Duck: Famously Fatty, Simply Delicious

w-Crispy "Duck Potatoes," pan fried in duck fat
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

I don't recall when I first ate duck. I know it was a roasted duck, but I don't remember any of the details of its preparation. I was probably 13 or 14 and far too distracted with adolescence to pay attention to what my mother was experimenting with this time. However, I clearly remember loving its rich flavor and wonderful fattiness. I also recall the potatoes roasted in the duck fat in the roasting pan.

Now that I'm focusing, I can say duck beats chicken and turkey hands down. Those two birds can't come close to the savory satisfaction of duck (or goose, for that matter). Chickens and turkeys have been the subject of intense, profit-driven breeding programs resulting in pure white breasts so large the animals can barely walk — and furthermore, they have no flavor. With duck, the breasts are much more in proportion to the bird's overall size. And the breasts are dark meat to boot; that means a duck breast is as flavorful as its leg.

This is not to say that ducks aren't bred. The most popular commercial breed is Pekin duck (also known as Long Island duck in this country). Don't confuse the Pekin duck breed with the Peking duck dish. Although the latter is generally made using the former, other duck breeds also work in the dish, which is essentially a Chinese duck crepe recipe — justifiably famous when well made.

About The Author

After working as editor of various computer magazines, Kevin D. Weeks is now a personal chef in Knoxville, Tenn. Weeks also teaches cooking classes, is the Guide to Cooking for Two at About.com, and blogs at Seriously Good.

The Pekin/Long Island breed originated in China and is a descendant, as most domestic species are, of a mallard. They are tidy, well-proportioned animals weighing 5 to 8 pounds with a rich but not gamey flavor.

Muscovy, the other notable domesticated species and one that originated in the New World, isn't a mallard. It's nowhere near as appealing in appearance and is somewhat larger with a naturally heavier breast than the Pekin duck. It is also less fatty. Raised domestically, it too has a rich, ungamey flavor.

Muscovy and Pekin ducks are often crossbred, which results in a sterile bird called a moulard. This crossbreed is reportedly sturdier and more laid-back (domesticated) than either of its parents and is often used to produce foie gras. Which brings us to magret, the breast of any duck that has been deliberately fattened to produce foie gras. This isn't a different species, just a different name.

Foie gras — literally, "fat liver" — is made from duck or goose livers (not chicken or turkey) because the birds are waterfowl and so are geared toward producing fat to insulate them from the chilling effects of water. (In the wild, the fat stored in the liver is used to fuel the animals' migration.) Consequently, duck and goose are justifiably famous for being fatty birds and have livers that can be almost buttery in flavor and texture.

Since my first taste, some 40 years ago, of potatoes roasted in duck fat, I've roasted rutabaga and cauliflower (and almost every other vegetable) in duck fat. I've also smeared the fat on bread to make a completely over-the-top grilled cheese sandwich. Try adding it instead of butter to mashed potatoes with a healthy spoonful of fresh horseradish. Duck fat is mostly monosaturated fat, making it less unhealthful than pork or beef fat. Chefs consider it the queen of fats to pork's regency as king.

Never, never, never throw out duck fat (unless you've burned it). It is a precious commodity to be kept cosseted and protected in your freezer for special dishes. A few weeks ago, I made Maine fries in duck fat with some shredded duck. With a beer, that was my supper, and it was among the best I've ever made or eaten.

I can usually find whole ducks at the supermarket (and I have a local source of farm-raised birds), but typically I buy duck breasts at my local upscale grocery and pan-roast them. When I want legs for a dish, I buy a whole bird and cut it up, freezing the breasts. You can also order breasts, legs, confit and fat from various online sources.

I've come a long way from that first pubescent taste of quacking fowl, but I still like it best cooked and served fairly simply. The fact is the bird is so good on its own that little gilding is needed. And crisp duck skin is manna from heaven.

Roast Duck

Because duck is so fatty, you need to make a special effort to eliminate some of the fat. This is easy enough if you're pan-roasting breasts or cooking just the legs. It is far more tricky, though, when roasting a whole duck. The best way I know to do it is to simmer the whole duck after poking holes in the skin to allow the fat to escape as it melts. You'll need a large stockpot, and it's a two-part process, but the two parts result in that most luscious of lipids (duck fat) and a wonderful broth you can use for cooking beans or making soup. Try the cranberry coulis recipe as a sauce.

Roast Duck i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Roast Duck
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 5- to 6-pound duck

1 large yellow onion, peeled, trimmed and quartered

2 large carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths

2 medium stalks of celery, cut into 1-inch lengths

Large handful of flat-leaf parsley with stems

12 peppercorns

2 bay leaves

2 large cloves garlic

2 tablespoons dried orange zest (you can find dried zest in the spice department)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 teaspoons dried, ground rosemary

1 orange, washed and cut into eighths

1 small onion, peeled, trimmed and quartered

2 cloves garlic

Defatting

Remove giblets from duck cavity and cut off wing tips.

Using a small paring knife, poke holes all over the duck's breast, legs and back. Insert the knife at an angle to avoid penetrating the meat — figure you have 1/4 inch of fat beneath the skin on the breasts and thighs and about 1/8 inch on the legs and back — but insert as deeply as possible without making a cut more than about 1/2 inch long.

Place the duck in a large stockpot, add onion, carrots, celery, neck and wing tips. Add enough water to completely cover duck. Remove duck from pot, add parsley, bay leaves and peppercorns, and place pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, skimming off any scum that forms.

Carefully return duck to pot and bring back to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Place a plate with a heavy can on top of it onto the duck to keep it submerged, and simmer for 45 minutes, removing any additional scum as it forms but allowing fat to accumulate.

