Hanging game is hugely important to developing the meat’s flavour, though the way we hang game now is much different to that of centuries before. In the olden days, poachers would dig a hole to help hide their catch, hanging it from a stick placed across the entrance. Due to a lack of refrigeration, as well as different tastes, the meat would be left to hang until it was extremely ripe. In the present day, we now do things much differently. We now prefer much more subtle flavours from our game, so we hang it for a shorter time as a result.
Some people may complain that their game doesn’t hang long enough, and so others may believe that it is a solid rule that the longer something is hung, the better the flavour. And while this can sometimes be the case, it is not the be-all and end-all. However, there really is no need to be too cautious about hanging too long either, as game can begin to degrade in texture after only a week or two.
A good test for when game is ready can be done at home via the ‘pinch test’ – replacing the use of a doctor’s thumb. The skin around the leg of a pheasant, or other small bird, will darken and tighten around the meat, about one week after hanging. Leave it two weeks or more, however, and this colouring will not darken, and the skin may actually start to droop. This is usually a sign that the meat has become overcooked and will begin to dry out.
When it comes to hanging a pheasant leg, leg and thigh on the bone, we should be somewhere around 1.5kg per bird. Doing this for a couple of weeks should give it a good level of hanging, though you can always add on extra hanging time to further improve the flavour if you wish. If you do want to hang even longer, try to portion the meat into larger, more manageable and separate joints.
Bone-out legs can be flipped upside down so the breast is now facing the ground, which you can then hang whole from the outside of your smoking cabinet, or for longer still, the carcass can be portioned and hung on the same bone as before. They can all be hung in your normal position as well.
Cheap cuts, like the neck or breast, can be flipped so that they are now on their side, before being hung from your smoking cabinet for around one week to get some extra hanging time from them.
Whatever way you choose to hang your game, the time depends on your own personal preference. For some people, one week may be too long, while others will prefer to colour the meat and wait a month.
Once you have finished hanging, bring your meat into the kitchen, or wherever you are going to be cutting it. Keeping the meat in a cool environment will only help maintain the meat’s freshness. Prepare your meat by removing any feathers or straps holding the meat in place, as well as any rustling polythene, and then put it in a large tub or container. The meat can then hang while you remove the feathers from the next batch of game, though it is likely that you will be just hanging one batch at a time.
After your game has been hung, make sure to keep the meat at a temperature of zero to three degrees Celsius. This is the safest temperature, as any lower will allow bacteria to grow and start spoiling the meat. If you do find that you’ve accidentally allowed your meat to go through the colder side of this temperature, don’t worry, the meat shouldn’t be ruined if you bring it back to a higher temperature – the current bacteria will die off. Just make sure to keep the meat in a fridge at a higher temperature until you’re ready to prepare it.
It is also a good idea to keep a record of exactly how long your game has been hanging for. A notebook should be kept in conjunction with a hanging carcass to allow you to monitor progress and to help you to note beforehand, how long your game has been hanging. You could want to note this progress per time period, as well as the weight of the meat and the internal temperature. It’s okay to call out your butcher and ask for help in understanding all this, but even if you do make a mistake or occasionally lose track of your hanging times then don’t worry – I’ve been there too!