Duck and goose quality is often influenced by how the birds are treated in the field and at home. As a hunter, you can take certain steps to ensure your waterfowl are as best as can be on the table.
Avoid piling birds on top of one another after they’re shot. It’s always a benefit when the birds can cool and dry as much as possible. If a bird is severely damaged (e.g., shot in the chest at close range), process it in the field or as quickly after the hunt as possible, before rigor mortis sets in. If you do field-process birds, remember to leave a wing attached for legal transport.
Plucking can be a long and tedious chore but is well worth the effort. Take your time and enjoy the process, because there is no shortcut. For best results, pluck feathers while the body is still warm. With one hand, pull the feathers out in clumps in the direction they are growing, and hold down the skin with the other hand. After you finish plucking, pinfeathers may still be attached—use a propane torch to easily singe these away.
Waterfowl are best plucked unless they are shot in the chest at close range, they have too many pinfeathers, or a recipe specifies otherwise. In these situations, remove the breasts simply by tearing or cutting the skin from the bottom of the neck to the top of the gut, and cutting the meat from the bones and tearing the legs off the torso.
Hanging waterfowl is not as popular in Canada as elsewhere, but it’s long established that it improves the quality of the meat. Hang them whole, feathers on and not eviscerated, head up, in a cool (3–5°C), dry, well-aerated location. Doing so allows rigor mortis to decline and facilitates natural muscle breakdown that contributes to tenderness and improved flavour. Ducks can be hung four to seven days; geese can be hung five to ten days.
To prepare birds for cooking or freezing, begin by removing the feet, cutting through at the first joint. Next, remove the wings, again cutting at the first joint. Make a cut in the skin at the back of the neck and peel back the skin to the base of the neck, then cut off the head.
Cut across the butt and remove the tail section, taking care to take out the two oil preen glands which, if left on, can impart an unpleasant taste to the bird. Then reach in and remove the entrails. Many hunters save the heart or the liver of their birds (we’ve got some great recipes!).
Wash the bird well in cold water, then drain completely and pat dry. Once cleaned, keep waterfowl covered in the refrigerator; it’ll keep for several days without spoiling.
Another option is to freeze the bird right away. Duck and geese freeze best whole—if a recipe calls for parts, it’s best to remove them after thawing. Just remember, trapped air can lead to freezer burn. Luckily, today’s vacuum sealers do a wonderful job of removing the air before sealing. If you don’t have a sealer, wrap the bird in two layers of cling wrap, then store in a zipper-sealed storage bag; squeeze out all the air before sealing the bag. Properly wrapped and stored, waterfowl will last in excellent condition for as long as a year…ready to be enjoyed anytime!