The most sought-after parts of the entire duck by far are the body, wings and hinds (legs and thighs). There are thousands of recipes out there on how to cook these parts. While the variations are endless, there is a limited list of ways to execute these variations. Basically, you can roast, braise, confit, sous vide, grill or fry the main duck parts. While there are six main ways to cook duck, there are some methods that are understandably more popular than others. Since grilling and frying are somewhat generic meat preparations and are already pretty common among chefs, I will focus my discussion on roasting, followed by the sous vide method, then confit, and lastly braising.
If you decide to bypass the extensive butchering process and simply want to roast the whole bird, roasting is thankfully a simple and straightforward task. Unlike roasting a turkey or chicken, you don’t need to rub fat on the skin and you don’t need to constantly baste it to keep in the moisture. You can choose to brine a duck, but the brining process is mostly used to make a bird juicier… the duck really doesn’t need that kind of help. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a duck and chicken cook the same way.
To start preparing to roast a duck, pull out a v-shaped rack and sturdy roasting pan. The duck definitely needs a rack of some sort to help with rendering fat and to encourage even roasting (Editors note: If you don’t have one, you can put some big chunks of root vegetable in the bottom of the tray and sit the duck on top of them).. After making sure you removed the innards and rinsed the duck, pat it dry inside and out. Place it on the rack breast side up. Then, take a sharp knife and make a shallow crosshatch pattern on the breast skin (not the flesh!) of the duck. This step allows the fat to properly render while the bird is roasting. Season the skin with salt and pepper. If you want to, you can tie the legs back with twine to let it roast in a traditional shape. I prefer to cook my birds without the twine since I find they tend to cook more evenly. Set your oven to 150°C (or 300°F) and just let your duck sit out while it’s warming up (letting your duck get a little closer to room temperature and dry a bit more helps the cooking process). Ducks should be placed in an oven at a much lower temperature than a turkey or chicken to help it render fat and cook properly. Cook a bird of 2.5kg (or 5.5 pounds) for approximately 1 hour. Take it out, remove some of the fat if necessary, and flip it over before returning it to the oven. Cook the bird one more hour and flip it over again. After another hour, pierce the bird and check the juices. If they run a clear-yellow, the bird is done. If the juices are rosy, leave it in a bit longer. I found my bird was looking a tad dry at this point, so I drizzled some of the rendered fat over the body of the duck.
Don’t get overwhelmed by different recipes- there are many recipes out there telling you the “correct” way to roast a duck and some have very different opinions on the issue. For example, Julia Child suggests a really hot oven and a complicated flipping method that gets the duck out in under two hours time. I decided to go for a much lower heat and more time with less flipping, loosely shadowing a Martha Stewart method. Really, you just need to flip the duck every once in a while, give it some help if it’s getting dry, and check the juices when it’s looking done to see if it’s ready. Not every bird is the same size, not every oven is the same, etc. I prefer the lower oven temperature because you as the cook have more control and it’s not as fussy or demanding. When I saw the bird was looking thirsty but still needed to cook more, I scooped up some pan juices on it and that was that. Try to develop your own feel for what constitutes dryness and doneness when roasting a bird. Isolated instructions, like any recipe, can only go so far in getting you to that beautiful roasted duck. I tend to use recipes as guidelines… mere suggestions in a world of culinary uncertainty.
To make your roasted duck even better and more interesting, try making a complementary tart sauce to go with it. Duck a l’orange, for example, is just a roast duck with an orange sauce. A simple and fresh way to make an orange sauce is mixing a ¼ cup each of honey and pomegranate molasses with a couple tablespoons of orange juice. Martha Stewart recommends bringing this mixture to a boil and then simmering until the sauce is a syrup consistency. Use this basic recipe as a guide to experiment and branch off with other base ingredients such as red wine vinegar, or even just lemon juice instead orange juice… canard au citron! Julia Child suggests a wonderful sauce recipe for roast duck in her cornerstone book Mastering the Art of French Cooking that includes 45 red cherries cooked with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of port or cognac and 3 tablespoons of sugar… I’m definitely trying this one next time!
