Do we really need to hang game for several days? Tim Maddams explains what you need to know to get the best — and tastiest — results
What is meant by hanging shot game? Tradition tells us game birds must be hung. Some people have even propagated the rural myth that a pheasant should be hung until maggots start to drop from it — something that is massively misleading. On a warm October day, in a fly-ridden area, even a fine example of pheasant may well have fly eggs on it within the hour. In the depths of winter, in a place with few flies, you might be able to hang the birds for weeks on end without them acquiring maggots. It is nonsense and should be treated as such.
The taste of fresh pheasant
Most people prefer the taste of pheasant while it is fresh. Of course, you need to allow the birds to go into and out of rigor mortis. It is a good idea to leave them for 24 hours if you can, as this helps the meat to relax, but anything more than that is not needed, unless you prefer a deeper flavour to your meat. Even then, I would recommend that any hanging takes place in a thoughtful way and in a cool, shady place.
Minimal hanging time
Game chef Jose Souto said in a recent demo at the Midland Game Fair, “shot birds are far better eaten fresh, with minimal hanging time”.
I could not agree more but, when we are talking about wildfowl, a little longer hanging will be beneficial. Even short hanging times will need considering, though. To keep things simple, we will limit ourselves to the following variables and we will add a constant. We will model our “ideal hanging scenario” on the mid-season hen pheasant; generally speaking cock birds need a little more hanging.
Those variables are the condition of bird; the lag time to hanging starting and the conditions during this time; the hanging environment; and personal preference.
The condition of the bird
When you choose your birds, I would obviously advise you to pick the cleanest-looking, plump, dry specimens available. However, as all game must be eaten, do not be afraid of the odd harder-shot bird, even if it landed in a puddle and was retrieved by a rather vigorous dog.
Now you need to consider the onward process. Having arrived home, you will need to consider which birds are in the best nick. There are some fairly obvious signs here. Broken and badly damaged bodies, mud, missing feathers and more will all produce “in the feather” clues as to what sort of condition each individual bird will be in.
Feel the birds as well as looking at them and divide your hoard into three categories. First, prime specimens, which are good candidates for plucking. Secondly, birds with little damage in critical areas. For example, a crossing bird will often present as hard-shot on just one side so the other side will be in fairly good condition. Thirdly, highly damaged birds.
Now you have a better idea of what you are looking at from a hanging point of view; two sets of birds not to hang at all and one set — those in prime condition — that may well take a bit of hanging to alter the flavour and improve texture.
There are three considerations in terms of how damaged the bird gets in the process of despatch.
- We have the consideration of pellet damage; the damage done to a bird by shot can be significant. Any pellet that breaches the gut will be a big issue. Birds being hung are effectively in a state of controlled decay. The more damaged they are — and the more they are contaminated by digestive material from the gut area — the faster the bacterial and enzymatic processes under way will affect the meat.
- We must consider impact damage. A high-speed impact with the ground can further damage the flesh, causing bruising and bone breaks. Both of these will accelerate the decaying process, sometimes rapidly.
- Lastly, we have retrieval damage. If the bird is retrieved by a dog, the transfer of saliva to the carcass is possible. In the case of dogs that hold more firmly, it is a certainty. Even the most soft-mouthed of dogs will get a firm grip on any runners. Canine saliva contains enzymes designed to begin the digestive process, which is worth pondering when you stack everything up.
We must consider how the birds have been handled at the shoot and what effect the weather may have had. Let’s assume the birds were shot on a driven day and hung on a game cart at the end of each drive. On a cold January day, the time taken for the birds to cool to air temperature may still be two to three hours. On a sunny day in October, shot birds will have changed temperature barely at all in the same period.
The longer the birds take to cool, the more rapidly the “hanging” will happen. For example, in extreme cases, you may well shoot a bird or two on the first drive of the day, take them home and put them in your chosen hanging location overnight, only to discover on preparation the next day that they have gone green and are “high”. If you wrap a feather duvet about yourself, you too will take a long time to cool off.
If possible, on warm days, ensure the game cart is unloaded between drives and the birds are hung in the shade, ideally in a breezy spot to help them cool as quickly as possible.
You will need to take into account the ambient temperature during this period of lag time when you consider how long, if at all, to hang the birds for. The longer the lag time and the higher the temperature, the more swiftly the birds will decay. I have seen fresh-shot September partridges sitting on the parcel shelf of a Land Rover outside a pub in the afternoon sunshine and thought, “those birds will be green by the time they get home”.
Get a fridge
If possible, if you select birds shot early in the day on warmer days, take a large cool box to put them in. Do not put warm game in a cool box — they will simply keep warm. This is crucial. I am often surprised that people who spend thousands on shotguns, the best bangers and smart trousers do not bother to invest in a decent second-hand fridge.
Unless you live in the north of the country or Scotland where there is a reliably cool winter, you need a fridge to store your shot game in before you prepare it. Otherwise you risk high levels of losses and you have no room for manoeuvre.
Put the cooled birds into the fridge as soon as possible and give them a brief assessment on the way to check the damage levels. Make sure, even if they cannot actually hang in the fridge, they are laid out nicely, ideally on clean newspaper to help absorb any oozing. Once your birds are fridge-cold, you have a little time on your hands and you should deal with them in order — the most damaged first and the least damaged last.
The final point to consider before you decide how long, if at all, you wish to hang your game is what you like to eat. Do you like a strong gamey flavour or are you more interested in the natural sweetness of the flesh of fresh birds?
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As a guide, for a fully grown hen bird in good condition placed in a fridge running at around 6°C, I would recommend no more than two days hanging if you like them sweet and fresh. If you prefer a stronger flavour, you can go to four or six days — but beware. If you have missed a bit of damage in your assessment and you leave the birds to hang for a full six days, you are likely to be in trouble. It is better by far to hang for just a day or two and then pluck. If you want a bird more fully flavoured then, once plucked and gutted, store in the fridge with a dry tea towel over the carcase for a further three or four days.
This will ensure you do not end up with slimy green birds, no matter what, and they will “age on” in a controlled way when they are not full of guts and covered in feathers.
It is impossible to give a simple answer to the question of hanging shot game; there are too many factors involved. Armed now, as you are, with the basics, you should be able to make a sensible decision based on your birds and specific situation to give you the best chance of getting game meat just the way you like it.
How many days is too much?
Q: I really like to hang my gamebirds, mainly pheasants, because I enjoy the fuller flavour. Last year, I lost a few when I left them to hang for too long. How many days should I be hanging them so they don’t go off?
A: The tipping point between well hung and off is one that will always cause debate, but it is annoying to lose birds this way.
The simplest way to answer your query is to break it down into a few golden rules and for you to experiment. Hang your birds in a fridge in the feather for three or four days. Pluck all birds you wish to age longer and discard any that are badly shot or have excessive damage. Eviscerate any that look really good and clean them up well, removing all sources of likely contamination — feet, head, feathers and so on. This allows you to discard birds for separate use that are likely to go off rapidly and allows you to watch for signs of things going wrong in the birds you wish to age.
Without feathers in the way, things are easier to observe. Place any birds you wish to age into a clean tray with a ribbed bottom or on a rack so the air can circulate and place these in the fridge. Put in an open tub containing a few handfuls of rock salt to help keep things dry. Keep an eye on these oven-ready birds, but you should be able to age them in this fashion for at least a further four or five days and perhaps a lot longer. I’d suggest you begin roasting one every other day from day four onwards to find the happy spot that works for you.