Fixing What Ails Our Least Favorite Upland Birds: A Sage/Sharp Tailed Grouse Breast Recipe, Plus Salt and the Art of Wild Bird Triage
John loves hunting the prairies and hunting the upland birds that live there. Invariably, given the open spaces and strong odor of sage grouse, it’s the first bird our dogs learn to hunt. I fought this for years and then discovered there were times when sharptailed grouse were almost delicate in flavor–like when the buffalo berries are abundant and ripe, and that’s all the sharptails are eating. But sage grouse? Arggh. They’re great for training newby hunters and baby bird dogs, but a real problem in the kitchen.
John had some tricks at first for those sage birds; but he liked their flavor and it wasn’t until he realized he was the only one eating them, that he let me get really serious about field care and recipes. (FYI, if someone in the family doesn’t like to eat the game you’re bringing home and cooking, and they offer to take over, let them. Tell them what you’ve been doing, and go from there. I’ve had more than one reader say that changed the way their spouse felt about eating game. For the better.)
We’d always drawn and rinsed sage grouse immediately, and thrown them on ice. But two things made that even more effective: we now carry a box of non-iodized table salt with us as well as gallon-sized ZipLoc bags. Once the birds are drawn and rinsed, the salt gets strewn liberally (salt’s cheap) inside the body cavity (it helps draw out the blood and creosote flavor from the sagebrush), then we half fill the Ziploc bag with ice cubes and insert it inside the body cavity. If the bag still has spaces to fill once inside the bird, we fill them, after making sure that the ice is reaching high under the rib cage. (But also being sure there’s space enough in the body cavity for the heat to escape. Don’t pack it too tight with ice.) Then the bird, with bag inside, is buried in the ice-filled cooler. (Do the same with sharptails, but with one or two sandwich sized bags, more appropriate for their smaller size.)
As with everything put on ice, we check it every 3-4 hours during the day and first thing every morning, and try to keep the cooler on the shady side of the pickup. (If that’s impossible, a light-colored sleeping bag draped loosely over the cooler helps keep it shaded.)
The bird stays salted and iced until we get home, where we remove the ice bag and put the birds in the bottom of the fridge to finish aging. We age about 7 days, then rinse the salt out well, and prepare the bird for the freezer.
Salt is a good cure for what ails birds anyway. One March, I was hunting Eastern turkeys at White Oak Plantation, Alabama, in unusually warm weather: it was 90°F. At the end of the first day, I’d shot a turkey, and there was a miscommunication with my guide. He thought I’d said I’d clean the bird; I thought he’d said he’d do it. The upshot was neither of us did it until I flew home to Montana several days later. Not willing to waste all that meat, I dressed the bird meticulously, trimmed all discolored skin and membrane ruthlessly and rinsed it until it sang Dixie. Then it got a quadruple dose of salt in the body cavity.
From there it went in the fridge overnight, then wrapped and stowed in the freezer the next day–with the salt. When I did finally cook the bird a few short weeks later, I tasted it with trepidation. The gravy was so salty it puckered your lips, but the meat was fine.
The good thing about salt is that it’s everywhere. Even if you’re dealing with TSA to get to your hunting spot, you know there will be salt in the kitchen when you arrive. (Well, I’d pack a box going to the far north, just given the fact that everything has to be flown in and they may not have more than the table requirement of salt on hand. But then ptarmigan really don’t have any flavors you’d have to treat with salt. Still, if you have a failure of communication, as with my turkey, a little non-iodized table salt may be very handy.)
For more tips on making your game taste better both before and after you start cooking, check out the Upland Gamebird Cookery book. That’s where this recipe comes from, along with a lot of tips on game care for birds, large and small, pale-fleshed and dark: https://www.riflesandrecipes.com/product/upland-game-bird-recipes/ And FYI, this recipe is one of the ones I get the most feedback on. People love it–because it works.
If your hard-to-eat birds are waterfowl, there’s the Duck & Goose Cookery book. It’s out of print, but I pick up good to excellent condition used copies now and then. E-mail me at email@example.com if you’d like one.
Oh, and about that photo:
That’s me, in my early wingshooting days with a sage grouse. This one probably had green skid marks. John used to harass me by saying he could always tell which birds were mine and which were his by those telltale skid marks. It was this bird that started it all. We were hunting with friends, four of them, and as we approached a barbed wire fence, we noticed sage birds walking around under the sagebrush on the other side. We flushed them and everyone but me shot and killed a bird. The only reason I hadn’t shot was that my bird was crouching about 15 yards in front of me under a sagebrush branch with the tips of its wings over its eyes, and despite the collective blast of 4 shotguns right over its head, it hadn’t flushed. I looked left and right and said, “Are you all done shooting?”
They said, “Yes, duh.” I said “Stay where you are,” and ground-sluiced my bird. One of the guys turned to John and started to warn him about my ‘careless gun handling,’ as I crawled under the fence and retrieved the bird–with appropriately oriented skid marks.
‘Nuff said. Here’s the sharp tailed grouse breast recipe.
Portly Sharptail Breasts
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 cup minced shallots
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
- 2/3 cup Port wine
- 3 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules
- 2 cups hot water
- boned breasts of 6-8 sharptails
*It can be dangerous to pour spirits directly from the bottle onto a hot pan; so pour the Port into a measuring cup before adding it to the pan.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a 9 to 10-inch covered sauté pan (skillet or 3 quart Dutch oven) heat the oil and sugar over medium high heat. When the oil starts to smoke, back the heat down to medium and add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. Sauté until the shallots start to turn golden brown, stirring constantly, about 1 minute.
- Add the Port wine from a measuring cup, and stir it into the shallots. Continue sautéing over medium heat, stirring often, until the port wine has been reduced to about 1/3. (It will look thick, and feel slightly sticky on the spoon.) Combine the bouillon granules and water, add them to the pan, stirring it into the thickened port wine.
- As the pan comes back to a simmer, dry the sharptail breasts with paper towels, then bury them into the simmering pan juices. Cover the pan, and place it in the center of the oven. Continue cooking for another 45 minutes. Serve over egg noodles.
Easy Sharp Tailed Grouse Breast Recipe | Rifles and Recipes
Try this easy and delicious sharp tailed grouse breast recipe after your next hunt. You're going to love it!
Type: main dish
Keywords: sharp tailed grouse recipe, sharp tailed grouse breast recipe
Recipe Yield: 4-6 servings
Recipe Instructions: 1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a 9 to 10-inch covered sauté pan (skillet or 3 quart Dutch oven) heat the oil and sugar over medium high heat. When the oil starts to smoke, back the heat down to medium and add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. Sauté until the shallots start to turn golden brown, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. 2. Add the Port wine from a measuring cup, and stir it into the shallots. Continue sautéing over medium heat, stirring often, until the port wine has been reduced to about 1/3. (It will look thick, and feel slightly sticky on the spoon.) Combine the bouillon granules and water, add them to the pan, stirring it into the thickened port wine. 3. As the pan comes back to a simmer, dry the sharptail breasts with paper towels, then bury them into the simmering pan juices. Cover the pan, and place it in the center of the oven. Continue cooking for another 45 minutes. Serve over egg noodles.