So I’m hoping that my post on the duck has piqued your interest enough to go out and actually pick up a whole bird from your grocery store. Once you’ve got it home, there is the small task of quartering the duck to prepare it for cooking. OK, I know what you are thinking: “Why are we going through the trouble of quartering the duck? It looks just like the chicken I roasted whole last week.” Well, it’s an excellent question, and there are a couple of reasons. First, as you are about to see, it really isn’t much trouble. Second, the dark meat (legs, thighs) and the “white” meat (breasts) take an entirely different amount of time to cook, and separating them from the carcass is the only way that we can cook them both appropriately. Finally, even if you are only interested in cooking the breasts, buying a whole duck will be basically the same price as buying breasts alone that have been removed for you – so why not freeze the wings, legs and thighs for a later preparation, and use the body, neck and giblets to make a wonderful stock?
First, thaw your duck if frozen and remove from the package. Reach into the body cavity and remove the neck and giblets. Set these aside (not in the garbage!) Thoroughly rinse the duck under cold running water and dry with paper towels. Once you have the duck nice and dry, place it on your cutting board. It will look something like this:
Now, flip the duck over so the breast side is down and remove the wings by twisting the socket until the joint is loose and finishing the job with your kitchen shears. Set these aside. With the duck still facing breast-side down, find the backbone. Now, taking your kitchen shears, make a cut alongside the backbone from the neck end down to the tail end. The ribs will give you some resistance, but you should be able to get through the bones without much trouble. If you are having trouble getting all the way down to the tail end, rotate the duck and start a cut from the tail end to meet up with your previous line.
Next, make the same cut along the other side of the spine, thus removing it from the body. Hopefully it will look something like this:
Now, flip your bird over so that the breasts are facing up and spread the legs out so the duck looks like this:
Now, grab your chef’s knife and make a crescent-shaped cut along the natural line created by the intersection of the thigh and the body. This should be very easy, as you are basically just cutting through a thin layer of skin and fat that is all that’s left holding the leg and thigh to the body. Once you’ve made this crescent cut on both legs, you will be left with this:
Put the legs aside. We’re almost home. Now all we have to do is to remove the breast! Taking what’s left of the body of the bird, breasts facing up, feel for the keel bone. (There should be an indentation between the breasts where the bone is located.) Now, taking just the tip of your knife (you can switch to a pairing knife for more control if you feel you need it) make a shallow cut just along the side of the keel bone, starting at the neck and of the bird. You want to be very careful here, as the breast meat follows the rib cage down at about a 45 degree angle and if you cut too deeply, you will be cutting into the breast meat. The goal with this is to just cut long enough to create some separation between the meat and the keel. Once you’ve started the cut, use your thumb to pull the breast away from the body. This will allow you to use the tip of your knife to slowly remove the breast from the ribs. Work down the breast towards the tail end in 1 inch increments, using just the tip of your knife to remove the meat from the ribs. By using your free hand to pull the breast away from the body, it will be much easier to get your knife down to the bottom. You aren’t really “cutting” here, it should feel as if you are “scoring” the thin layer of cartilage that holds the muscle to the body. As you move down the bird it will begin to look like this:
Not too bad! Now continue as described above, following the natural lines of the bird. When you are done, it should almost surprise you when the breast separates from the body. (That’s how slowly and carefully you should be working.) Repeat the process on the other breast. When you are done, the two removed breasts and the carcass should look something like this:
Yum! You can see in that picture a small flap of fat that extends beyond one sided of both breasts. This can be removed.
Finally, your quartered duck pieces will look like this:
Now we’re ready to cook!
Just remember to work slowly, especially when removing the breasts. The goal is to remove as much of the meat as possible from the body, not to set a record for quartering waterfowl! The first time you go through this process it will probably take you 15 minutes from start to finish. Once you’ve got a couple of birds under your belt, it won’t take you any more than 5. I promise, the final product will be well worth your initial efforts.