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Why (and How to) Roast Duck

By Lan Lam Published

Rich and dark inside and out, duck is, as Julia Child once said, “a bird of a different feather entirely.” That’s also true when it comes to cooking it properly.

To all the dark meat lovers out there: You’ve been roasting the wrong bird.

All due respect to succulent chicken and turkey leg quarters, but they make up only a fraction of the whole bird, which is why you should consider roasting duck. It’s all dark meat, since both the breast and leg portions are well-exercised muscles with ample fat, and it’s imbued with a sultry, bass-note richness that chicken and turkey just don’t have. The duck’s breast is also relatively flat, which enables its skin to brown remarkably evenly, and it’s versatile for entertaining: Pair one bird with a bright sauce and you’ve got an intimate dinner party showpiece. Roast two—doable in one pan—and you can feed a crowd.

Here’s the catch: The qualities that make duck special to eat also make it a challenge to cook well. But I’ve got an approachable method all figured out. Allow me to explain.

Senior editor Lan Lam prepares five different recipes for roast duck research.

What Makes Duck Different

Think of duck as the “red meat” of poultry. Its dark crimson color and rich, assertive flavor—even in the breast meat—come from the myoglobin in its abundant red muscle fibers, which are necessary for endurance activities such as flying. (Turkeys and chickens have fewer muscle fibers because they perform only quick bursts of flight.) Duck is also much fattier than other poultry: Its edible portion (meat and skin) contains about 28 percent fat, while the edible portion of a chicken contains between 2.5 and 8 percent fat. Most of that fat builds up as a thick layer of subcutaneous padding that adds to the bird’s insulation and buoyancy in the water. Finally, duck breasts are thinner, flatter, and blockier than other poultry breasts, and their wings are longer. The breed you’re most likely to find in supermarkets, Pekin, weighs a pound or so more than an average chicken.

Tips for Crosshatching

  • 1. Use the tip of your knife. 

    This allows you to feel exactly where you’re cutting.

     

    2. Make multiple strokes per cut. 

    Because it’s tricky to cut to exactly where the fat hits the meat, first slice through the skin and some fat, and then run the knife tip through the slit to get down to the meat.

     

    3. Try not to nick the meat. 

    If you do, dark juices can leak and stain the bird.

The Importance of Proper Prep

Because duck is so fatty, it’s important not only to trim it thoroughly of excess fat around the neck and cavity but also to treat its skin like the fat cap on a pork or beef roast and score it extensively. These channels, which I cut into the breast as well as the thighs, also allow the salt rubbed over the skin to penetrate more deeply over a 6-hour rest. Salting the duck helps keep it juicy and thoroughly seasons the rich meat to highlight its full flavor.

Vigorously simmering the leg and thigh meat on the stovetop before roasting the birds in the oven jumpstarts these tougher portions so that they finish cooking at the same time as the breast meat.

Use a Two-Stage Cooking Method

Cooking duck presents the same familiar challenge as cooking other types of whole poultry: getting the breasts and legs to cook at the same rate. But because duck breast is thinner than chicken or turkey breast, it cooks through even more quickly than they do, making it even more of a challenge to get the tougher legs and thighs to turn tender and succulent before the breast overcooks and dries out.

My solution: Give the leg portions a head start by braising them. I do this by submerging the bottom half of the ducks in water in a roasting pan and vigorously simmering them on the stove until the leg quarters register 145 to 160 degrees. Meanwhile, because the breasts don’t have contact with the water, they cook more slowly and reach only 110 to 130 degrees. At that point, I move the birds to a V-rack, glaze them, put them back in the roasting pan (emptied of braising liquid) and move them to the oven. The leg quarters are far enough along that they will turn tender by the time the breast meat reaches its target doneness temperature of 160 degrees. The upshot: a superbly flavorful, perfectly cooked holiday centerpiece that your guests are sure to remember for a long time to come.

Recipe Whole Roast Ducks with Cherry Sauce

Rich and dark inside and out, duck is—as Julia Child once said—“a bird of a different feather entirely.” That's also true when it comes to cooking it properly.

Recipe Whole Roast Duck with Cherry Sauce

Rich and dark inside and out, duck is—as Julia Child once said—“a bird of a different feather entirely.” That's also true when it comes to cooking it properly.

Recipe Duck Stock

Richly flavored duck stock enriches homemade soups and gives you a valuable byproduct in rendered duck fat.

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