for a high), just hang them outside or in the garage. There’s no need to gut the birds, either, because their internal organs don’t generate enough heat to spoil the bird if kept cool. If you’re in a warmer climate, keep them in the fridge or in a cooler, but be sure to keep them dry. After that, pluck away! On larger birds, you can pluck against the grain, but on smaller birds, you’ll need to go with the grain to ensure the skin doesn’t tear.
This method is faster overall but requires a bit more technique than dry plucking. Prepare a large pot of water, and heat it to a scalding temperature (less than 150 degrees because you don’t want to cook the meat). Dip the bird for 3 to 5 seconds, holding it by the feet, and give a tug on larger feathers. If they don’t budget easily, dip the bird again. Repeat until the feathers pop with ease, which may take 2 to 3 dips on larger birds, and then start plucking the bird.
Once you’ve plucked your birds, simply remove the giblets and burn off the pin feathers with a torch, if necessary. For ducks, you can also take the paraffin wax approach, which Hank Shaw explains nicely here. It’s more involved from the start, but can be very effective once you get the hang of it. From there, your birds are ready for the table or ready for the freezer.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to preparing your birds for the table. But, when in doubt, taking the extra time and care is never a bad decision. Some may say it’s a waste of time or not worth the effort, but those are probably the same people who’ve spent hours scouting duck spots or marching through sunflower fields in sub-freezing temperatures. In the grand scheme, the time to pluck is just the icing on the cake after all the work it took to get there. It’s worth every second.