Goose Is Cooked
For Christmas, it’s the other grayish-purple meat
Published: November 23, 2011
This issue comes out the day before Thanksgiving, and anyone who knows me knows it is my favorite day. I consider it the perfect holiday—secular; always on a Thursday, which pretty much guarantees two weekdays off; and, most importantly, all about the food, without any contrived exchanging of useless crap, sweating through some potentially stabby fireworks, or getting guilt-gouged by the floristry industry. Also there’s football. But anything I tell you about Thanksgiving today, on the day before, probably isn’t going to be a huge help, right? So instead I’m going to talk about Christmas dinner, the prissier, more socially awkward cousin of Thanksgiving dinner.
The thing about Christmas dinner is it occurs relatively soon after a firmly entrenched dinner paradigm. There really is no across-the-board motif when it comes to Christmas food, other than general feasting and a definite skew toward sweets—i.e., gingerbread, candy canes, sugarplums, Christmas cookies, fruitcakes—which are sometimes imbued with Christian symbolism. In parts of the world where Christians are a minority, the holiday may be observed but is divorced from any religious meaning. In Korea, for example, the Christmas tradition is to get a fancy store-bought cake and maybe go out to a romantic dinner, Christmas having been marketed as more of a Valentine-y holiday there. And in an example of a total marketing coup, à la diamonds and getting engaged, the traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is fried chicken from KFC.
Other than the distinctly Asian practice of exchanging tissue-paper-wrapped and boxed fruit (mostly pears, clementines, or persimmons), my family typically did what I suspect happens in many households—Thanksgiving redux, complete with the reduced production values inherent in a sequel, including an easier-to-manage protein as the entrée, usually a precooked ham. That was just in execution, though, because in theory, I’ve always had some notion of what a Christmas dinner should be, the source material being Victorian England as described by Charles Dickens. And that I suspect mostly comes via TV movie or cartoon adaptations of A Christmas Carol, because I’ve never actually read it cover to cover, and thus all I know is that dinner involves a goose. A Christmas goose somehow sounds correct, while goose as food in any other contemporary context does not.
Of course, in the novella, the impecunious Bob Cratchit manages to secure a goose for Christmas Eve on his own. When Scrooge wakes up the next morning, he instructs the boy in the street to purchase a big-ass turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits. So all this time I’m putting goose up on this pedestal, when back in the day it was the special occasion food of the people—the 99 percent, if you will—while the rich enjoyed turkey. And the super-rich ate swan and peacock, for some reason.
You wouldn’t know that from contemporary prices though. Geese are expensive, probably owing to their obscurity in modern ’Murica, so much so that I considered trying to catch one in Patterson Park. Alas, I couldn’t get an answer as to whether this was legal, and by mid-November they’d already skipped town. The cheapest goose I found in Baltimore was five times as expensive as turkey at $4.99/per pound, the most common price being between $6 and $7 per. That translates to an $80 experiment, which is intimidating enough. But as it is, geese, like ducks, require special handling to deal with all that extra subcutaneous fat, which is useful for energy, insulation, and buoyancy in migratory waterfowl.
Many recipes call for some seriously time-consuming prep aimed at removing excess fat during cooking and crisping up the skin. But people have been eating goose for freaking millennia, and I doubt that would be the case if it was such a complete pain in the ass to cook. So I performed the bare-minimum prep while still being mindful of the desired results. Instead of blowing air under the skin to separate it as you would with Peking duck, I just stuck my hand in there and pulled it away manually. This helps the fat to trickle down and out of the bird as it melts, as does poking drainage holes all over the goose. To tighten up the now floppy skin, some recipes recommend dunking the bird in boiling water. But with a largish, longish bird like a goose, this is difficult, even if you have a large enough pot. A much easier way is to put the goose on a rack in your sink, then ladle hot water over it. The last step is thoroughly drying the surface of the bird, which in the most overwrought recipes means letting it sit uncovered in the fridge for two full days. While I did toy with the idea of blow-drying the goose, all I did was pat it dry, salt it thoroughly, and let it sit for an hour while I prepped my sides, allowing the salt to chemically “dry” the skin for me. Adding a bit of baking soda with the salt is also helpful in getting crispy skin.
And that’s it. I didn’t stuff it, truss it, or even season it further (the drying salt was enough) before I baked it uncovered for a total of about three hours. I didn’t even baste it, but I did have to empty the roasting pan of melted goose fat three times, ending up with more than five cups of delicious, golden liquid that is maybe the best fat I’ve ever cooked with. For frying, it’s super high-performance—everything ended up incredibly crisp and not greasy. The awesomeness of duck-fat fries is doubly so for goose fat, if not for the flavor then for the texture. The flavor is neutral enough, in fact, that I used it instead of butter in all of my sides, even to make the roux for my gravy.
