Hang, brine & smoke grouse on a Traeger. Hanging your birds (guts & feathers intact) ages the meat and improves the flavour and texture. Next, a simple brine is used before smoking the meat for maximum flavour.
Hang, Brine & Smoke Grouse
The first I heard of hanging a game bird, was in Hank Shaw's Hunt, Gather, Cook.
Hunting was not on my mind then, nor was wild game. Those concepts were so far removed from my city life.
Unless you have grown up eating it, it seems we tend towards a contemptuous disregard for game meat, far preferring the bland safety of boneless, skinless chicken breasts to anything with even an inkling of flavour.
I was no different then. In fact, I was a few months fresh from a disastrous stint on veganism that had left me in poor health and asking so many questions with no easy answers. I had become so far removed from the nutrient-dense peasant diet of my youth and I was looking for a way back.
That book would become one of many that were greatly influential in those murky post-vegan days of my life and one of the reasons I ever decided hunting was a possibility.
But that's a long story for a different day.
In the here and now — I was given a grouse. I had actually been anticipating moose meat so this lone little grouse was a consolation prize, but a welcome one I was determined to make great.
What do I know about making a wild grouse of indeterminable age taste good?
And what if I do my best but it tastes bad?
Unfortunately, Kenji and The Food Lab had no answers for the correct way of hanging and ageing wild grouse.
So I took it to Google and that just made it more confusing. There is no consensus on the best way to approach this.
I read so many accounts that grouse meat was incredibly gamey — especially autumn grouse meat — which is what I had to work with — tough and unremarkable, that hanging was a waste of time, that simply breasting and frying was the best cooking method.
And then I found this horrifying quote from somewhere in the annals of history which I sincerely hope doesn't make you click off of this page in disgust (it doesn't come to this I swear):
Ugh. What the hell did I just read? If this was hanging, I wasn't having any part of it.
Oh and before you go even any further, you should know this is my first time.
My first time making grouse, my first time cooking wild game meat on my own (farmed venison, bison and elk don't count).
So why do I feel qualified to write a guide on hanging and ageing grouse, brining it, and smoking it? Well, because I think I did a pretty fantastic job of it.
My first nervous bite of the grouse meat was a revelation of taste and texture. It was perfectly done and I loved it. The meat was flavourful, substantial but tender, and the leg meat that I had read so often described as a "useless waste of time" tasted mildly like prosciutto.
(So, definitely worth your time I think.)
I don't fully understand the science behind it. You hang a bird like a grouse by the neck or feet in a cool place of a certain temperature range — guts, feathers, and all still intact, for a certain period of time — several days to a couple of weeks.
The flesh is thereafter transformed into something different, something better.
You are effectively ageing the meat like beef, and aged beef is way better, so why not aged grouse?
We are so used to the normal precautions and warnings around meat that this can seem like something from a different, more primitive time. Before we knew about deadly bacteria and salmonella poisoning. And what about parasites? And rot?!
But then even hunter-chef Georgia Pellegrini urged the same ageing of meat and game birds in her book Girl Hunter.
But why is there such a vast disparity of opinion and experience? Why are some experts claiming that hanging and brining is a waste of time for grouse? Why are some claiming it will make the grouse taste gamier? My experiment yielded incredible flavourful meat without a hint of gaminess — do I just not know what gaminess even is?
The best conclusion I can come too is that people do as they know, as they were raised, as they were told. If someone is told there whole life by a trusted source that things are a certain way, they will believe it. They will then parrot that same advice with the best of intentions.
Well, I didn't have anyone telling me anything. So when I did come across this technique, I was intrigued enough to try it out for myself without any prejudice as to the results.
And I'm glad I did.
My biggest stumbling block to this was living in a condo. The only place I could hang the bird would be my fridge. And the temperature of my fridge might be too cold for an effective experiment.
As there was nothing to be done about these circumstances, I decided to just let it hang for a longer period of time — 8 days. I was tempted to go even longer but I was tormented with visions of disease, maggots, tapeworms, and rotted innards.
I also kept forgetting the damn bird was in there and was freshly startled every time I opened the door to be faced with this:
Hanging The Grouse
It doesn't matter if you hang your bird by the feet or neck. I chose the neck.
A simple cotton kitchen twine will do. I tied it to the neck of the grouse and then suspended the bird by tieing the other end to an available hook-like thing in my fridge.
The refrigerator is likely too cold for the best experiment results, but the temperatures outside were still too warm and unpredictable to try hanging on my balcony.
Make do with what you have.
The ideal temperature range is apparently around 55° Fahrenheit (13° Celcius) and my refrigerator is set to 37° Fahrenheit (3°Celcius). But whatever, I decided to hang it longer than a few days for this reason — 8 days total.
In hindsight, I would have gone a full two-weeks but I was nervous this first time doing something that seemed so weird and counter-intuitive. If I'd had more then the one measly grouse, I could have experimented with various hanging times and dry versus wet brining too, but I wasn't that lucky this time.
When I go on my (first ever!) hunt for pheasant (happening soon!), I'm definitely going to try different things to see what happens and what I prefer.
Gutting & Plucking The Grouse
After 8 days of hanging, I wasn't about to reach inside the bird cavity blindly. I chose to spatchcock.
The wings were clipped clean off, as were the feet. I decided the feet were too small to add to a stockpot for soup, but if you have enough of them it may be worthwhile.
Plucking took mere minutes, the feathers came out easily and quickly. I was shocked at the gigantic pile of feathers I had at the end from a tiny bird.
