Pan-seared woodcock, also known as Timberdoodle, is a delicate and delicious tasting upland bird. With just some butter, oil, salt and pepper, it’s transformed into a delicacy that any wild game lover will delight in.

Pan fried woodcock with maldon sea salt and parsley on a plate.
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Blog post written (mostly) by my brother — the hunter.

If you’re anything like me, you care about where your food comes from, what went into making it, and how it got on your plate. It’s a huge driver in how, what and where we buy our food from. While we can do our research and visit some local farms, the truth of the matter is we’re taking someone else’s word for it and really have no clue.

Visit any mega commercial meat operation and you’ll probably look at things a little differently. There is an alternative though, and for millennia it’s how we always got our food, hunt for it.

A few years ago I was gifted some venison back straps from my brother and decided to put a recipe together. It’s been a tremendous hit since (it’s a constant top 3 recipe on this site). There’s something primitively satisfying about the OG “farm to table” you cant find inside a styrofoam and cellophane container of meat packed from the grocery store.

After a recent visit, he handed me another package of meat that is much farther off the proverbial deer trail — a vacuum sealed bag of woodcock breasts and legs.

A person holding a woodcock bird in their hand.

What is woodcock?

The American Woodcock is a strange bird, ask 100 folks if they’ve heard about it nevertheless seen one and 98 of them will look at you like you have two heads. It’s garnered a smattering of unflattering nicknames; Timberdoodle, bog sucker, swamp bat — none of which scream “EAT ME”. 

However, travel across the Atlantic and its Eurasian cousin (you guessed it, the Eurasian Woodcock) is considered table fare of royalty, ranking high on the list in even the snobbiest of French kitchens. 

It’s a migratory bird, spending its winters where the ground doesn’t freeze, using its beak to poke and prod for worms (yum!), but as soon as possible, migrates up to the northern states as well as Canada where it breeds and fattens up for next year’s flight south.

Some say it was built with spare parts and backwards, as the woodcock features rich dark breast meat and light, bacon-like legs, opposite the poultry you’re likely more familiar with.

A plate of Woodcock breasts and thighs on a cutting board.

How to cook woodcock

You have two options when it comes to cooking this bird; rare or wrong. Cook it beyond rare and culinary sorcery ensues, changing its composition completely to an entirely different element, barely fit for the bird dog it was shot over. 

Cook woodcock so the middle just gets warm, and you’ll be in for a quite a delicacy. If ever anyone says they’ve tasted woodcock and found it to be gamey, dirty or liver-like in taste, that’s because they overcooked it. This bird is meant to be eaten rare. There’s no wiggle room in that statement.

The thing with wild game like duck is, its not chicken, beef or pork so don’t expect it to taste like it. I’ve never understood recipes that involve heavy marinades, wrapping the meat in bacon (fine, however, if it’s salmon), or cream cheese. If you want to eat bacon, cream cheese and jalapeño peppers, you can get that pre-made in the frozen food section. 

When cooking game, you have to be open to the fact it is going to taste different, and if done properly, better than anything you can find in the aforementioned styrofoam tray.

Now, you’re never going to get full on a daily limit of woodcock. Hunting them is a calorie negative experience (unless you have a brother who does all the work). At about the size of a dove, and with a limit of three per day when hunting, make sure there are some fillers on your plate along with it. Whole or breasted out, this woodcock recipe works either way. 

Woodcock are delicate birds, their skin is like gold leaf. Look at it the wrong way and it will tear. If you have a bird that hasn’t been damaged much in harvesting (I swear I’ve cleaned birds that must have died from fright), its worth the effort to pluck it and leave the skin on. 

Interestingly, these woodcock “clean” themselves out every time they fly, so you can actually leave all the internal organs inside and cook them whole. This is the preferred method in Europe. However, we’re in the US so the “crap track” (as it’s affectionately known) and all the other goodies inside are coming out.

Timberdoodle pan-fried legs and breasts on a plate with salt and parsley.

Recipe for woodcock

Let the cleaned bird (or breast and legs) come to room temperature. You can’t properly cook something rare when it’s at 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lightly season with salt, pepper and maybe a little rosemary, sage or thyme — or, whatever herb you desire. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a generous tablespoon of butter to a cast iron skillet over medium high heat. If you want, throw in a clove of garlic (like these simple skillet pork chops) but don’t let it burn. 

