Tips for Plucking Game Fowl

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Depluming begins with a two-step process: First, dunk the carcass in a hot bath . . . then steam the bird in a hot sponge/newspaper package.

Learn tips for plucking game fowl to make cleaning your bird easier.

Tips for Plucking Game Fowl

Defeathering fowl is rarely considered a pleasant chore . . . but the following tips should help you get the birds
from the game bag (or chopping block) to the oven with a minimum of trouble.

I used to dread the moment after a bird hunt when —
back at home — I’d carry my bag of pheasants, grouse,
or waterfowl into the kitchen to ready them for the evening
meal. Plucking a stone-cold bird that had been stored all
day in the bottom of a canoe or (even worse) in the pocket
of my hunting coat was no easy task . . . and all too often
the results of my defeathering handiwork looked
mighty unappetizing. (In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that
some of those tablefare hopefuls never made it past the
kitchen!) However, I’ve since discovered a method of
plucking fowl — whether the bird is brought down in
the wild or culled from a homestead flock — that not
only is easy to do, but also turns out downright
eye-appealing roastables.

Once a bird is cold, you see, the roots of the feathers
become locked in the tightened flesh . . . so when the
critter is plucked, bits of skin come off, too, resulting
in a rather patchy pièce de résistance. In
order to reduce the tearing of the skin, veteran
feather-pullers use wet heat, most often in the form of a
quick scalding, to free the tenacious plumage. I do the
same . . . but mine is a two-step technique.

To get the defeathering operation underway, you’ll first
need a pot that’s big enough to allow you to submerge the
bird entirely. Fill the vat at least to the halfway point
with water and set it on the stove. (If you have only one
or two birds to pluck, you can probably work in the
kitchen. When there’s a whole slew of feathered fowl to be
processed, though, you might want to build an outdoor
fire-and-pot apparatus . . . to make the cleanup chores
easier.) While the water is heating, add two tablespoons of
dishwashing detergent for each bucketful of liquid . . .
the cleaner decreases the surface tension of the water and
allows it to penetrate the feathers more thoroughly.

Now, let the water reach a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit to
160 degrees Fahrenheit. (Overscalding could cause the bird’s skin to
tear . . . but remember that too little heat will
make the feathers difficult to pull free.) Then dunk the
carcass head first (hold the feet) into the hot bath for 60
to 90 seconds. If your pot is large enough, draw the bird
backwards through the water while it’s submerged, in order
to force the heated liquid through the feathers and under
the wings for a more thorough soaking. Then let the scalded
clucker drain on sheets of clean newspaper.

At this point, most pluckers will begin the task of tugging
out the feathers . . . however, I’ve found that even after
dipping the bird in hot water, the skin may still tear. So
I take the wet-heat process one step further . . . and give
my dinner-to-be the “steam room” treatment.

To do so, simply soak two oblong sponges (or wads of clean
rags) in the hot water, and tuck one of the compresses
under each wing. Then place the drenched bird — with
the sponges still in place — on a large, thick
section of newsprint, wrap it up like a package, and pop
the whole works into a plastic bag to help retain the heat
and moisture.

Let the bird remain in this “hotbox” for about 20 minutes
before carefully unwrapping the bundle. While the fowl is
still warm, you can begin plucking the wing feathers (these
are the toughest to pull out, so you’ll want to get them
first), and continue by picking the plumes from the tail,
legs, neck, back, and — last — the breast.
Always remove the feathers by pulling steadily on the
quills rather than jerking them out, and be sure to pluck
in the direction in which the feathers lie.

After the bird has been picked over once, you’ll need to
pull off any remaining pinfeathers and — if the
specimen you’re working on is a waterfowl — take care
of the down undercoat . . . which will usually come off
fairly easily if you simply scrape a thumb or bladed
implement against the carcass. The pinfeathers may prove to
be more of a problem. Try prying the stubborn bits of quill
out with a paring knife, or use a pair of tweezers.

With those tasks accomplished, you may notice a few hairs
still on the bird. It’s easy to singe off these strands by
passing the carcass over an open flame . . . or — if
you’d rather — by using a propane torch. (Do it
rapidly so that you don’t begin to cook the fowl
in the process.)

At this point the stripped clucker should be smooth and
featherless. Your prettily plucked fowl can now go on to
command a prominent place in the evening’s repast . . . and
it’ll look every bit as good as it tastes!