Gutting and eviscerating: it’s not the prettiest business, but it’s a necessary step toward the chewy, gamey goodness of a freshly grilled pheasant. Besides, hunting ain’t for hemophobes. Prepping a freshly killed bird is significantly more complicated than pointing and shooting, however, which is why you’d be wise to follow in the footsteps of Bryce Shuman, head chef at Betony, a Michelin Star-rated New York eatery and purveyor of seasonal game dishes. His accolades come from his work in the kitchen, but like any self-respecting chef, he’s no stranger to the bloodier business behind menu items like his grilled pheasant and offal tart. Here’s a step-by-step guide to cleaning, eviscerating and aging your bird, straight from the man himself.
1 “First, you have to pluck them. Some people will blanche them in a big pot of boiling water to help take out the feathers, to make it easier, but I don’t think that’s good for the quality of the meat. You need to go in there with just your hands and some gloves. Take each quill, one by one — take the time. Be gentle, but firm. You don’t wanna tear the skin, that’s very important. They’re very beautiful birds; if you’re just tearing away at the feathers, you’ll tear the skin. Enjoy the process. If you’re hunting for your own food, you should enjoy this part.
“If you’re having trouble with some of them, skip them and go back with pliers if you have to. But again, be careful; don’t just yank and tear at it.”
2 “To remove the birdshot, look for little bruises around the skin. That’s where the skin is punctured. If you see a purple bruise, it’s generally because that’s where the shot hit it; so you want to examine that area. Go in there with needle-nosed pliers and remove the shot; be careful not to upset the skin. But you wanna take that shot out; you don’t wanna break a tooth.”
3 “With a boning knife, carefully remove the bone from the upper thigh (the equivalent of where the femur would be), disconnecting it from the back and then from the shin. Do the same with the other leg, then remove the back of the bird entirely. [Ed note: This refers to the backbone, from the shoulder line down.] Cut the wings at the elbow and the feet. You’ll wanna save all these to cook the sauce.”
1 “After you’ve plucked the bird, cut the throat to expose the esophagus and windpipe. [Ed note: This is so that you can easily remove them later.] Then you’re going to make an incision from, essentially, the anus through the belly cavity. I’d use scissors, here — a sharp pair of scissors with short blades. Joyce Chen scissors are great. Cut just underneath the skin; you don’t wanna jab the scissors and puncture open any of the organs. Make the incision 2.5 to 3 inches long at the maximum; the farther you cut, the harder it is. When I’m serving my finished product, my finished bird, I want the skin to cover most of it; you don’t want the skin to look all torn away.”
2 “Now you can probably see the organs. To remove those, what you want to do is take two fingers and go just underneath the skin: you’re going to run your fingers just along the outside of the organs: the gizzards, the heart, the digestive tract and all that. You want to follow along the outside; you’re sort of dislodging the insides. Now you can reach up underneath the breast cage — go high, here — and feel up to where the esophagus and windpipe begin, and with those two fingers you’re gonna pull down. It’s still gonna be attached by the throat — so you’re gonna take the scissors, reach up and clip that out, essentially.”
Cleaning and Storing the Innards
1 “You wanna separate the gizzards and rinse them off — make sure there’s no grit or weirdness. Be thorough. There’s gonna be some silver skin on them; you’re gonna wanna trim that off also, with a sharp paring knife. The hearts should be pretty clean, but just rinse them off as well. Any excess fat surrounding it should come right off with your hands (wear gloves).”
2 “Save the gizzards, save the heart — all of that is good stuff. With a healthy bird, you can make a nice little patee out of the liver. We cure all the gizzards and hearts with just a bit of salt and sugar for about an hour. Then we rinse it off well and confit it with a little bit of duck fat.”
Cleaning and Aging the Bird
1 “After you take everything out, there may still be some stuff attached to the ribcage and between the ribs — the lungs, I think. You’re gonna wanna take your two fingers and pick those off. Then you wanna rinse the bird out. Rinse it really well; make sure to rinse out any little feathers, any blood; if you accidentally popped an intestine, clean out any bile. You don’t want to have any of that in there; it’s gonna spoil your bird.”
2 “So, you’ve plucked it, you’ve eviscerated it, you’ve rinsed it — now pat it dry really, really well. Then you wanna hang it by the neck with a hook; if it’s fresh, hang it for two weeks. Take a little piece of tape and wrap it around the neck, and write the date so that you know — that way you’re not guessing. I hang them in the refrigerator with fans blowing on it; this helps decrease the moisture content, because refrigerators have a lot of moisture in the air.”
3 “If you keep the air moving, it’ll help to keep it dry. The storage temperature needs to be below 41 degrees, but a little warmer might be okay. 50 degrees might be a little too warm. In our restaurant we hang them at 36 degrees, maximum.
“Through the aging process, you’re developing the flavor. The bird is losing a little weight in moisture, which is concentrated in the flavor of the pheasant. What’s also happening is there’s a little bit of bacteria going on. It’s doing its work; it’s eating the bird a little bit, and through that process, giving that aged flavor that we love. The flavor of dry-aged steak comes from the bacteria. It also contributes tenderness — it tenderizes the bird.”