Once the oil and butter are hot, drop in your precious breast and legs. Now here’s the hardest part — cook them for no more than 45 seconds per side…MAX. Continually baste the meat in the oil and butter mixture as it cooks. 

These things are tiny, it doesn’t take much to get them to temperature. You cannot undercook woodcock but you can certainly overcook it. If you’re cooking whole woodcocks, just continually turn it around to get all sides nice and browned. You may need another 15 seconds per side if it’s whole as you’re only cooking it from one side (spatchcocking solves this problem).

Serving cooked woodcock

I serve it with some nicely toasted and oiled French or Italian bread. Like lion’s mane mushrooms, you can even put the little pieces of bird right on top of the bread. In fact, mushrooms pair wonderfully with the woodcock meat. Eaten this way, it’s more of a light bite or appetizer.

If you want to make a meal out of it, consider pairing the woodcock with some roasted potatoes and onions or wild rice.

Done right you’ll get a bite that is as tender as any filet mignon with a unique, earthy finish similar to a big California cabernet (which by the way, pairs great with this dish). Don’t forget the legs! Their white meat with the skin on are like little birdy bacon bites and a sweet treat in contrast to the bolder breast meat.

More wild game recipes to try

Elk burgers — This recipe comes with a secret to getting the juiciest burger out of an incredibly lean meat.
Venison roast — Made in the pressure cooker, this roast comes out tender and delicious every time. It’s a favorite winter recipe if you’re lucky enough to source a good venison roast.
Venison meatballs — The perfect recipe for any wild game enthusiast craving comfort food. Nothing beats spaghetti and meatballs on a cold day!

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5 from 38 votes

Pan-Seared Woodcock

Servings: 2 servings
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Timberdoodle pan-fried legs and breasts on a plate with salt and parsley.
Woodcock is a wild game delicacy with dark red breasts and light, candy-like leg meat. This recipe lets the flavor of the bird shine with a simple and quick pan sear.

Ingredients 

  • 1/2 pound woodcock, breasts and legs
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced fresh herb of choice, optional
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Instructions 

  • Pat the breasts and legs dry and season liberally with salt, pepper and a fresh herb if using.
  • Place the olive oil and butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat.
  • Once hot, gently lay each piece of woodcock into the skillet and cook for 30-45 seconds per side. Continually flip the woodcock in the pan so that it never cooks too long on one side. Once there's a little bit of color, pull them out of the pan and transfer to a serving dish. Do not overcook the bird.
  • Sprinkle with some Maldon sea salt to finish and garnish with any fresh herbs on hand.

Notes

—Nutrition information is calculated using duck as there’s no standardized information for Woodcock available. Most of the calories from this dish come from the oil and butter used in cooking, much of which remain in the pan after searing. 

Nutrition

Serving: 1SERVINGCalories: 572kcalCarbohydrates: 0.3gProtein: 13gFat: 57gSaturated Fat: 20gPolyunsaturated Fat: 7gMonounsaturated Fat: 28gTrans Fat: 0.2gCholesterol: 101mgSodium: 73mgPotassium: 244mgFiber: 0.2gSugar: 0.01gVitamin A: 381IUVitamin C: 3mgCalcium: 21mgIron: 3mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Additional Info

Course: Main Dishes
Cuisine: American
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Founder and Writer at Running to the Kitchen | About

Gina Matsoukas is an AP syndicated writer. She is the founder, photographer and recipe developer of Running to the Kitchen — a food website focused on providing healthy, wholesome recipes using fresh and seasonal ingredients. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets both digital and print, including MSN, Huffington post, Buzzfeed, Women’s Health and Food Network.

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Recipe Rating




6 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I love that you used such simple and few ingredients to flavor this woodcock. It was easy to make and they tasted so good. Even the kids loved this amazing recipe. The taste and texture was meaty and delicious. We served it with rice and potatoes.

  2. 5 stars
    I’d never made woodcock before so I was glad to find this recipe! It was really easy and it turned out delicious! Thank you!

  3. This looks interesting and a little bit intimidating too. I would love to try it though! I’m curious about how it tastes! How would you compare this to quail? I’ve only tried that and I know it’s also a little challenging to cook.

  4. 5 stars
    My cousins from Arkansas brought timberdoodle when they visited us yesterday. So glad I found this recipe because I haven’t tried cooking woodcock before. I cooked the breasts rare as recommended and they gave such a unique taste and exquisite flavors. This a new favorite for sure, and I’d trade 10 quail for one woodcock any day.