Squab, or young pigeon, is often considered a delicacy and is served in fine dining restaurants. While there are more than 300 species of pigeons, only around five or six species from a category known as utility pigeons are raised for meat. Squab can be prepared similarly to other poultry by roasting, pan-frying, or braising.
What Is Squab?
Squab is the culinary term for a young pigeon, usually around four weeks old, that is raised for eating. Squab has been eaten in Europe and Africa for centuries. Pigeon is easy to raise and breed but does not take well to mass production techniques. Therefore, most squab that appears on menus at restaurants comes from small, local breeders.
Squab must be plucked, drained, and the innards removed before cooking. Squab is typically sold ready to cook and can be prepared whole or cut into pieces. The bird is more expensive than chicken and tends to be similarly priced to other specialty game birds. The price will vary depending on the pigeon's origins (small heritage farms fetch a higher price).
Squab is often compared to dark meat chicken or duck since the meat is dark with fatty skin. The meat is often cooked until medium-rare or medium-well, and when properly cooked, is tender and moist. It has a milder flavor than other game meat.
How to Cook Squab
Squab is prepared and cooked similarly to other poultry, like chicken. Because squab is much smaller, it takes less time to cook. The birds are typically sold whole with the feathers, head, feet, and innards removed. They can then be broken down by cutting into halves or quarters or cooked whole.
Squab is frequently roasted whole, sometimes stuffed, but can also be fried, grilled, or braised. Unlike chicken or turkey, squab is often cooked until medium-rare or medium-well, leaving the interior slightly pink and keeping the meat from drying out. The risk of salmonella and other pathogens is much lower in pigeons; however, the spread of disease is still possible.
What Does Squab Taste Like?
Squab meat is a tender and moist dark meat with a very slight gamey flavor, similar to that of duck. Squab is a small bird, with most of its meat situated in the breast and to a lesser degree in the legs. Older birds have tougher flesh and less fat, which is why squab meat is made from young pigeons. It is often said that if a pigeon is old enough to fly, it's too old to eat.
Although there is a layer of fat on squab, the meat itself is not as fatty as duck or goose. When it's roasted, the fat liquefies and bathes the meat so that the result is moist but not overly greasy.
Squab vs. Pigeon
You will notice that some restaurant menus offer squab while some offer pigeon. A squab is a young pigeon, and most restaurants are, in fact, serving squab no matter which word they use. Older pigeons tend to have tough, gamey meat thanks to their active flying. This makes them good candidates for low and slow cooking like stewing and braising. You may find pigeon on some French menus or cooked into pigeon pies.
Squab is very popular in many world cuisines. In Asia, squab can be prepared similarly to Peking duck, with crisped skin and moist flesh. In Europe, squab is often prepared roasted or as confit, and older birds are braised in casseroles and pies. In the Middle East, it is grilled or stuffed with herbs and rice or other grains and roasted. Squab meat can also be incorporated into sausages and pâtés.
When substituting squab for other poultry like duck or Cornish hens, monitor the meat closely. Squab will likely take less time to cook and will become tough if overcooked.
Where to Buy Squab
Squab can sometimes be found at specialty butchers or even farmers markets sold by the pound or by the bird. Squab can be purchased online at a number of specialty meat sites such as D'Artagnan or Marx Foods. D'Artagnan offers a few breeds of squab sourced from a cooperative of free-range farms in California. They also offer an imported wild species called a wood pigeon.
Because pigeon husbandry is sustainable, you may also be able to source squab from local farms, which is a better cost option than sourcing from online purveyors. And if you live in the country, it's possible that one of your neighbors might be raising squab. Look for squabs that are very fresh and plump.
Fresh squab should be tightly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. For best results, cook fresh squab as soon as possible. The meat can be frozen if well wrapped, similar to chicken, for up to a month. Thaw in the fridge before cooking.
Cooked squab can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. Note that reheating squab can often cause it to overcook, making the meat tough.