Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to Cook a Duck Breast

For many home cooks, duck is one of the more intimidating proteins to cook, a meat that most believe is best relegated to restaurant kitchens.  In reality, a duck breast is just as easy to cook as a chicken breast.  But if you follow the instructions I have laid out for cooking duck breast below, you can ensure that you will consistently have perfectly cooked duck, with crispy skin on the outside and medium-rare meat on the inside.

The first order of business when cooking a duck is to trim away any skin that overlapping the meat.  Next, you want to score the skin in a crosshatch pattern as I have done below.  Leave about a 1/4 inch between slices of the knife, and be very careful not to cut into the meat.  The crosshatch pattern will ensure that the skin crisps up as the duck cooks.  Once you have scored the skin, pat the duck dry with paper towels. 

Now, for the seasoning.  If you are going to make a sauce to serve with the duck, the duck needs little more than salt and pepper on both sides.  However, I prefer to serve duck sauceless, letting the rich  flavors of the duck meat stand out on their own.  Using a recipe from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home, I simply marinated my duck breast in a seasoning of orange zest, nutmeg, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper, and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Once you are ready to cook the duck breast, preheat the oven to 400F.  Depending on how many duck breasts you are cooking, use a large skillet or two large skillets that will comfortably hold the duck breasts with plenty of room to move them around as they cook.  Add just enough canola oil to coat each skillet and heat the oil over medium-low heat.  Add the breasts to the pan, skin-side down.  Let them cook until the skin is nicely browned and crispy, about 17 to 20 minutes.  Periodically check on the doneness of the skin and move the duck breasts to different parts of the pan to ensure that they evenly cook.  Also, occasionally pour out the fat that collects in the pan so that there is always no more than 1/4-inch of fat in the skillet.  Duck fat is delicious to cook with, so save it for a later use.

Once the skin is cooked, flip the breasts and sear the meat side for a minute.  Flip the duck breasts once again so that they are skin-side down in the pan. Finally, pop each skillet into the 400F oven and cook the duck breasts until they are medium-rare, about 5 minutes.  Remove the duck breasts from the oven and place them on a plate.  Tent the plate with foil and let the duck breasts rest for 5 to 10 minutes to allow them to reabsorb the meat juices.  Slice each duck breast against the grain into thin slices and serve them immediately. 


  1. i agree - duck is definitely intimidating to make. we attempted to make peking duck in december for christmas dinner, which turned out pretty good. but i want to try making it your way too... which is very 'french'. can't wait to try! (duck is probably one of my favorite type of meats!)

  2. wow this sounds lovely as soon as I get back to France I am going to try this recipe.thank you for sharing

  3. Thanks everyone! Please let me know how it turns out!

  4. Hey, so I tried the recipe from Ad Hoc At Home, and I have to say that, while the brine and low sautéing temperature help keep the duck moist, the skin never really crisps the way you want duck skin to crisp. That is, it never really gets to that "zero-fat remaining, cracklin'"-style skin level.

    The guys from "Big Fat Duck" in the UK noticed the same problem, and they've more or less given up on the prospect of perfectly crisp skin that's cooked with the meat (they cook the skin separately, with a notably strange technique). I'm wondering though, from someone in a not-to-impressive home kitchen to someone similarly situated, any suggestions for improving on the skin-crisping for Keller's recipe? Alton Brown steams his meat before putting it in the pan; some steam and then refrigerate; some pour boiling water over the skin before sauteing. Any intuitions here, or advice from a seasoned veteran?

  5. You're not the first person to tell me that they had trouble getting the duck crispy with this technique. I think the keys are to make sure you score the duck really well (cut into the fat just before you hit the meat) and cook it really slow to render all that fat. That Alton Brown method sounds interesting, and I wish I knew the science behind why he thinks it will work, but I guess one of us will just have to give it a try. I will say that his technique sounds a bit complicated.



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