Remove duck and pat dry, being careful to avoid tearing skin. Cool to room temperature. At this point, you can move on to roasting, or you can refrigerate the duck on a dish, uncovered, which forces some additional fat out as the skin contracts and produces a crispier skin.

Refrigerate the stock you've made overnight. The fat will rise to the top and you can skim that off and save it frozen for up to a year. The stock can be reduced (concentrated) and used for making gravy (with some of the duck fat) or reserved for other uses (there's no salt in it, and it's simply flavored to keep it flexible for other dishes).

Roasting

If you refrigerated the bird, remove from fridge and set on the counter for 3 hours. Heat oven to 500 degrees, place an oven rack one level up from the bottom, and heat a roasting pan that can hold a roasting rack. Don't heat the rack.

Mix together orange zest, salt, pepper and rosemary. Sprinkle half the mixture inside duck and half outside, patting to make it stick. Stuff cavity with orange, onion and garlic and roast for 30 minutes (rotate front to back after 15 minutes). Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes before carving.

Note: Save the duck bones and the back, add them to the reserved duck stock and simmer it for another couple of hours to make a richer stock. Certainly save the fat for other cooking projects.

Pan-Roasted Duck Breasts With Cranberry Coulis

If you want roast duck but not the trouble and time of roasting a whole bird, this is the ticket. I've made this version with the cranberry coulis for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for myself, alone, and for as many as six. But the basic recipe for pan roasting is infinitely adaptable, so try it with other things such as a peach gastrique (a sort of French sweet-and-sour sauce made with fruit) or even a simple duck gravy. You can make it Asian with five-spice powder or Mexican with chipotle powder. Have fun.

Pan-Roasted Duck Breasts With Cranberry Coulis i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Pan-Roasted Duck Breasts With Cranberry Coulis
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 4 servings

6 ounces cranberries, picked over

1 large orange, zested and juiced

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup orange liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier)

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 duck breasts (6 to 8 ounces each)

Coulis

You should have about a cup of fresh orange juice; if not, add water (or more orange juice to bring to 1 cup). Put all ingredients except liqueur in a small saucepan and simmer until berries burst, 15 to 18 minutes. Add liqueur and process in a blender or food processor until pureed. Warm before serving.

Duck

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine spices in a small bowl, then sprinkle spice mixture on both sides of breast. Then, using a very sharp knife, cut through the skin on the breast to create 1/2-inch diamonds, being careful not to cut into the meat.

Position breasts skin-side down in a large cast-iron skillet and place over medium-high heat. Cook until skin begins to brown, about 6 minutes. Turn breasts over and place skillet in the middle of the oven. Cook 15 minutes for medium rare or 25 minutes for well done. Rest the breasts for 5 minutes, then slice across the grain, plate and spoon on warm coulis.

Canard Au Vin

There's a classic French recipe called coq au vin that is traditionally made with a rooster (coq) past its prime that is braised in red wine. I took that dish and married it with duck legs and added a note from the French version of a French daube, or stew. This is better than any modern coq au vin made with chicken from the grocery store because the duck legs have enough flavor to stand up to the marinade. You'll need to start a day ahead.

Canard Au Vin i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Canard Au Vin
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 duck leg quarters

2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped

1 small stalk celery, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs rosemary, bruised between your hands

2 large cloves garlic, smashed

3 cups red wine, (such as pinot noir or zinfandel)

1 cup chicken stock/broth (may not be needed)

Put duck legs in a gallon plastic bag and add remaining ingredients, except chicken stock. Refrigerate for 16 to 24 hours, turning occasionally.

Heat oven to 275 degrees.

Remove legs from bag (keeping marinade) and remove skin (keeping it as whole as you can). Place skinless legs in a large Dutch oven and add marinade. The liquid should come halfway up the sides of the meat; if not, add some chicken stock/broth. Place over medium high heat and bring just to a boil. Cover and move pot to the center of the oven. Cook for 2 1/2 hours, turning legs halfway through.

In the meantime, lightly season the leg skin with salt and pepper. Using a very sharp knife, score leg skin into 1/2-inch strips, being careful not to cut completely through skin. Place skin-side up in a skillet and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat is rendered. Turn skin over and finish browning. The skin should be quite crisp. Drain, separate strips and cut in half.

When duck is done, remove legs from pot and set aside. Remove bay leaf and rosemary sprigs and discard. Using either a stand-alone blender, a food processor or a hand blender, puree sauce. Serve breasts over rice, polenta or pasta drizzled with sauce. Garnish with skin and a few fresh rosemary leaves. I add leftover sauteed mushrooms if I have them.

Duck Potatoes

I ran across Maine fries in John Thorne's book Serious Pig (North Point Press, 1996). Maine fries are similar to cottage fries except that they always begin with raw potatoes and are slow-fried to a delightfully crisp exterior and buttery interior. According to Thorne, this is not only a Maine dish but also a main dish. In this version, I fry the potatoes in the duck fat left over from a roast duck and toss in whatever leftover duck I have. Serve with a salad dressed with your favorite vinaigrette. (There's a place in Portland, Maine, that serves fries made in duck fat. The restaurant is called Duck Fat!)

Duck Potatoes i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Duck Potatoes
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 2 servings

4 tablespoons duck fat

1 pound waxy (red or boiling) potatoes cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (available in the spice section)

1/2 cup chopped, cooked duck (use the wing and back meat from a roasted duck and toss in the chopped skin)

Melt duck fat in a large skillet over low heat (the skillet needs to be large enough that there will be space between the potatoes). Add potatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste and herbes de Provence. Cover skillet and cook for 20 minutes.

Remove cover and turn potatoes to an uncooked side. Add skin and cook 10 minutes more, uncovered. Turn again and cook 10 minutes more. Turn one last time, add chopped duck and cook 10 minutes more.

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