As I peruse social media hunting groups and online threads, I continually see a constant stream of confusion, misrepresentation, and disinformation about cooking wild ducks and geese. Every thread or comment section looks a little like this:
geese are gamey; ducks are greasy; just throw it all in a crockpot; they’re too tough; tastes like liver; aren’t worth eating; carp of the sky; best roasted whole; turn it all into jerky; just leave ‘em in the field; pukey face emoji; cover them with salt and pepper, cook on high, put on a plate, garnish with parsley, dump it into the garbage, and eat the plate.
Most of these comments are patently false or misleading, and I’d die a happy man if I never heard that lame, unoriginal joke at the end there ever again.
It is true that wild ducks and geese can be a little more challenging to cook than a chicken or a venison backstrap, but with a little knowledge and skill, you can make eating them a truly delightful experience.
First things first, ducks and geese are different than chicken. Let that settle in for a minute. You’re not going to be able to just treat them like chicken and expect the same results!
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Ducks and geese are thoroughly comprised of dark meat, which is quite red. This is due to the fact that they get A LOT of exercise. Since chickens don’t do much flying, the breasts remain white. The same can be seen in certain grouse species who only fly in short little bursts. Ducks and geese, particularly wild ones, migrate back and forth across great distances, using those breast muscles to fly, and pumping oxygen into them via red blood cells. A certain protein in the meat called myoglobin holds on to that oxygen, thereby causing the meat to stay red.
Their leg muscles also get much more of a workout than domesticated chickens, being used to constantly swim or walk when the birds aren’t in flight. If you’ve ever had a free-range chicken from a small farm, you probably noticed that the legs were darker and tougher than factory farmed chickens. This is because that chicken actually got to use its legs to run around!
The legs also tend to hold onto more intramuscular fat than the breast in both chickens and waterfowl, which allows them to stay moist when cooked for a long period of time. The leaner breast meat on the other hand tends to dry right out and develop a nasty, crumbly texture when overcooked.
Another major difference between chickens and waterfowl is that chicken needs to be cooked to 165°F to be rid of any potential salmonella bacteria that it may be harbouring. You don’t have to worry about that when it comes to wild ducks and geese, who weren’t raised in the squalid conditions that salmonella-carrying chickens were. In light of that fact, I like to cook duck and goose breast to 135°F, or medium-rare.
Waterfowl breast meat, particularly in geese, becomes very unpalatable when cooked all of the way through. This is the cause of those gamey, or livery flavours that people so often associate with ducks and geese. When cooked to medium-rare, duck breast is a dream; moist, flavourful, and meaty in a tender way. Medium-rare goose breast comes across like a grass-fed sirloin steak; meaty, flavourful, and beefy.
If you pluck your ducks and geese, and you really should, the breasts will have a delicious cap of fatty skin that will crisp up when you sear it, adding juiciness and tons of excellent flavour.
Breasts also do well in cured preparations like corned meat, pastrami, prosciutto, etc. and I’ll always save at least half of my duck and goose breasts for preparations like the ones above every year.
The legs of ducks and geese are another matter altogether. If simply cooked through, they tend to be tough and stringy and not all that fun to eat. They don’t do well cooked medium-rare like their chesty counterparts however; they need their own special cooking method.
The trick for cooking legs, and wings for that matter, is to go low and slow. Think pulled pork and you’ll be on the right track. This is the time for those crock pots, Dutch ovens, and for slow barbecuing. The fat found in the legs will help keep the meat tender and moist as you essentially over-cook it until the meat falls off of the bone. Eaten as is, or dressed in a sauce, duck and goose legs can be transcendental in their deliciousness.
Perhaps the very best way to prepare them is by following the traditional French confit method where duck and goose legs get cooked very slowly in their own fat. The flavour and texture will blow you away, and it’s not all that hard to do. It really is a near-criminal shame that so many legs are left behind in breasted birds to languish in the field.
What about whole roasting? Roasting a whole bird feels natural and is often the way that most people want to go about cooking their birds. Though it can be pulled off decently with high temperatures and certain preparations and cooking methods, it really isn’t the best way to enjoy ducks and geese and it will often lead to dry, gamey disappointment.
I generally tend to break down my birds once I’ve plucked them, separating boneless breasts from wings, legs, and thighs. The rest of the carcass gets roasted until golden, then simmered in water to create delicious stock, while any extraneous fat and skin gets rendered down into liquid fat for confit, or for making duck fat French fries.
Breasts get seared in a cast iron pan until medium rare, while legs get slow cooked for tacos, salads, confit, stews, chili, pulled goose sandwiches, etc.
Another thing to consider when it comes to cooking ducks and geese is the toughness factor. Compared to chickens, ducks and especially geese can live a much longer life. Your average broiler chicken that you buy in the grocery store lived to the ripe old age of 8 weeks when it went to slaughter. Yes, you read that right, 8 weeks!
Ducks on the other hand often live 5-10 years in the wild, while geese can live 10-25 years (there are reports of some even living 30-40 years). If you happen to bring down one of these older birds, you’re going to encounter tougher meat than you would with a younger bird or domesticated chicken. This isn’t a problem for the legs and thighs as you can slow cook them until they fall apart into tenderness no matter how old they are. The breasts however can end up being quite tough.
My solution is to cook the breasts from old birds to medium-rare then shave them into very thin slices. You could even go further and chop that shaved meat, thereby breaking down most of the tough muscular fibres in the meat. Use the chopped meat on a French dip, a sub-style sandwich, shawarma-like wrap, or anywhere you’d use shaved beef.
The last point I’ll make is about species. Not all ducks and geese are created equal when it comes to flavour. Diving ducks like mergansers can often carry fishy or off-flavours in their meat due to their diet. The same goes for some sea ducks, and even puddle ducks from certain areas. There are definitely ways to temper the off-flavours in the meat to make these ducks more enjoyable, but stick to hunting for the tastier ducks in your region like teals, mallards, pintails, and woodies if you’re really worried about it.
Wild ducks and geese are a true gustatory treat that I look forward to every year. By following some of the simple guidelines I’ve listed above, you can enjoy them too and take the knowledge you’ve gained to explore new and exciting flavours and recipes to try with your waterfowl.
Happy hunting and happy cooking!