Duck, the other dark meat. Comparable to none and a rarity for most home kitchens, duck is a treat that everyone should be sure to try. Both the eggs and the flesh of a duck can be quite the delicacy when prepared correctly. Unfortunately a duck breast isn’t always an easy thing to get ahold of. However, with a some internet digging, perhaps some outdoorsy friends, or even trips to markets specializing in foreign foods you should be able to get your hands on the flighty fowl.
Whether you source a farm duck from the likes of craigslist or another internet source, or buy one in a market, duck breasts are full of flavor and the fat of the bird renders well and crisps nicely for an excellent texture to partner with the succulent meat. I’ve gotten birds from neighborhood duck breeders and from larger flocks on meat ducks farms and I’ve also harvested my own wild birds. One of them will be the focus of the recipe that follows. Mallard ducks are the most abundant wild duck in the country, with populations over 10 million birds of just that specific duck species. They look grass seeds and grains to eat. With all those carbohydrates being taken in the birds nearly always have a healthy level of tasty fat under their skin.
Plucked whole, skin on!
For anyone working with waterfowl, be it a wild bird, local sources or a store bought – mind the golden rule. Whats the golden rule you might ask? LEAVE DUCK SKIN AND FAT ON! Simple, but important. I’m not assuming that most people want to remove the skin and/or fat, I’m just trying to drive home the notion that leaving skin and fat on duck will enhance the flavor appreciably.
How to take advantage of Duck Fat
To utilize the succulent and flavor packed fats on a duck, we are going to crosshatch the fat, and sear twice. Doing so allows the fat to start rendering during the first sear and finishes during the second. Were going to start with the breakdown of a whole bird and move on to the specifics for sous-vide skin-on duck breast.
A whole duck is a substantial protein source in a meal for two, yet two duck breasts alone as a protein in a meal can be eaten by one person fairly easily. By butchering the whole bird we can use the breasts to cook sous-vide and make use of the remainder of the carcass otherwise.
You may either have to break a whole bird down (quick and easy, a great learning experience) or perhaps you will source just the breasts to work with. If you end up breaking a bird down, the thighs and breast tenders are excellent eating and should be used as well as the breasts. Cook the tenders with the breasts when bagged for the water bath, and at a later point you can braise the thighs and cook them for a tasty meat treat.
Back to the breasts in question
As brought up earlier, crosshatching the fat with a sharp knife is the first leg of the job.
The fat and skin doesn’t need to be cut deep to the flesh, but by using the Havalon surgical blade knife I employed in the breakdown of the bird, I happened to make a few cuts deeper than expected. This in no way had a negative outcome in the cooking, but just know you don’t need to cut deep, only score the fat surface to allow oils to seep out and a good sear to be accomplished.
After scoring, I cover the bird in a light amount of salt and refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm the fat before the sear.
When searing, place the skin side down in a hot pan with a thin amount of neutral oil (avocado oil works best IMO) and brown the skin/fat side ONLY. This takes about 45 seconds. This is the first sear in the twice seared method. Smoke may arise, be prepared.
After searing, season the entirety of the bird with your spices of choice. I like a chipotle powder or smoked paprika along with some aromatics such as thyme or rosemary. Once seared and seasoned, bag, remove air and place in the water bath for 90 minutes at 134°F. This cook time and temperature results in the breasts cooked to a perfect medium. We never want to overcook duck.
After our scheduled time has elapsed, we’ll remove the bag from the water bath and the breasts from the bag. Pat completely dry with paper towel before the second sear.
Many methods of searing can be employed to finish the duck breasts. The three easiest are cast iron, handheld torch and grill finishing.
My personal favorite is over a hot bed of coals in a charcoal grill. Second to that I probably would use the torch. With any method you chose to use to sear the duck breasts for the second time, sear both sides. The charcoal grill does it best in my opinion, allowing us to get a good crisp crust on the fat/skin side and a desirably rough edge on the flesh side.
Duck is a treat, take care of it and enjoy with friends and family!