Cooking Duck Breasts

For the Best Results, Break the Rules

Cooking Duck Breasts

Photos & Story By Janice Cole, Minnesota

If you’re looking for something special to serve this holiday season, think duck. That is, duck breasts. Yes, you can do the traditional whole roast bird, and while it’s always appreciated and beautiful, more than likely you and your guests have already had a whole bird at Thanksgiving. So why not try something a little different this time around?

If you’re short of time (and who isn’t this time of the year) and want something quick yet memorable and crazy easy to make, you really must try duck breasts. They’re elegant, easy to serve and look like you’ve spent hours in the kitchen. You’ll be surprised at how amazingly simple they are to make; in fact, they’re as easy as throwing on a steak or cooking a chicken breast.  And the really fun part of cooking duck breasts is, if you break the cooking rules they come out perfect.

Score the Skin

The first rule to break is cutting the skin. Normally, you want the skin on a bird to be unblemished and uncut so it browns beautifully, making a gorgeous presentation. On a whole chicken, it’s important to pull the skin taut and truss the bird to give it shape creating a beautiful appearance when finished. Duck breasts are different. The fat in duck accumulates under the breast skin and needs to drain away creating the crispy browned skin we all crave. Scoring the skin before you cook is the way to go.

Carefully cut through the skin in half-inch intervals without cutting into the meat. Turn the duck breast and do it again creating a crisscross pattern. Then season the duck with sea salt and pepper and let stand it 10 minutes before cooking to allow the salt to begin pulling the water from the skin, which facilitates browning and crisping of the skin.

Start with a Cold Pan

Browning meat in a cold pan is a recipe for disaster most times, resulting in gray unappetizing beef and pale chicken. Normally, you should always start browning meat in a well-heated pan. But break the rule when cooking duck breast and you’ll be amazed.

Place the breast, skin-side down, in a cold dry pan. There’s no need for oil, butter or any other lubricant to help the duck brown. Granted, it’s weird at first; there’s no sizzle, no smell, no nothing until the pan slowly starts to heat up. As it begins slowly heating, the fat under the skin begins to melt and sizzle and all of the good things associated with cooking begin to happen. Giving it the extra time by starting it slowly helps drain out more fat, creating a leaner duck breast and beautiful browning.

Low and Slow

Browning meat usually happens on medium-high heat, giving the meat a quick sear and good browning without overcooking the inside. Once again, duck breast is different. Slowly allowing the duck to brown at medium-low heat allows most of the fat to leave the bird. You can drain the fat as it begins to accumulate and save it for another use, like roasted potatoes in duck fat. After 8 to 10 minutes of browning over low heat, the breast will be perfectly golden brown, the meat still rare and ready for a final quick heat in the oven. Perfection achieved in just 10 minutes.

Doneness

Duck breasts today are traditionally served at medium-rare temperature where they are at their juiciest and most tender, like a good steak. However, the USDA does recommend that duck and all poultry be cooked to 165°F, meaning the duck would be medium to medium-well, a little more well done and drier than most people prefer. If you are pregnant or serving people with compromised immune systems, please follow the USDA guidelines. Otherwise, you can decide yourself where your comfort level is at regarding doneness.

Remember, when you pull the duck from the oven, let it rest lightly covered for at least five minutes before slicing in order to allow the juices to flow back throughout the meat. The temperature will also continue to rise at least 5°F during that time.

Do-Ahead

Perfect for entertaining, you can brown the duck breasts ahead of time, cover and refrigerate them up to one day ahead. Finish them in the oven following the baking directions adding an additional one to two minutes cooking time if necessary for the desired doneness.

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Seared Duck with  Maple-Balsamic Sauce

Seared Duck with Maple-Balsamic Sauce
Seared Duck with Maple-Balsamic Sauce

This sweettart pan sauce is the perfect accompaniment to the rich duck and is made while the duck rests from the oven. Serve with soft polenta and seasonal vegetables.

Ingredients:

4 (6 to 8 ounces) duck breasts, or
2 large (12-16 ounces) duck breasts
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme plus extra sprigs for garnishing

Directions:

Heat oven to 400°F. Score the duck skin in a crisscross pattern in 1/2-inch intervals without cutting into the meat. Generously sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let stand 10 minutes.

Place breasts, skin-side down, in a cold dry nonstick skillet. Slowly heat over medium-low heat 8 to 10 minutes or until skin is golden brown and fat has drained out; remove excess duck fat reserving for another use.

Turn breasts skin side-up; cook 1 minute or until lightly cooked on the bottom. Turn and cook the sides of the breast 30 to 60 seconds or until lightly seared. Place skin-side down in pan and immediately place in oven.

Bake 4 to 6 minutes or to desired doneness. Let stand loosely covered 5 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, remove excess fat from pan, place over medium heat. Add vinegar, maple syrup and thyme and bring to a boil; boil 1 to 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Serve over sliced duck; garnish with fresh thyme.

Serves 4

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Masala Duck with Apple-Cranberry Chutney

Masala Duck with Apple-Cranberry Chutney
Masala Duck with Apple-Cranberry Chutney

The Indian-spiced duck pairs well with a seasonal apple and cranber-ry chutney. Serve it with roasted mashed squash.

Chutney:

2 teaspoons canola oil
1/2 cup diced unpeeled apples, such as Braeburn or Gala
1/4 cup apple butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons apple cider or water,  as needed
1 tablespoon dried cranberries
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste

Duck:

4 (6 to 8 ounces) duck breasts, or
2 large (12-16 ounces) duck breasts
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons garam masala*

Directions:

To make the chutney, heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add all ingredients; cook 5 to 8 min-utes or until apples are tender, stirring frequently and adding additional cider if necessary.

Heat oven to 400°F. Score the duck skin in a crisscross pattern in 1/2-inch intervals without cutting into the meat. Generously sprinkle with salt, pepper and masala. Let stand 10 minutes.

Place breasts, skin-side down, in a cold dry nonstick skillet. Slowly heat over medium-low heat 8 to 10 minutes or until skin is golden brown and the fat has drained out; remove excess duck fat reserving for another use.

Turn breasts skin side-up; cook 1 minute or until lightly cooked on the bottom. Turn and cook the sides of the breast 30 to 60 seconds or until lightly seared. Place skin-side down in pan and immediately place in oven.

Bake 4 to 6 minutes or to desired doneness. Let stand loosely covered 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with room temperature chutney.

*Garam masala is a blend of up to 10 spic-es including cinnamon, cloves, cumin and pepper. It’s available in the spice section of most grocery stores or you can mix up your own using some of the above spices.

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Buying a Duck Breast

Some of you may have your own ducks that you raise, and some of you may be avid wild duck hunters, but most of us will have to go to a store to get our duck breasts. You’ll find there are several types available at the store. The most common ducks are white Pekin, followed by Moscovy and Moulard. They can range in size from 6 to 8 ounces, up to about 1 pound each. The cooking methods described will work for all ducks whether wild or domestic but the timing will vary depending on size and the fattiness of the bird.

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