Our Thanksgiving pheasant was so delicious, I just can’t keep the recipe to myself. We did ours in a Weber kettle grill outside, so that’s the method I’ll explain here. Though I would like to try it indoors on the stovetop with the large model Cameron, as soon as I’m lucky enough to obtain one. Just think, having two indoor smokers going at the same time – main dish and a side dish both imbued with wonderful smoky flavor! But I digress – back to the pheasant.
First, you want to make sure your pheasant is ready for smoking. The night before you want to smoke your pheasant, remove it from the packaging and put it onto a rimmed baking pan. You’ll keep it in the fridge overnight, uncovered – this helps the skin get really crisp when you smoke it. If it comes with giblets, put those back in the fridge as well if you intend to make a gravy or stock.
It will take anywhere from two-and-half to three hours to smoke a three-pound pheasant. You’ll want to build a two-zone fire in your kettle grill (which means all the coals piled onto one side of the grill) using a full chimney starter worth of charcoal. We have a medium-sized chimney starter. It usually takes 30-40 minutes for our charcoal to be ready in our chimney starter, so make sure you get that going 30-40 minutes ahead of when you want to get the bird in.
After you get the charcoal started in the chimney starter, take the pheasant out of the fridge and let it come closer to room temperature. Season the bird well with salt and pepper.
For the apple smoke, we prefer to use apple smoke cans made by Cameron. They’re easy to use, require no soaking of wood, and are fairly affordable. You’ll want two for three hours of smoking – in our experience, they last for about an hour and a half each. If you don’t have the cans (or have run out of them like we foolishly did), you can make up foil packets with wood flakes that are intended for the stovetop smokers. I took an entire pint of apple wood and divided it between three foil packets, that we replaced at intervals during the smoking process. Either way, place your can or packet directly onto the coals and put the lid on, making sure the top vent is placed opposite the coals, over where the bird will sit. The vents should be halfway open, which will encourage the smoke to flow up and over the bird.
Let the wood get to smoking for a few minutes, and then place your pheasant on the empty side of the grate – do not place it directly over the coals. Then just let it go – the less you take the cover off to check it, the better it will be. You don’t want all that good smoke to escape. We only checked ours three times over three hours, to replenish our foil packets.
You want the internal temperature of the pheasant to come up to 170 degrees. Start temping it during the last half hour of smoking. If it’s only about 150 degrees, you’ll likely want to finish it in the oven, which is what we did. It was pretty cold out Thanksgiving day and our smoke was running out, so we didn’t have a choice. We finished it in a 350 degree oven for about a half hour. Just make sure you tent it with foil when it goes into the oven so that the drumsticks don’t overcook and dry out and the top doesn’t get too brown.
When it reaches the correct temperature, take it off the grill or out of the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.
When treating pheasant this way, you’ll be amazed by the flavor. The bird is slightly gamey and imbued with apple flavor, and the meat is silky and moist. The skin takes on a burnished, rich chestnut color and will be a stunning centerpiece on the table. Our three-pound bird cost about $30 and served three people two helpings at dinner, plus three meals with leftover meat besides – a dinner with just reheated meat, a pasta dish and a soup. And if you’re smarter than I am and save the bones and giblets (I hate to admit it, but they got thrown out!) you’ll have a fourth use by making a rich stock. For larger crowds, you should figure one pheasant for every four people. For special dinners every now and again, it’s more than worth the price!