Gaps between hunting seasons always leave outdoorsmen time to ponder about their hobbies. Starting new projects, tinkering with gear, churning through literature, and finding new ways to prepare game meat can fill the months when we’re not filling the freezer. Last week, some of the First Lite crew opened their freezers and put together a spring hunter’s potluck: moose, elk, deer, and aged duck from Dan Breuer and Paul Peterson. Although the menu featured a variety of game dishes, its organization was driven by the opportunity to conduct a wild duck ‘Pepsi Challenge’. Can you tell the difference between an aged and non-aged duck?
As many hunters know by experience, meat takes on the flavor of the animal’s diet. This is especially true with waterfowl, whose migratory lifestyle requires the birds to fly at altitudes as high as 20,000 feet for hundreds of miles at a time. To power these physical demands, geese and ducks have a massive amount of blood pumping through their arteries and capillaries compared to their total body mass. Therefore, when a hunter harvests a bird, the muscle tissue has been exposed to greater levels of blood which contain broken down bi-products of the animal’s diet. This is probably what makes duck and goose such a polarizing menu item; some love the unique flavor profile of the meat while others keep it off their plate. Over the years, chefs and hunters have developed a couple of techniques to subdue the water fowl’s distinct taste. One is bleeding the animal and the other is letting the meat hang; this allows the lipids (muscle) to start breaking down and less blood to influence the flavor of the meat.
In early January, Paul and Dan harvested two Mallard drakes while out hunting on the local creek. Piqued by curiosity, the two decided to hang the birds at thirty-six degrees for an opportunity to compare the flavor profile of aged versus non-aged duck. Eleven days passed before the two made it back out, but they came back home with another pair of Mallard drakes to pluck and process. That day, the two breasted out (skin on) the two fresh and two aged ducks and packaged them for freezing.
A few months passed before Paul and Dan made it back to their experiment. In April, the guys pulled the duck from the freezer for a potluck with the First Lite crew and friends. A couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce, dashes of salt and pepper, and some garlic powder were slathered over the duck and forty-five minutes later, the breasts were laid on the grill to cook for eight minutes a side. The meat was prepared to a medium-rare/rare at 300 degrees in a mesquite pellet-fueled grill and served to the crew.
The duck breast took their place within the platter of moose meatballs, elk heart, mule deer backstraps, and smoked duck. Some claimed a noticeable difference during the beginning bites and another picked up on a gamier taste in the aged duck. However, in the end, the majority agreed that there was no distinct difference between the hung and unaged meat with most of the attendees admitting they were rooting for the aged cuts. In retrospect, the small sample size, a potential variance in the animal’s age, the mesquite pellets, and the effects of freezing the meat could have easily masked/changed the flavor and consequently altered the verdict.
A quick research session on how professional cooks prepare duck might help us think of a better way to go about aging the animals. Most cooks strongly believe that aging the meat makes a noticeable difference in the flavor profile and highly recommend doing so. Most recommend placing the whole plucked bird (minus the vertebrate) to rest in the fridge for around 5 days on a rack to thoroughly drain the blood. Doing so minimizes the amount of flavor the meat takes on from an animal’s diet. The birds are then marinated and glazed before going in the oven around 350 degrees. Techniques vary at this point where some choose to flip the bird two to three times, re-apply/baste the skin in the marinade or add glaze during the cooking process.
Even though Paul and Dan’s ‘Pepsi Challenge’ didn’t produce a decisive and quantifiable conclusion, they are still curious about aging duck and will continue tinkering with it. Maybe next time they’ll find a preferable difference in the meat and create a recipe that they can pass down to their family and friends for years to come, sparking curiosity in others to expand their hunting skill-set.