As far as the goose meat, the same can be said as far as flavor versus texture. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting—I guess just a singularly “goosey” flavor, much like the uniqueness of lamb or goat, or what many would characterize as “gamy,” although that really refers to a slightly rotten flavor resulting from the practice of aging wild game animals to improve tenderness. No, goose isn’t that. In fact, the first reaction by all of my tasters was a look of mild surprise followed by a, “Wow, not gamy at all.” But it is strange in that it’s an odd confluence of otherwise mundane qualities. It’s dark, even the breast meat, a sort of grayish mulberry color, like a muted corned beef. It’s very firm, but not chewy, and lean but very moist, like a tight-grained beef or, better yet, bison cut, and tastes similarly meaty, with a tiny whiff of metallic muscliness. Ultimately I’d characterize it as really tasty, and genuinely unlike any other meat I’ve ever had. That, along with a bumper crop of goose fat and being able to check an item off my lifetime culinary to-do list, was ample justification for the premium price tag.
Goose is most commonly available frozen, and can be found near the frozen turkeys. Whole Foods and the poultry stand at the Cockeysville Pennsylvania Dutch markets take special orders for fresh ones during the holidays.
Defrosting a goose is time consuming, taking up to an entire day in the fridge or six to eight hours immersed in cold water. I got impatient and started cooking my goose while it was still partially frozen inside. I offset this by sticking two large metal spoons into the cavity, hoping this would better conduct heat into the interior. This seemed to work in my case; I just used the general rule of cooking 15 minutes per pound as a guideline, and cooked until juices from the thigh ran clear. The goose being partially frozen probably added about 30 minutes of total cook time, using the spoon trick. If you do this, remember there is a pouch containing the giblets inside the cavity that you need to remove when it’s thawed enough, and be sure to cook thoroughly. Note that I’m not recommending you cook a partially frozen goose—I’m just saying it’s possible and worked out for me. Proceed at your own risk.
Regarding the above, goose is very fatty and thus pretty resistant to overcooking, so err on the side of caution. As such, and since it’s not a terribly large bird, I wouldn’t recommend stuffing it.
The wings are long, spindly, and very sturdy, making goose difficult to truss. Also they are a bit freaky looking. I recommend cutting the wings off entirely, roasting them with the bird until they’re brown, and then simply boiling them for stock to make gravy
Use a roasting pan fitted with a rack—goose produces a ton of fat, way more than you think, and having the bird elevated helps it stay crisp and makes it easier to periodically pour off the fat.
The standard leg-wiggle test doesn’t work on geese—the leg will remain solidly in place even when cooked through. The best test is to poke the upper thigh and look for clear juices.
Basic Roasted Goose
Start a pot of boiling water.
Cut off the excess flaps of skin from the front and rear of the bird, as well as any protruding flaps of fat.
Trim wings entirely from the bird, or cut just the wingtips off and tie the drumette and flat together, or leave as is if you’re not worried about cosmetics.
Starting from the bottom of the breast, slide your fingers between the skin and meat, separating the two and working along the top, sides, and thigh area, keeping your mind out of the gutter. Place a rack in your sink, and the goose on the rack. Carefully ladle boiling water over the bird to tighten up the skin. Turn the goose over and repeat.
Pat the goose dry. Mix 1/2 cup of salt with 1 teaspoon of baking soda and rub all over the exterior of the bird. Allow it to sit for at least an hour—up to three at room temperature—or overnight in the fridge.
With a fork, jab the goose all over to create holes in the skin (but not deep enough to pierce the meat), maybe 10-15 jabs total.
Place in a 450-degree oven on a rack in a roasting pan, uncovered. After 30 minutes, reduce oven to 325, and continue cooking until done, about 15 minutes per pound. Plan on pouring off melted fat every 40 minutes or so—save all of it! Baste with drippings if the skin remains pale after two hours. The goose is done when juices from the thigh run clear.
The breast meat is very dense, so make the slices as thin as possible. If the fat didn’t render fully, some trimming might be desirable. The leg joints are really tough, so be careful trying to remove the drumstick.
The fat is incredibly useful—you can use it to enrich dishes as you would with butter, to sauté, to deep fry, and just to spread on toast. Aside from personal use, giving a couple jars away as gifts would help offset the high cost of goose.
If your goose skin didn’t render and crisp, or if there are areas of the bird where this is the case (most commonly the underside), save the skin and cook over low heat in a skillet. The skin will eventually give all of its fat, which you can save for later use. The skin itself will eventually become dark and crunchy, the bird equivalent of chicharrones, or fried pork skin. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy.
The meat is a bit too dense to treat like chicken or turkey and use in, say, a mayonnaise-based salad. Any smaller bits that aren’t suitable for thin slicing are best off being cooked again, like in a casserole, soup, or pie. I used some of the tougher bits by chopping them relatively fine and then salting, frying in some goose fat with garlic and scallions, and using them as a topping for grits. [HH]
> Email Henry Hong