My absolute favorite way to cook a duck, by far, is the sous vide method. A cooking technique very popular among top chefs of today, sous vide in French literally means “under vacuum.” A variation on traditional poaching, the meat is cooked in an airless bag floating in a pot of water with a constant temperature of 57°C (or 135°F). With this method, the meat retains almost all of its juices, as well as it’s original size and shape, all while being cooked evenly to an adequate 57°C (or 135°F) internal temperature. While complicated machinery exists for this method, it is entirely unnecessary. All you need, besides one or more duck breasts, is a heavy-duty freezer bag, a straw, a silicone mat, a large pot and an accurate cooking thermometer.
I prepared mine with two duck breasts, so the recipe I’m about to tell you is skewed for two breasts and not for one, just so you’re aware.
To begin, you need to cross-hatch, marinate and bag your breasts for at least an hour – preferably longer. I used fresh thyme, salt and pepper on both sides of the duck for a simple but flavorful seasoning. Make sure the breasts are both facing the same way when you put them in the bag, and use the straw like a vacuum to seal up the bag with as little air inside as possible. Bags with little or no air should sink when they’re in the water instead of floating. I am not aware of any health risks associated with breathing in raw duck air… I did it and I’m okay… but if you decide to use a straw for this purpose, you do so at your own risk. If you’re concerned at all please research this further before you do it. After you completely seal the bag, sink it into a large pot with a water temperature of 57-60°C (or 135-140°F). Make sure your silicon mat is sitting underneath the bag inside the pot. This is to make sure the temperature at the bottom of the pan doesn’t bother your bag at all. Now for the only tricky part of this process: you must stand by the burners most of the time to monitor and ensure the temperature of the water stays at this exact range for the entire cook time. I left mine in for about 1½ hours and the breasts can apparently stay in the water up to 3 hours (or even longer some say), but that sounded way too long to me. 1½ hours was quite enough.
After you take the duck breasts out of the bag, place them in a heated pan of olive oil to brown a bit, the fat side down. The fat will provide a protective barrier and prevent the meat from cooking too much more. Serve the duck breasts immediately and enjoy! As a side note, the extreme temperature plastic bags can handle the hot water- don’t worry. Mine did not melt or breakdown at all. Also, plastic chemicals are said to leech out only in very high, extreme temperatures. Again, check this out for yourself if you are overly concerned but I personally believe through my own research that this method with the freezer bags is nothing to worry about.
While you can essentially confit any part of the duck you wish, the wings, hinds and innards are the most usual confit fare we see from a duck these days. The reason this is so is because in modern society we don’t need to store meat this way anymore to keep it fresh and for that reason the breast meat is usually not made into confit because it is already considered a trophy just the way it is. It is wonderful to confit tougher or lesser parts of meat because the slow-cooking process makes tough meat soft and the fat makes any kind of meat taste delicious! The word “confit” originates from a French word meaning “to conserve”. This method of preparation happens to be one of the oldest ways to preserve meat that there is. The original idea was the fat the meat is stored in, after the water has evaporated away from cooking the meat while in the fat, creates a hermetic seal around the meat, enabling it to be stored (without refrigeration even!) for many months. Of course today, why would you risk your health when you have a perfectly good refrigerator to use for storage and preservation- but the luscious taste of confited meat still remains a huge draw for the more than obvious reasons of taste and texture.
To begin the process, salt and season your duck pieces and marinate them for at least 24 hours. I chose a marinade composed of salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, and shallots. Unlike some marinades, this recipes calls for you to wipe off any excess marinade before submerging the pieces into the fat. It needs a chance to sink in, and the salt helps remove moisture. While you’re waiting, make sure you have plenty of duck fat on hand. You will need enough to just cover the duck in whichever oven pan you are using. If you end up falling short, you can add some olive oil to the mix, but I believe it will turn out much better with all duck fat. A word to the wise, use a dish that is somewhat cramped to cook the meat in. You don’t want the meat to be hard-pressed against each other, but a snug fit will lessen your duck fat needs while still cooking well.
