If any of you are Pheasants Forever members, you might have seen an article I wrote about aging pheasants in the most recent issue of their PF Journal. In my research for the article, I found there is no consensus among hunters or cooks neither on whether or not it’s necessary nor the details of how long and at what temperature to hang birds.
The science behind aging says that enzymes start to break down the meat as the time after death increases, tenderizing the meat and making it more flavorful. According to the North Dakota State university’s Wild Side of the Menu guide to wild game, when aged at 34 to 37 degrees, meat increases in tenderness at a constant rate from one to 14 days–then plateaus. I don’t know anyone who hangs birds that long, or at that cool of temperature. Most sources I’ve found set the ideal temperature anywhere from 40 to 50 degrees. Aging birds in temperatures warmer than 60 degrees invites the risk of introducing harmful bacteria into the process.
I leave the guts in my birds when I age them, though there is some argument to this point as well. If a bird is obviously shot through the midsection or there is the strong smell of guts coming from it, I get those birds cleaned and rinsed quickly. Otherwise, my birds get hung in the garage for anywhere from three to seven days, depending on the temperature outside. In warmer weather, they hang for shorter periods; the colder it is, the longer I let them hang (unless it’s below freezing, then they go in the cellar for just a few days).
Since the Pheasant Forever article has been published, I’ve had several lively discussions with friends about the benefits of aging game birds–both upland birds and waterfowl–before cleaning them. I was surprised to find out that many of them do, in fact, hang the birds for a few days. Admittedly, some of them let the birds hang occasionally more out of laziness than the belief aging results in a better bird on the table.
So I’m doing an informal poll among Wild Chef readers. Do you age your game birds, or does the thought of it turn your stomach?