Pheasant can be a treat to prepare so long as it is not overcooked, which is easy to do with such a lean game bird. One simple method to help prevent dry, tough meat is to brine the pheasant. Brining not only adds moisture, but it allows subtle flavors to be added and protects the meat up to a higher cooking temperature than would normally be safe. If you are able to find a self-basting or kosher pheasant, brining is not recommended because the bird has already been prepared for cooking.
When preparing wild pheasants, some cooks prefer to tenderize them by placing the whole birds in a refrigerator for several days or weeks. With farm-raised pheasant, this isn't as much of a concern, and brining allows for a shorter preparation time before cooking.
Food safety is another advantage of brining because the salt solution helps to kill harmful organisms, especially if the brining is done in a refrigerated environment. Brining should be done in a nonreactive container such as glass, which is not affected by salt and acid.
The pheasant should stay in the brine for at least eight hours and up to 24 hours. The brine will be most effective at 34 degrees (the proteins will absorb the brine more effectively), so check your refrigerator's temperature before brining. If refrigeration is not possible, replace half of the water with ice to keep the temperature within safe limits and keep the brining pheasant in a cooler.
When finished with the brine, simply pat the pheasant dry and avoid rinsing. To avoid losing the effects of the brine, cook immediately.
Basic Pheasant Brine
Many pheasant lovers enjoy its authentic flavor and prefer not to complicate the wildfowl with other seasonings. While a simple brine will add saltiness, using a basic brine recipe enhances the moisture of the meat without other taste alterations.
A basic brine is simple to put together since it consists of water, salt (sodium chloride) and sometimes sugar (not required). Table salt or kosher salt are frequently used. Kosher salt is preferred because it doesn't contain extra ingredients like iodine or anti-caking additives that can alter the taste of the brine, and it dissolves more easily.
The ratio of salt to water should be approximately 1 cup of table salt to 1 gallon of water, or 2 cups of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water. (Kosher salt crystals are less dense than table salt.) Warmer water will also allow the salt to dissolve more quickly than cold water. The longer the brining, the more tender, moist and salty the pheasant will be when cooked. Completely immerse the pheasant in the brine and refrigerate.
Fruity Harvest Brines
Some cooks favor fruit-flavored brines when preparing pheasant. An easy way to impart the accent of fruit is to use apple or orange juice, although some recipes call for whole fruit cut up into pieces and soaked in the brine with the pheasant.
If a slight sweetness is desired, you can also include sugar (brown sugar usually), maple syrup or molasses. The amount of sugar added can vary per recipe based on the other ingredients in the brine, so consult your chosen recipe for specifics.
The altered pH resulting from the added fruit or juice alters the effectiveness of the brine by causing it to move more slowly into the meat. To avoid extra brining time, acidic brines work better if a little baking soda is added to neutralize the pH.
Any number of enticing tastes can be added to the brine. This will allow many flavors to be carried into the meat itself, adding nuance to the finished dish. The best savory flavors to add are those that are easily water soluble. Many recipes will include not only fresh vegetables such as carrots, onions or garlic but also many popular herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary, sage, thyme or allspice. Some recipes substitute half of the water for the brine with vegetable stock for added complexity. Juniper berries can also be paired with pheasant.
Lovers of Southwestern or Indian cooking will find pheasant brine recipes that include a little spiciness. A frequent addition to the brine will include any type of fresh peppercorns, a variety of chili peppers -- dried or fresh -- and many other aromatics commonly found in different curries. These often include variations on ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne pepper.
Many pheasant lovers will advise caution when using powerful spices because often the point of preparing pheasant is to enjoy its distinct taste.