In this installment we will be tackling one of my favorite meals to prepare – duck. In the United States, duck is an often a neglected bird for many home cooks who find the task daunting. As I can attest to from experience, cooking a duck is a luxurious alternative to your usual chicken that only requires minimal additional effort and cost.
What is duck?
We all know what a duck is, per se, but for culinary purposes there are several distinctions that are important. The most common breeds of ducks throughout Asia, Europe and North America are descendants of the wild green-headed mallard (Anas platyrhynchos.) Included in this family is the duck that is most commonly consumed here in the United States. When you buy duck in the grocery store or order it in a restaurant, chances are high that you are buying a Pekin duck. The Pekin duck gets its name from where it originally hailed, these large, white birds were imported from China to Long Island, NY in 1873. The Pekin duck is also commonly known as the Long Island duck. 95 of 100 ducks consumed in the U.S. are Pekin ducks.
Pekin or “Long Island” duck:
There are two other main varieties of duck that are served; the Muscovy duck, which is native to the Pacific coast of Central and northern South America and the Moulard duck, which is a sterile hybrid of Muscovy and Pekin ducks.
Muscovy ducks differ from Pekin ducks in a couple of important ways. They are significantly leaner, as their penchant for living in warmer climates year-round reduces the need for the additional subcutaneous (between the skin and the muscle) fat. They also grow significantly larger and have a stronger, gamier flavor. Muscovy ducks are not descendant from mallards. For the remainder of this post (and, in fact where ever you see the term used on this blog) the term “duck” refers to the Pekin variety unless otherwise specified.
Ducks are migratory birds that contain as much as 30% of it’s weight as fat used for fuel, buoyancy, and insulation. As the muscle meat is basically 100% lean, the smart chef will use this layer of fat to add both flavor and texture to the final preparation.
While all the meat contained on a duck is significantly darker than the meat of a chicken or turkey, ducks contain both white and dark meat. You will find that the meat from the thighs and legs are fattier and darker than the meat of the breast.
Farmed ducks are generally cultivated for 6-12 weeks and harvested when the reach 6-7lbs, and will run $15-20- more than likely less per-pound than the whole chickens in the case next to it.
What and where to buy a duck?
Unless you live a quick drive from Long Island, you are going to be buying your ducks frozen, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. While generally we shy away from frozen meat, nearly every duck that gets shipped from the farm to the markets of the country are frozen. The ducks are packaged and frozen on site at the farms, which ensures that they arrive in our kitchens as fresh as possible.
What you want to look for when buying a duck is that it is of the proper size (somewhere between 6-7 pounds to feed 4,) and that it has a long, large, flat breast. The breast should not be balled or rolled to make it appear to be larger. While many of supermarkets sell just the duck breasts, you pay for the privilege of having someone remove the breast from the carcass – sometimes to the tune of 4 times the price/lb of buying a whole bird. Also, if you have tried duck and haven’t been impressed, you may prefer the meat from the legs and thighs (as I do.) Plus, the process of quartering a duck is simple! (As you will see in my next post.)
One of the annoyances buying a frozen duck is they tend to be a pain to thaw. If you are lucky enough to have a large tupperware or plastic container and probably 48 hours of time, you can do it easily in your fridge. If you are pressed for time, fill up one side of your sink with cool water and put the duck in. Let the water run slowly so that the overflow flows into the other side of the sink. It will still take a couple of hours to thaw fully, but it beats 2-days in the fridge. (and yes, this is stolen directly from “Good Eats.” Alton Brown is not a dummy)
Methods of cooking a duck
There are many ways to prepare duck. A duck can be roasted whole (but it shouldn’t be,) smoked, the breasts can be pan-fried or simply grilled. The legs and thighs can be partially cured and cooked in fat to make confit and roulades and gallatines are possible (and impressive.) Duck breasts should be served medium-rare, as their delicate flavor does not stand up well to too much heat and the extremely lean meat tends to get stringy when over-cooked. As with any poultry, duck should be subjected to a flavorful brine for up to 24 hours prior to cooking, regardless of method. My preferred method of cooking is to brine a quartered duck in a salt, sugar, citrus and spices, then steam the quartered pieces until cooked and finishing the quarters in a scorching hot oven to make the skin wonderfully crispy. (Influenced by, and adapted in part from the above-mentioned TV show, but very different flavors.) I usually serve with some veg-cooked-in-duck-fat and a fruit reduction.
Applications for duck
Duck is most often served as a main course. Duck breasts often top salads. Various preparations of duck confits make wonderful appetizers. A well-constructed roulade can impress even the snobbiest foodie. Once you start considering the pate, terrine and foie gras possibilities, the duck is well rounded culinary subject that takes time and practice to master.
We, as a country need to embrace duck as something that isn’t particularly “fancy.” Everyone reading this is capable of having duck for dinner, on a Tuesday. It isn’t something that has to be particularly time consuming or expensive but still produces excellent results. So put that package of pre-cut boneless skinless chicken breasts down and reach next door and pick up a duck for dinner. (Oh, and your kids will eat it and enjoy it as long as you leave out the Daffy jokes!)