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.
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.
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.
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.
SERVES 8 TOTAL TIME: 3 HOURS, PLUS 6 HOURS SALTING
Pekin ducks may also be labeled as Long Island ducks and are typically sold frozen. Thaw the ducks in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Use a roasting pan that measures at least 14 by 12 inches. This recipe was developed with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If using Morton kosher salt, use 25 percent less. Do not thaw the cherries before using. If desired, pulse the cherries in a food processor until coarsely chopped. In step 4, the crumpled aluminum foil prevents the rendered fat from smoking. Even when the duck is fully cooked, its juices will have a reddish hue. For carving instructions, see page 31. For ideas on how to use duck fat and extra duck meat, information on how to reheat leftovers, and our recipe for Duck Stock made with the braising liquid, go to CooksIllustrated.com/duck. Our recipe for a single Whole Roast Duck with Cherry Sauce is available for free for four months at CooksIllustrated.com/dec19.
2 (5½-to 6-pound) Pekin ducks, necks and giblets reserved if making stock
¼ cup kosher salt, divided
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon soy sauce
⅓ cup maple syrup
¼ cup red wine vinegar
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon pepper
2 sprigs fresh thyme
18 ounces frozen sweet cherries, quartered
1. FOR THE DUCKS: Working with 1 duck at a time, use your hands to remove large fat deposits from bottom of cavity. Using kitchen shears, trim excess neck skin from top of breast; remove tail and first 2 segments from each wing, leaving only drumette. Arrange duck breast side up. With tip of sharp knife, cut slits spaced ¾ inch apart in crosshatch pattern in skin and fat of breast, being careful not to cut into meat. Flip duck breast side down. Cut parallel slits spaced ¾ inch apart in skin and fat of each thigh (do not crosshatch).
2. Rub 2 teaspoons salt into cavity of 1 duck. Rub 1 teaspoon salt into breast, taking care to rub salt into slits. Rub 1 tablespoon salt into skin of rest of duck. Align skin at bottom of cavity so 1 side overlaps other by at least ½ inch. Use sturdy toothpick to pin skin layers to each other to close cavity. Place duck on rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with second duck. Refrigerate uncovered for 6 to 24 hours.
3. Place ducks breast side up in roasting pan. Add water until at least half of thighs are submerged but most of breasts remain above water, about 14 cups. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain vigorous simmer. Cook until thermometer inserted into thickest part of drumstick, all the way to bone, registers 145 to 160 degrees, 45 minutes to 1 hour 5 minutes. After 20 minutes of cooking, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Stir maple syrup and soy sauce together in bowl.
4. Set V-rack on rimmed baking sheet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Remove roasting pan from heat. Using tongs and spatula, lift ducks from pan one at a time, allow liquid to drain, and transfer to V-rack, breast side up. Brush breasts and tops of drumsticks with approximately one-third of maple syrup mixture. Flip ducks and brush remaining mixture over backs and sides. Transfer braising liquid to pot or large bowl to cool. (Once cool, defat liquid and reserve liquid and/or fat for another use, if desired.) Rinse roasting pan and wipe with wad of paper towels. Crumple 20-inch length of aluminum foil into loose ball. Uncrumple foil and place in roasting pan. Set V-rack on foil. Roast until backs are golden brown and breasts register 140 to 150 degrees, about 20 minutes.
5. Remove roasting pan from oven. Using tongs and spatula, flip ducks breast side up. Continue to roast until breasts register 160 to 165 degrees, 15 to 25 minutes longer. Transfer ducks to carving board and let rest for 20 minutes.
6. FOR THE CHERRY SAUCE: Whisk maple syrup, vinegar, soy sauce, cornstarch, and pepper together in small saucepan. Add thyme sprigs and bring to simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with rubber spatula. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Stir in cherries and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce has consistency of maple syrup, 5 to 8 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving bowl. Carve duck and serve, passing sauce separately.
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.
PHOTOGRAPHY: CARL TREMBLAY; ILLUSTRATION: JOHN BURGOYNE ■