The first thing you should know about a duck, or any poultry really, is that you can literally use every single piece of the bird for something; the duck, however, stands a bit above the rest as far as utility. Why, you may ask?
Well, it is simply a matter of fat. Waterfowl have incredibly large fatty deposits under the skin and around the body to keep them warm in the water. For us, not only does this translate to more succulent meat, but you also get to collect all of that wonderful duck lard. Duck fat can single-handedly transform many of your ordinary meat and vegetable recipes into gourmet triumphs.
So, prepare to fall in love with everything duck.
The primary step of cooking a duck, unless you’re lucky enough to get a fresh one, is the defrosting process. If you have 24 hours to spare, just pop the duck in your refrigerator after you get it home and it will be ready to handle in a day. If you don’t have the time (and you very well may not since many recipes suggest marinating the duck for a day or two before you start cooking it), a great and safe way to get your duck defrosted within a few hours is simply submerging the duck in room-temperature water. I’ve heard of people using a sink but I find that horribly unsanitary. Since most ducks you cook are smaller in stature, you can easily get by with a large stockpot. Remove the duck from it’s packaging and rinse it off. Place it in the pot and submerge it under room-temperature water. Check on it in a couple of hours; when you can manipulate the wings easily, the duck should be ready to handle.
The second step is getting the bird ready for what you want to do with it. If you bought a bird sans head and feet, you have to start by choosing if you want to just roast a whole bird or cut it into it’s various parts, i.e. breasts, wings, legs and thighs. With prepared birds, the neck has already been severed and tucked just inside the cavity along with the giblets, heart and liver. After you defrost the bird you can remove these parts and either throw them in your stockpot to make gravy or stock for soup, or you can give them each an isolated purpose (which we will get into later). Remove any excess fat from its rear, cavity and neck and consider reserving this excess to render delicious duck lard. If you want to roast the whole bird, your prep job is done. If you want to butcher the bird, you are only just beginning.
Butchering any bird is one of the most frustrating and rewarding things on this earth. If you want to attempt this, prepare to get dirty and a little emotionally disheveled. I had a wild pet Muscovy duck growing up and for three months or so it would fly into our yard and visit me, let me pet it, hold it, and watch me through the windows when I was inside. I was torn about butchering a duck, but at the end of the day it is food – I eat duck, and I wasn’t about to be hypocritical.
I believe you have to be willing and able to do your own dirty work, and dirty work it is! Before you begin, be prepared with an oversized cutting board and a large, sharp knife. You sometimes need a knife with some heft to help you get leverage in breaking and getting through bones. In addition you will need a flexible boning knife, also very sharp, for the delicate process of teasing the flesh away from the bone. I highly advise you swipe your knives along a sharpening steel before you start butchering. From here, there are a multitude of videos online where you can see an actual butchering demonstration.
Words, unfortunately, can only go so far in a subject like this. I’ve included a few videos I find very helpful, but you can easily find hundreds of other butchering videos from various skilled instructors online. Obtain a video you deem suitable, take a deep breath, and just go for it. The anticipation is much worse than the actual process, I assure you. Just watch your fingers and if you cut your skin be sure to wash up with antibacterial soap immediately. For your safety, if you do cut yourself, I suggest just putting the carcass in a bowl and refrigerating it until your cut has formed a scab at least. It’s not worth the high risk of infection… raw poultry especially is known to carry dangerous bacteria.
While I feel describing the actual butchering process step by step is confusing on paper, I do have some pertinent tips to impart based on my own experience. The duck as a whole can be a bit much to deal with for the novice butcher. Personally I found that halving the duck first, as Jaques Pepin suggested, made the duck much easier to deal with. Also, it gives you the opportunity to put the second half of the duck back in the refrigerator while you’re taking your time with the first half. Another tip to find your way through the tough bones when separating thighs from legs and wings from wing tips is to locate the joints by touch and then put your knife through the middle of the joint. One more thing: when taking the breast meat off of the bone, be sure to use only the tip of your boning knife to maintain complete control, and pull the breast away from the bone while using your knife as more of a tool to loosen the meat a little at a time.
When you are done butchering the meat, I suggest cutting up the leftover carcass into manageable pieces and putting them into a big pot to start making a stock for either gravy or soup and sauces. It is very easy to make stock, and you can effortlessly freeze it for later use if you want (think ice cube trays even!). Some cooks like to brown the duck pieces in a couple spoonfuls of fat before loading them into the pot, but I find it unnecessary. After they’re in the pot, completely cover the bone pieces with water and put them on medium-high heat, uncovered, for about 2 hours; you could also let it come to a simmer and then turn down the burner heat as low as it can go, cover the pot, and just leave it there up to 24 hours. Whichever way you decide to do it, you can throw the neck, innards and wing tips in there too for a more pronounced flavor. While I would do something different with the neck and innards, the wingtips really don’t have any meat but do have bones and cartilage. These create excellent stock. Consider adding in some chopped carrots, celery, herbs, peppercorn, or onion to incorporate another level of delectable flavor to your stock. Make sure to skim off any floating “scum” you see on top while it’s simmering. After it’s done, strain the stock completely and store. If you want to make gravy, simmer and reduce the stock to about one half its original volume and progress with your favorite gravy recipe. For soup and sauce purposes, you can just store the stock as is in your freezer until you’re ready to use it. It will keep for a month or two if you store it with care.
Now, with your duck defrosted and butchered, you are ready to start cooking!