If you love the particular richness of duck — it’s more assertive than the blank canvas of chicken — but you’ve never tried to tackle it at home, it’s not as hard as you might think.
Shop for duck at your local supermarket, and odds are you’ll find the whole bird cryovaced in the freezer section, a plastic orange sauce packet neatly stuffed into the cavity. Which is a shame, because there’s so much more to the bird than duck a l’orange. You could sear a duck breast in minutes for a quick dinner, or slowly braise duck legs in their own fat to succulent tenderness in the form of duck confit. Roast or barbecue the whole bird for a dramatic presentation for company, or conveniently forget about it for several hours in your slow cooker for a weeknight meal.
For the first-time cook, duck might come across as a little intimidating. Unlike chicken or turkey, duck is comprised of all dark meat, including the breasts. But duck is actually very forgiving in the kitchen. First, unlike other types of poultry, duck can safely be cooked to a lower temperature (because it doesn’t carry salmonella). Sear a duck breast to medium-rare and you’ll find it’s similar to steak in looks and flavor. And it cooks just as quickly.
And believe it or not, duck meat itself is surprisingly lean. All too often, duck is considered a “fatty” or “greasy” meat. While you will find a good layer of fat beneath the skin, it’s not difficult to remove or cook most of the fat out of the bird before serving. If you’ve ever enjoyed a seared duck breast, you’ll often find the crisp skin is marked with a crosshatch pattern. Slicing through the skin in this way before cooking allows the fat to drain out as the meat cooks. Likewise, when you roast a duck, you’ll often find instructions to pierce the skin with a fork before cooking; this also allows the fat to drain out easily without soaking the meat and skin.
If you’ve ever had Peking duck, you’ve likely, hopefully, appreciated its crackly crisp skin. The traditional preparation is involved and can take a few days to prepare, but there are ways to riff on the classic method to achieve many of the same results. On a traditional Peking duck the skin is inflated before cooking (picture a bicycle pump or perhaps a homemade rig involving a turkey baster); this allows the fat to drain down and out of the bird easily as it roasts. Instead of this, gently peel the skin away from the breasts and around the thighs of the bird, as this is where much of the fat is concentrated. Then ladle boiling water over the duck; this will melt some of the fat while tightening the skin itself. And be sure to chill the duck, uncovered, on a rack in the refrigerator overnight; the cold air will help to dry the skin out before roasting.
Finally, roast the duck vertically over an empty beer can chicken roaster. (Perhaps you’ve witnessed a beer can chicken: a whole chicken, wings casually folded behind the neck, propped up on a beer can or beer can roaster as it leisurely roasts on the grill.) Vertically roasting will cook the duck more evenly and help the fat to drain out of the bird, allowing the skin to crisp.
Duck fat is gold in the kitchen — so save it. Before cooking duck, remove any large fat pockets and render them gently over low heat until they melt, then strain to remove any solids. Duck fat will keep for months in the refrigerator or freezer. Use it in place of butter or other fats to flavor everything from vegetables to pie crusts.
While duck sometimes has the reputation of being a gamy meat, most of the duck sold in the U.S. is white Pekin, which is known for its mild flavor and tender texture. Still, duck can come across as a little heavier than other types of poultry. Consider adding bright and tart flavors when cooking or serving duck. Pair duck breast with stewed tart cherries or apple slices, or flavor whole duck with a rich pomegranate molasses rub before roasting. And instead of weighing the duck down in a heavy cassoulet or ragout, serve it alongside a simple salad with a light, acidic vinaigrette.
Oh, and as for that packet of orange sauce, you can toss it in the trash.
Vertically roasted duck
Serves 4 to 6
1 (5- to 6-lb.) duck
1 Tbsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses (maple syrup can be substituted)
1 tsp. whole yellow mustard seeds, toasted and ground
Bring a pot of water to boil.
While the water is heating, place the duck on a cutting board, breast-side up and with the legs facing you. Remove any large pockets of fat around the cavity, then gently but firmly begin loosening the skin from the meat, starting at the cavity opening by the legs. You will want to loosen the skin over the breast area (from the cavity to the neck) and around the joint where the thighs meet the body. Be very careful not to puncture the skin. Do not worry about the back of the duck.
Place the duck on a rack in the sink. When the water is boiling, remove from heat and begin ladling the water over the outside of the duck; you will notice the skin begin to tighten as it comes in contact with the hot water. Turn the duck over and repeat, ladling hot water until you see the skin tighten. Dry the duck well, and place it on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, molasses and ground mustard to form a paste. Massage this paste over the entire outer surface of the duck, coating the skin until it looks tanned. Place the duck, uncovered, in the refrigerator and chill at least 12 hours, preferably 24.
Remove the duck from the refrigerator 1/2 hour before roasting. Heat the oven to 450 degrees, and place a rack at the lowest position of the oven to give the duck enough room to stand as it roasts.
Place a beer can chicken holder on a rimmed baking sheet or shallow roasting pan. Stand the duck on the beer can chicken holder (if the holder is too small to support the duck, first place an empty beer can in the holder), and fold the wings behind the neck. Carefully move the duck to the oven.
Roast the duck for 15 minutes to give it time to begin to color. If the duck colors too quickly at the top, tent the top of the duck loosely with foil. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue to roast until the duck is a rich brown color, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and set aside to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
NOTE: This recipe calls for a beer can chicken holder, available at many grilling and hardware stores, as well as online.
Sauteed duck breasts with apple and tart greens
4 (8- to 10-oz.) duck breasts
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. minced shallots
1/2 tsp. chopped thyme
1/4 tsp. chopped rosemary
5 Tbsp. maple syrup
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
6 Tbsp. olive oil
6 cups loosely packed tart greens, such as frisee, mache or arugula
3 to 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tart apples, such as McIntosh or Granny Smith, cored and cut into wedges
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
4 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
Remove the duck breasts from the refrigerator. Using a sharp knife, score the skin in a crisscross pattern without cutting into the meat. Season the breasts on each side with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the shallots, thyme, rosemary, maple syrup, vinegar and olive oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a grind of black pepper, or to taste. This makes about 1 cup vinaigrette.
In a large bowl, combine the lettuces. Toss the lettuces with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat, 4 to 5 tablespoons, more if desired. Set aside.
Heat a cast-iron pan over high heat until hot. Add the vegetable oil and then add the duck, skin-side up. Sear the breasts for about 2 minutes to give them some color. Flip the breasts over and reduce the heat to medium-high. Continue cooking until the skin is crisp and the breasts reach the desired doneness, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool slightly.
Reduce the heat to medium. Drain all but 2 to 3 tablespoons fat from the pan, and add the apple, along with the brown sugar. Cook the wedges until slightly softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high and continue to saute the apple until the sugar caramelizes and the wedges take on some color, an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Divide the apples and salad between 4 plates, crumbling the blue cheese over each salad. Slice the duck breasts on the bias, and divide the duck between the plates. Serve immediately.