(Those feathers are now separated into bags with my craft stuff and awaiting some further use.)
Spatchcocking is easy, especially if using a sharp pair of kitchen shears made for the purpose of cutting through meat and bone. If you're curious, this is the brand (Shun) I use to make quick work of poultry and other meats.
American Test Kitchen recommended that brand and I trust their reviews. So far they have been incredible — I even used them to quickly dispatch some live quail by quickly cutting off their heads with the shears.
In spatchcocking, you cut out the backbone and then flatten the bird.
Here, of course, I had all the guts intact so I was super nervous as I gingerly cut out the spine, terrified I would puncture the guts, find rotted innards, or worse....like parasitic worms.
My fears were completely unfounded and I was amazed by what I did actually find — clean, raw meat as fresh as the day the grouse was shot. The organs even were in perfectly edible condition and I quickly fried up the heart and liver in some butter to test them — delicious.
The rest of the organs were given raw to my cats who also loved them. The stomach and intestines were buried in my balcony cedar planter for fertilizer for next years' tomatoes and lettuces.
I lightly flattened the grouse by pressing down on it from the breast-side and washed out the meat, much relieved.
It was time to brine.
Brining The Grouse
Again, I wish I had more birds to test with, but I didn't. I decided on a wet brine for no real reason over a dry brine which I prefer for turkey and chicken.
A simple brine of kosher or sea salt is fine. But I also added whole peppercorns, dried rosemary, dried orange peel, dried lemon peel, and dried sage to mine.
One tablespoon of salt per cup of water needed to completely submerge the grouse is what you need. The other ingredients are in addition to this measurement.
You can dissolve the salt by boiling the water but make sure the water comes back down to room temperature before submerging the meat.
This is best done by boiling just some of the water and then adding the remaining cool water which will help bring it back down in temperature faster.
I ended up brining for 24 hours total although I think 12 hours would probably be optimal for a wet brine.
Remember to rinse the brine off well under cool running water once you're ready to cook.
Smoking The Grouse
My next challenge was how to cook the grouse.
Do I roast it in the oven or smoke it on my Traeger?
I've been obsessed with my Traeger Grill ever since getting it and I use it for everything. I decided to use it over the oven to prepare the grouse.
I used hickory wood pellets which can be strong for some tastes.
For poultry, Traeger recommends the following wood pellets: Alder, Apple, Cherry, Hickory, Mesquite, & Pecan.
I think any of them would be fine, really, Use whatever you prefer.
I made a basting sauce/marinade of butter, garlic, black pepper, and dried lovage and then rubbed the entire grouse liberally in that sauce, including underneath the skin and inside the body cavity.
For the complete recipe, keep reading:
Hang, Brine & Smoke Grouse on The Traeger
- Note: All ingredient amounts and recipe instructions are given for ONE whole grouse increase ingredients as required.
- One whole grouse plucked/gutted, wings and feet clipped, spine removed and flattened (spatchcocked)
For The Wet Brine:
- Kosher salt see instructions further down for amounts
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried Sage
- 1 teaspoon dried orange peels
- 1 teaspoon dried lemon peels
- Note: You can use the fresh version of the above ingredients or even just an all-salt brine solution too. The most important part of brining is getting the kosher salt to fresh water ratio correct.
For The Marinade/Basting Sauce:
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 cloves fresh garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon dried lovage
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- After your grouse has finished hanging for the appropriate amount of time and you have plucked/gutted/spatchcocked it, it's time to brine. Put your bird into the glass container where it will brine and add 1 measured cup of fresh water over the bird. Repeat this until the bird is fully submerged, keeping count of how many cups of water you needed to FULLY cover the grouse.
- Remove the bird and discard the water.
- Starting anew with fresh water, and keeping in mind the amount you measured which added up to a fully-submerged bird, add a few cups of fresh water to a small pot over high heat.
- Add ALL the kosher salt — remember it's 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per 1 cup of water for the brine solution. You're going to boil the water until the salt is fully dissolved.
- When the water begins to boil and the salt is fully disolved, remove your pot from the heat, stir in the rest of the ingredients, and then add the remaining amount of water.
- Allow the brine solution to FULLY come to room temperature.
- Submerge the grouse in the brine once the temperature has come down sufficiently, cover, and refrigerate for 12 hours and up to 24 hours. Weigh down the bird if it keeps popping up above the brine.
- Once the bird has finished brining, remove it from and discard the solution, and then rinse the bird well under cool running water — this is a very important step.
- Dry the bird completely and set it on a plate to come to room temperature (30 minutes) while you make the basting sauce/marinade.
- In a small to medium-sized pot on medium heat add the butter.
- Once the butter is hot and starts frothing, add the garlic, some pepper to taste, lovage, and bay leaf.
- Once the butter becomes aromatic (60 seconds) remove the pot from the heat and stir in the maple syrup.
- Baste your grouse inside and out and underneath skin (as much as possible) with this mixture. Do not add any salt.
- Preheat your Traeger Grill on Smoke with the lid open for 5 minutes, allowing a fire to become established.
- Place the grouse directly on the grill grates, basting the meat again with a pastry or silicone brush before closing the lid.
- Smoke for 30 minutes, keeping an eye on the heat so that it does not rise and basting every 15 minutes.
- Turn the heat up on your Traeger to high, baste the meat again, close the lid, and allow the grouse to roast at this higher temperature for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the grouse from the grill and allow to rest, loosely tented, for 15 minutes.
- Serve and enjoy,