Prior to 1914, pigeon was a more common everyday meat than chicken, pork, or beef in North America. How did this onetime dinner table staple fall out of favor, and what does that mean for continuing to eat pigeon meat (aka squab meat) today?
The story is both sad and instructive. As railroads began to expand across America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, settlers found what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of Ectopistes migratorius, the carrier pigeon. It was the most plentiful game bird people had seen. The birds would congregate in massive flocks that roosted in forests, traveling in multi-year cycles around the United States. For people blessed with this bounty passing through their towns, it was as easy as throwing a net to catch the week’s dinner.
But what appeared to be in infinitely abundant population of birds turned out to be anything but. As humans continued to clear forests, the birds found fewer safe places to roost. Still, their meat was very popular, and hunters would seek out what few settlements of pigeons were left. By 1900, pigeon meat was becoming rarer and more expensive; in 1914, the last known carrier pigeon passed away in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. It’s the best known example of an animal going extinct because of human activity, and a powerful example of just how much our collective eating habits can change the world.
Today, the pigeon meat that we can buy and eat comes from a wider range of pigeon species — but none quite capture the flavor described in turn of the century cookbooks. In this guide, we’ll be taking a close look at everything there is to know about pigeon meat, from its flavor to its nutritional content to the best ways to cook it and where to buy it.
What Does Pigeon Meat Taste Like?
As with most fowl, it’s easiest to compare pigeon meat to today’s most popular bird: Chicken.
Also known as squab, pigeon meat is increasingly considered as a delicacy in world cuisines. Whether caught wild or farm-raised, pigeon meat has a richer flavor and a silkier texture than chicken. It’s skin is fatty like duck, and its red meat gives a full-bodied flavor. Overall, it’s a delicious meat that’s a much more interesting alternative to chicken in almost any dish or preparation.
Pigeon Meat Nutrition
In many ways, pigeon meat is healthier than chicken. It’s lower in calories and higher in protein by weight. But on the flip side, because it is a red meat it is higher in saturated fat and cholesterol — so in the end, it’s kind of a tradeoff. Here are the nutrition facts for a 4 ounce serving of pigeon meat, provided by nutritionvalue.org:
- 161 calories
- 8.5 grams of fat, with 2.2 grams of saturated fat
- 102 milligrams of cholesterol
- 20 grams of protein
- 28% daily value of iron
- 6% daily value of potassium
That’s all in addition to a significant and well-rounded portion of B vitamins and minerals. In essence, this makes pigeon meat a nice middle ground between beef and chicken — it’s close to being as healthy as chicken, but has more of the rich red meat flavor that beef is known for.
Types of Pigeons for Meat
Even with the loss of the passenger pigeon, there are still literally hundreds of breeds of meat pigeons available. In taste and texture, they’re only slightly different from each other — with the notable distinction between wild-caught or farm-raised pigeons.
Wild pigeons will be hunted with buckshot, which can cause complications for cooking and eating (more on that in the next section). The reward for this extra time and effort is a more intensely flavorful bird. Some people love the stronger flavor; others describe it as gamey and would rather not eat it.
Farm-raised pigeons have a clean, delicate flavor in comparison to wild pigeons. They’re by far the most common type of pigeon used for meat, and the easiest to procure for personal consumption.
Risks and Considerations for Eating Pigeon Meat
There’s only one real case where pigeon meat can be dangerous to eat: If it’s been wild-caught. Because hunters use lead shot to bring the birds down, there’s always a risk of transmission of lead particles into the finished meat, no matter how well it is cleaned. While this isn’t likely to cause problems in the short term, long-term exposure to lead from buckshot can build up in a human’s system and result in lead toxicity. To avoid this, simply buy farm-raised pigeon instead.
How to Cook Pigeon Meat
Cookbooks from around 1900 abound with descriptions of how to cook pigeon meat, and the best recipes for preparing it to a delightful taste and texture. In this section, let’s take a look at recipes from an historical context: Not a specific list of measurements and ingredients per se, but a general outline of how one can cook pigeon meat in myriad ways.
A word of warning: Because every cut of pigeon meat is quite low in fat, it’s best to always cook it with moisture in mind. This means marinating, using wet heat cooking methods, or pairing it with rich sauces and plenty of fat while cooking. When overcooked, pigeon meat will take on an unpleasantly dry taste and texture.
Braised pigeon is my go-to way of preparing any sort of fowl. Separate a whole pigeon into breasts and legs, then heat good oil and/or butter in the bottom of a Dutch oven. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Sear both sides of the legs and breasts for 1 minute on each side, then set aside. Sauté a diced onion until translucent, then add a generous amount of dried herbs (rosemary and tarragon are particularly nice). Stir until fragrant, then return the pigeon breasts and legs to the pot. Fill to halfway up the pigeon meat with red wine and/or vegetable broth, then transfer it to the oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, and you’ll have a pull-apart tender pigeon with an herb-infused, reduced sauce to ladle over it.
