Doves mark the beginning of hunting season in many parts of the United States, which makes them the first game bird available to cooks. The tiny, delicate birds offer little meat aside from their breasts, but those taste wonderfully when prepared well. Doves and pigeons are raised for their meat in much of the world, and both the European and Middle Eastern repertoires contain many traditional dove dishes. As a rule, older recipes opt for long cooking, while modern ones bring the breast only to medium doneness.
Things You'll Need
Sharp boning knife
Salt and pepper, or other seasonings as desired
Toothpicks, soaked in water
Dutch oven, casserole dish or deep skillet
Broth, gravy or other sauce
On the Grill
Cut the breasts from the carcass using a sharp boning knife and separate them into individual lobes for faster and more even cooking.
Spray your grill with oil, to minimize sticking, and bring it to a temperature of 425 to 450 F.
Season the breasts with salt, pepper or other flavorings. Wrap each breast in a slice of bacon, securing it in place with a well-soaked toothpick.
Grill the breasts over high heat until the bacon crisps but the breasts remain pink in the middle, approximately 3 to 5 minutes per side. Serve them hot.
Poached and Ready
Cut the breasts from the carcass using a boning knife and separate them into individual lobes.
Pour 3 to 4 cups of chicken broth or other flavorful liquid into a small saucepan, up to half full.
Season the broth, if necessary, and bring it to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, or just below the boiling point. Drop in the dove breasts and turn off the heat. This quantity of broth will cook the breasts of 12 to 15 doves.
Leave the breasts in the hot poaching liquid, stirring them once or twice to ensure even heat distribution, for 8 to 15 minutes. They'll be very pink at the shorter end of that time period and only slightly pink at the longer end, but they will not overcook and become dry using this method.
Drain the breasts, reserving the broth for another use. Serve the breasts whole or sliced with your choice of sauces and side dishes.
Braised or "Smothered"
Separate the breasts from the carcasses with a sharp boning knife and divide them into lobes, if you wish. They can be left together in this instance, because they'll be long-cooked.
Season the breasts with salt and pepper, and dredge them lightly in flour. Shake off any excess, then brown the breasts in a hot skillet with a small amount of oil. Work in small batches, wiping the skillet periodically to remove scorched flour, until all the breasts have been seared.
Layer the breasts in a Dutch oven, casserole dish or deep skillet. Cover them with broth, gravy or your choice of sauce.
Cover the dish and simmer the breasts gently on the stovetop for 30 to 60 minutes, or in a preheated 325 F oven for 45 to 90 minutes. They're done when they can be sliced easily with a small, sharp knife.
Serve the breasts hot, with appropriate side dishes.
Dove breasts are dark and richly flavored, but like other lean game meats, they quickly become dry if overcooked. Modern chefs typically cook them to a temperature of approximately 130 to 140 F, which leaves them pink and juicy in the middle. Older recipes rely on long cooking to break down the meat's toughness, resulting in a breast that -- like a pot roast -- is well-done but tender. Dove breasts are small, so allow two to three per person for a light meal, and four or more for larger appetites.
Marinate grilled breasts ahead of time for additional flavor. One variation calls for a jalapeno slice stuffed with cream cheese to be wrapped inside the dove, adding the flavors of a "jalapeno popper" to the rich-tasting meat. For a more neutral flavor, replace the bacon with thinly shaved sheets of salt pork or with lacy pork "caul" fat, available on request from good butchers.
The best broth for poaching dove breasts is made from the remainder of the carcasses. Aside from the perfect flavor match, it avoids wastage. Use the broth to make soup or freeze it for another use.
Game-oriented sauces with bright, fruity flavors work well with poached dove breasts, or keep them warm while you make a sauce of the poaching liquid. They're also good as the protein element in a salad.
Braised or "smothered" dove breasts are infinitely variable. A rustic version of the dish might cook the breasts in simple white or chicken gravy, and serve them over mashed potatoes or with biscuits. A deluxe rendition might serve them on toast in the French fashion or with German-style spaetzle.
When doves aren't in season, ask your butcher for squab, which is an immature pigeon. Squab breasts are slightly larger, so you'll need to extend the cooking times.