When your marinade is done, set the oven for about 95°C (or 200°F) and proceed to melt the fat in the pan while you wipe off the excess marinade from the duck. Submerge the pieces into the fat and put it in the oven. Set a timer for 1 hour and when it goes off check on it. Flip the pieces around, add some more fat or olive oil if it looks like it needs it, and set the timer for another hour. Again check and flip when it goes off and set it again for one more hour. Depending on how many pieces you’re cooking, it could be done by now. I cooked mine for about this long and I had 4 pieces – 2 whole wings and 2 thighs. One trick to tell if it’s done is how tender the meat is. Grasp hold of one of the bones sticking out and give it a wiggle. If it feels like the meat could detach from the bone easily, it is done. This cooking method literally makes the meat fall-off-the-bone tender.
If you want to store the meat at this point, find a good container with a tight lid and stick the meat inside of it. Pour the confit fat on top until it completely covers the meat and let it cool a bit before you seal the lid on. Put in your refrigerator and store it there (in my opinion) for up to a month. Again, the idea is to not test your health. When you want to use the meat, simply heat it up in a hot pan with some olive oil or duck fat to brown, or pop it in the oven to crisp, or just add it to your particular dish. It’s already cooked through, so there’s no wrong answer. Whatever you do it’ll taste great!
For the fat-conscientious worry warts out there, cooking a fatty piece of duck in even more fat may sound too decadent to be digested by the human stomach… but interestingly enough this process draws out more fat from the skins on the duck instead of adding to it! To illustrate, imagine you’re cooking a piece of duck and you pour off the fat from the pan midway through. The duck fat still attached to the duck will sear much more quickly and thus trap in the remaining fat instead of staying porous and allowing more layers of fat to come off. If the fat were still in the pan, the sear would not have occurred and more liquid fat would have melted off from the subcutaneous layers of fat attached to the duck meat. Leave your reservations aside and give it a try- you have no reason to worry about the excess animal fat and even if you can’t help yourself from worrying you’ll stop it once you taste the ducky decadence of confit.
You can braise anything and everything on a duck. Braising, technically, is when the meat is cut into larger hunks and is only partially covered by liquid then cooked at a lower temperature, as opposed to stewing where the meat is in smaller pieces and is completely covered, or boiling where the item is covered with liquid and cooked at a very high heat. Braising is definitely a good and tasty method for dealing with duck. While you can braise the whole duck, I believe there are better things that can be done with the breasts. As far as the wings and hinds are concerned though, go ahead and braise them.
Start by getting a big pot out or your slow cooker. I have a Crockpot and love using it for tough cuts of meat and poultry dishes. The liquid you’re cooking with can never come to a boil, so keep the heat low at all times (like 95°C (or 200°F) for the oven and medium low or low heat for the stove). This cooking method is great because it’s not hands on after it starts cooking; at the same time, though, braising does take a few hours to finish. The liquid can be wine, stock, water – really anything you wish. You can even choose to add in different vegetables to go with the duck and make it a one-pot meal. I would put some chopped carrots in, some onions, maybe mushrooms, sliced potatoes… chopped Brussels sprouts would taste amazing too.
Before you put your duck meat in, be sure to brown the meat in a pan a bit first with some fat. After it’s done, add a little of your cooking liquid to the skillet and deglaze your pan, then add this to your braising pot for more flavor. Slow cook the meat, covered, for about 2 hours. Again, this depends on the amount of meat and the size of your pot and your cooking method (oven, stovetop or Crockpot), but the general idea is to not boil or rush the meat. This method in a way is similar to confit, however it does not remove the moisture to achieve preservation and it slow cooks the meat without the excess fat. I would say braising gives a dish more of a soup quality. If duck soup sounds good to you, then definitely give this a try.
… and the rest
In the next article, we will explore ways to use and cook the giblets, heart and liver of a duck.