Recently, a good friend presented me with a gift of pheasant breasts and thighs. They were shot locally at the Milford Hills hunt club, which is a beautifully pristine 500 acres in Johnson Creek, WI.
If you have the opportunity to procure wild pheasant, I highly recommend it for the robustness of flavor. However, an excellent alternative can be acquired via the internet at MacFarlane Pheasants, located in Janesville WI, and the largest pheasant farm in the United States. I was very happy with the whole pheasant I purchased from them for a specialty dinner last year.
The preparation for the pheasant breasts and thighs given here is adapted from Hank Shaw’s post at the award-winning Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Rather than the plain salt/sugar brine he utilizes, I prefer the introduction of aromatics similar to the brine detailed in Thomas Keller’s excellent cook book Ad Hoc at Home.
There is a certain symmetry to having the opportunity to turn these pheasants, received as a gift, into part of a meal for a large group of friends. These smoked pheasants were chilled, sliced and served as wraps with a cranberry relish, double cream brie, and greens.
For the Brine
8 cups water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup real maple syrup
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 lb pheasant meat
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups real maple syrup
Combine water through vinegar in a sauce pan and bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for 1 minute. All salt and sugar should be dissolved. Refrigerate in a glass bowl or other non-reactive container until cool. Add pheasant, cover and refrigerate overnight or at least 12 hours and up to 18 hours.
Take the pheasants out and pat them dry. Allow them to sit out uncovered for 1 hour in a cool, dry place.
Hot smoke the pheasants over the wood of your choice for at least 2 hours, maintaining a temperature between 200°F and 250°F. My preferred woods are the fruit woods such as apple and cherry. While the pheasant smokes for the first hour, reduce the maple syrup and butter by half to promote adhesion (thanks to hunt, fish, camp for that tip). Then baste with the reduced syrup every 30 minutes afterward. Remove pheasant at an internal temperature of 160°F. Baste a final time. Can be served immediately or chilled and sliced.
The result is a deeply flavorful pheasant, balancing the salt, sweet, and smoke. The brining adds savory undertones while also maintaining moisture. If you’ve ever enjoyed perfectly prepared bacon that gets coated in maple syrup on your breakfast plate, you have a sense of the flavors here, and further enhanced by the richness of the pheasant. Enjoy.