Pigeon confit uses a French method of preservation to create a rich and lushly textured meat that’s perfect served with fresh, seasonal vegetables. It’s similar to deep frying — you’ll use a lot of oil — but the oil is kept at a much lower temperature, and the meat is cooked much longer. While traditional recipes call for using the rendered fat of the fowl that is being cooked, it’s perfectly fine to use peanut or olive oil for this recipe. Generously salt pigeon legs, then immerse them in a heavy-bottomed pan filled with about 2 inches of oil. The oil temperature shouldn’t get over about 200 degrees; if you start to see much browning, the oil is too hot. Cook at this low temperature for an hour to an hour and a half, then turn off the heat. Store the confit meat covered in the oil used to cook it, and pull off small pieces to accent vegetable-centric dinners.
Deep fried pigeon
Deep fried pigeon is the next step after confit, and works much the same but at higher temperatures for shorter times. Once again, you’ll be using pigeon legs — but this time, we’re going to pair them with a Chinese dipping sauce. The skin of pigeon is nice and fatty like duck leg cuts, so you don’t need to bread it (as you would do with chicken legs). Just get your oil very hot (375 degrees or more), then carefully lower the pigeon legs in. Cook briefly (2 to 3 minutes will usually suffice), then remove to a paper-towel lined plate to rest and finish cooking. For the sauce, combine soy sauce and rice wine vinegar in a small saucepan with a few spoonfuls of brown sugar, then bring it to a boil for a minute or two. It will reduce into a richly flavored sauce with a nice sticky texture that’s a great compliment to the crunch of the pigeon.
Pan-seared pigeon breasts
Pan-seared pigeon breasts are one of the few dry heat preparations that really works well to cook the bird. All you really need to do is generously salt both sides of a pigeon / squab breast, then heat a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat. Once it’s up to temperature, add a big pat of butter and a splash of olive oil; the butter should melt almost immediately. Add the pigeon breasts skin-side down, and cook for just 2-3 minutes per side (they’ll turn golden brown). Remove these from the pan and let them rest covered in aluminum foil for 5 minutes to continue cooking, then serve with roasted vegetables.
Marinated pigeon breasts
Marinated pigeon breasts take the same cooking method as pan-seared pigeon breasts (above), then crank their flavor up even more. For a great marinade, look towards complimenting the pigeon breast with earthy flavors like mushrooms and herbs. Salt the breasts and put them into a shallow container or plastic bag, and mix a little bit of oil and red wine to cover everything. When you’re ready to sear the breasts, simply let most of the marinade drip off. Then once the breasts are cooked and out of the pan, add the marinating liquid and a squeeze of orange juice to the pan. Cooked down this way, it makes an excellent sauce for the seared pigeon breast.
Slow cooker pigeon
Slow cooker pigeon is probably the easiest way to cook the whole bird. All you need to do is chop a few carrots and potatoes into rough chunks, and dice a yellow onion. Saute all of these in oil until they’re tender, then transfer them to your slow cooker. Sear each part of the pigeon in the same pan, just for 1 minute on each side. Add those to the slow cooker as well, then cover everything with a mixture of dry white wine, dried herbs, and vegetable stock. Cook all day long over low to medium heat, and you’ll end up with a full meal that’s centered around fall-off-the-bone tender pigeon.
Where to Buy Pigeon Meat
If you’re lucky enough to live anywhere near a butcher shop, there’s a good chance you can ask them to order in a portion of pigeon meat for you. But if that’s not the case, here are three options for online shopping where you can find pigeon meat:
D’artagnan is a heritage producer of fine French ingredients, and their Wild Scottish Wood Pigeon is top notch. It is the most intensely flavored of the pigeon meats you’ll find online, and very well suited to traditional recipes.
Exotic Meat Market is another go-to choice for all your, well, exotic meats. They offer whole birds in packs of 2, 6, or 12, and have some of the best prices if you order in bulk.
Gourmet Food Store offers whole squab produced from California, which is tender and easy to cook with. The price is very fair on whole birds, and you can also get significant discounts if ordering in bulk.
And of course, if you are a hunter, you can research your state’s regulations on game birds and try to hunt a wild bird.
FAQs About Pigeon Meat
And to wrap things up, let’s answer some of the most commonly asked questions about pigeon meat.
Is pigeon meat safe to eat?
Pigeon meat is definitely safe to eat, and it has been a staple of world cuisines for centuries. This of course refers to a wild pigeon or farm-raised meat pigeon — not a feral pigeon you’ll find on the streets of major cities.
How expensive is pigeon meat?
Pigeon is quite pricey in comparison to chicken. Whole birds regularly cost $20 or more, making it more of a delicacy or specialty item than an everyday food.