There’s a big difference between cooking the meat of wild animals and cooking the meat of domestic animals. Domestic meats contain a wide variety of chemicals, including growth hormones, while wild meat has none. This is part of the reason we cook these meats at different temperatures. There’s an additional benefit to knowing the age of the animal, something you can’t often tell when you get it at the grocery store.
Knowing the age of grouse
The age of an upland bird is hidden in the feathers of its wings. The older the bird is, the slower the cooking time should be. Think about it the way you’d think about us old-timer humans. The older you get, the more wear and tear there is on the body (believe me, I’m living proof). If you look at the outer wing of the grouse, there are rounded tips on the outer primaries of adult grouse versus pointed tips in younger or juvenile wings.
This is consistent in most upland birds, but you can also check the bird’s beak for another test. Pick the bird up by the beak. If it breaks, it’s likely a juvenile. If not, it’s likely an adult.
Sexing the grouse
Back when I spent three years on the life study of the Hungarian partridge in Ontario, I also used other wing feathers to identify the sex of the bird. When you’re dealing with grouse, you refer to the tail feathers. If the central tail feathers of the matured grouse are more than 5.9 inches (15.0 cm), the bird is an adult bird. Anything below that length would suggest a juvenile bird. Look closely at the markings at the end of the feather as well. If there is a very solid, dark colour across the end of the central tail feather, the adult bird is a male. If this marking is not solid, but broken up, chances are it’s a female.
Cooking upland birds
As stated, there is a big difference in the cooking of wild meats. Upland birds are no exception. A hunter should be very careful in handling tender upland birds after shooting such. It can make a huge difference to the taste of the bird. Handle the meat with exceptional respect and care not to bruise the meat.
In cooking the upland bird, you will find that the meat is rather dry. To enhance this, it is suggested to add a slice or two of bacon wrapped around the breast of the bird. Another way to curb the dryness is to open the bird and sprinkle the inner cavity with a meat tenderizer prior to roasting. If you are going to roast the bird, mix some lemon juice with butter, add your favourite herb or two, and brush around the inner cavity.
With all upland birds, if you’re not cooking on the day of harvest, you should freeze the meat within a few hours. Wrap the birds separately in moisture-proof paper to prevent dryness. To assure the best taste, never thaw your frozen bird at room temperature. It’s best to place it in the refrigerator until completely thawed. This could take up to 12 hours.
Keep in mind that game meat (especially grouse) should not be kept frozen for more than six months. All birds and big game have maximum storage time. I addressed this in my Dec. 4 column in 2019, “Getting the best out of game meat.”