Woodpigeon shooting provides fantastic, healthy meat for pigeon recipes and is a sustainable food source. Pigeon is a great source of protein and the meat boasts plenty of minerals such as iron.
The bird has a rich taste but is not fatty. Its flavour changes along with the seasons, depending on the food source. Younger birds taste sweeter and milder than older ones.
Pigeon have no close season, you can eat them all year round. In summer the pigeon’s diet of berries, corn and seeds give the meat used for pigeon recipes a deliciously nutty flavour.
Only eat the breasts of an older pigeon
Younger birds are worth plucking because you can roast them whole. Older pigeons can be tougher so don’t pluck the whole bird, just remove the breasts.
In summer pigeon breasts are good to barbecue and they cook well in a hot smoker. (Read how to DIY a meat smoker here.)
Tim Maddams, author of the River Cottage Game cookery book advises: “The one thing you really need to know about eating wood pigeon is this: either cook them medium-rare or long and slow.”
Dressing and preparing a woodpigeon
Woodpigeons are the easiest bird to pluck.
Pluck into a bin liner or pluck in the field after shooting. This will also help the birds cool down quicker.
When plucking, you should pluck upwards towards the head, but it is rare to rip the skin when plucking a pigeon, so direction is not so important.
You can remove large amounts of feathers at once, gripping them between your thumb and forefinger.
Once the bird is plucked, remove the wings, head and feet using a sharp pair of kitchen scissors or pliers.
The term “drawing the bird” refers to removing the innards.
Make a small incision below the breastbone and towards the bird’s vent to give enough space to fit your fingers into the bird’s cavity and pull out the insides.
Running the bird under a cold tap from the neck down will quickly rinse out the cavity.
The bird is now dressed. Placing the dressed birds into individual small freezer bags will keep them in good condition while stored in the freezer.
Plucking and breasting a woodpigeon
Plucking the breast of the bird is one of the options for removing the main meat with the skin on. Some chefs and restaurants prefer to have the skin on the breast as it reduces the risk of the meat drying out during the cooking process. It can also add extra flavour and can be stuffed.
Remove the feathers from the breast area. Make sure you remove enough feathers so the entire breast is clear, then use a knife to remove all the breast meat and skin in one clean motion.
It’s important that you use a knife that is fit for the job. A boning or a sharp kitchen knife is suitable for cutting the breasts, with skin on, cleanly away from the breastbone.
Place the bird on its back with the breast facing upwards, holding the bird firmly. If you’re right-handed start with the right breast and vice versa for a left-hander.
Work the knife down to the breastbone in a slicing motion — not a sawing motion — making sure you follow the breastbone with the knife. This should ensure that you remove the full breast.
When you’ve removed the first breast, make a single cut on the second breast, turn the bird around and take it off this way. This method saves time and the mess of plucking.
It will take practice to make sure that you skin the bird properly to expose the full breast meat so that you can cut it out cleanly.
Removing the breast fillet
Skinning the breast
To skin the breast, turn the bird on to its back.
You need to place your thumbs through the feathers just below the breastbone. Here, you will feel the loose skin that you pinch together with your thumb and forefinger.
Carefully tear the skin and gently work it back away from the meat. Your thumbs will be able to get under the skin as you push and pull the skin away from the breast.
Once you have pushed the skin back you will be able, using both hands, to pull the skin left and right all the way around the bird, exposing the breast.
When you have skinned the breast you should be able to cleanly cut the breasts clear of the breastbone. Using a sharp knife, follow the breastbone, making sure you remove all the meat.
Crowning a woodpigeon
This is the quickest and cleanest way, especially when you are dealing with big numbers. Many restaurants are more than happy to take crowns to use in pigeon recipes and it’s very easy to breast the crown of the bird if you need to. I also believe that birds store and freeze much better on the bone and the meat doesn’t dry out or get freezer burned if the birds are stored correctly for a long period.
With practice you should be able to crown a bird in less than 30 seconds.
Taking a firm grip of the bird, place your other hand around the base of the wing. Hold the bird tight and twist the wing until you can pull it away from the main body. Do the same to the other wing. It is impossible to crown the bird cleanly unless you remove the wings.
Once you have removed both wings, make a small incision under the breastbone. Place your thumb into the incision and, with your other hand, take a firm grip on the back of the bird. With a strong movement, you part the crown of the bird from the rest of the body and carefully work the skin back. You should find that the crown of the bird and the main body of the bird have been completely parted.
Take a grip of the crown and a full grip of the main body of the bird at the top of the breast/crown and pull away. This will leave you picking off a few feathers from the breasts.
As pigeon shooters we should always know how to dress our birds and make sure they get used in pigeon recipes.