Look away, Daffy: Asian-Inspired Roasted DuckNovember 17, 2006
Duck is… not my favorite. Badly prepared duck is — let’s face it — gross. Well-prepared duck is pretty good (I will down my share of Peking-style duck at fine Chinese establishments), but not something I’d drive out of my way to get.
My husband, on the other hand, is duck happy. He’d probably drive to the ends of the earth if he thought there was a superior roasted duck at his destination. If we’re feeding bread crumbs to innocent Donalds and Daffys on an area pond, I’m exclaiming over their coloring, and he’s picking out the one he’d eat for dinner. He loves ’em.
Hence, when my dear hubby decided to prepare duck at home, I had mixed feelings. As he mentions in his backgrounder, my similarly duck-obsessed father had tried to make roast Peking duck at home with diastrous results. Despite using tools as diverse as a hair dryer and coat hanger and devoting hours to the project, the end result was an incredibly smelly house and a greasy, inedible (in my view) duck. So I greeted my husband’s efforts skeptically, to say the least.
And yet, he found success. I firmly believed that no home cook — no matter their skill level — could produce a duck that I might deign to eat. They’re too fatty, finicky and fishy, I thought. But my husband — to his delight, no doubt — has proved me wrong. His duck was not too fatty. The house didn’t smell. And the bird itself was succulent and flavorful.
He wins. But has he converted me to duck with his culinary coup d’etat? Not quite.
Donald, you’re still safe from me. But watch out for that maniac husband of mine. He’s got that glint in his eye again.
I love duck. I really do. There is perhaps nothing that grabs my empty stomach faster than duck on a menu. I like it European style, served alongside roasted potatoes and mushrooms. I adore it served Peking style, bright red and with yummy pancakes and scallions. I have a weakness for it.
Yet, my wife does not like duck. She was scarred by it. She tells horror stories of a childhood where her father, who I think likes duck as much as I do, would try to cook it at home. There is even a famous picture in her family of her little sister Missy, about 6 at the time, taking a blow dryer to the duck so that it would have that crisp skin that makes Peking duck so famous.
It was because of these horror stories that I have never even considered cooking duck at home. This was further upset by a recent article by a fellow duck lover, Janet Fisher, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The author went around the city and asked various chefs how best to cook duck at home. Many chefs completely discouraged it. She even made a run at it, though I didn’t find her attempt very hopeful. So, being a bit of a contrarian and liking a challenge, I decided to break my long-time concern about duck and try to do better than she did.
So, knowing my wife’s aversion to duck (and later I would find out it was even worse than I thought), I needed to think about the things that made duck hard to do at home. First, there was the smell. Duck has a very fishy aroma when cooked. It does not have the savory aroma that people like about chicken or beef. So, I moved it outside to my grill. I indirectly roasted it on the grill top. (Meaning, I placed it over an unlit burner while having the burners on the other side of the grill cook the bird. The lid is closed so the surrounding heat essentially causes the grill to act as an oven.)
Second, duck is loaded with fat. They are water fowl, so the fat both keeps them buoyant and warm. This contributes to the smell, and also causes problems while cooking. If the fat doesn’t render off, the meat becomes rather unpleasant and the skin never gets crisp. Also, if you cook over a lit surface, such as a grill, you risk the potential for the fat rendering off and causing flame-ups — turning your duck, and its precious and tasty skin, into a charcoal briquette. These problems were solved by scoring the skin, allowing the fat to drip out more easily, and by using the a disposable aluminum roasting pan placed under the grate of the duck to catch the rendered fat.
Finally, duck is asymmetrical. This means that roasting and its positions cause headaches. Hence, you’ll often see recipes for birds of all sizes that call for them to be cut into pieces and the legs and breast meat to be cooked separately. The fear is tough flesh and parts being completed at different times. I tried to limit these effects by butterflying. This is when the backbone is cut out and the legs and breast are both able to be exposed to the heat at the same time. I’ve used this before in chicken under a brick.
It was also out of fear of this toughness (and the chance to introduce more flavors) that I opted to brine and inject the bird. Brining, which uses a salt and liquid mixture, works both to tenderize the meat in the duck and to trap more moisture within the bird. The injections allowed me to insert some flavorful liquid into the deeper parts of the bird that the brine might not reach. These proved to be effective in really giving it a depth of flavor and maintaining tenderness.
In the end, what I developed was my three stage cooking technique. It begins with a brine, followed by an injection, and then a long slow indirect roasting on the grill. I feel the results are a solid first venture into duck. There were no grand disasters. There was a significant time commitment, though most of it didn’t require me to baby-sit the ducky. I’ll play with it more in the future and hopefully perfect it. Until then, I hope you enjoy our adventure into duck!
Disposable aluminum roasting pan
Flavor injector (or similar syringe like device for food)
Stage 1: The Brine!
1 gallon water
2 1/2 cup s soy sauce
1 cup salt
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup five spice powder
1. In a large, clean container (I use a bucket that I specifically set aside for food and cooking. A clean cooler might be ideal if you have limited space for refrigeration), mix the brine ingredients using warm/hot water. Let cool.
2. Time to butcher the duck. Laying it flat on the board, empty out the neck and extra parts from inside its cavity. (I suspect a duck expert would give you a million uses for them; I am not an expert, so I just tossed mine). Using a knife, cut the excess skin from the neck area (just under the breast) and the tail (between the legs and against the board). These are likely very flavor filled regions (because they are skin and fat), but they seemed areas that wouldn’t hold up in the cooking ahead.
3. Score the duck by taking your knife and running it along the skin until you break the skin… but don’t cut the meat. Make about 5 marks on both breasts and a pair of cuts on the legs and thighs.
3. Move the duck into the brining vessel. This part is the tricky part. I have an extra refrigerator in my home. I place the brine in there and don’t worry about it until I’m ready. If you aren’t fortunate to have the extra fridge, this means you should try a cooler to brine in. Place about 4-5 lbs of ice in the brine and let sit. Check the ice often and make sure the brine isn’t warm. Let rest in the mixture ideally overnight, but I suspect 4 hours or less will have some benefit.
Stage 2: Deep Flavor Injection
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 large orange (zest and juice)
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp. fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. fresh ginger
1. Peel both the garlic and ginger.
2. Place all the ingredients in the blender and liquefy. There should not be any large pieces left, since you’re about to try to shoot those contents through a syringe. Pour the mix into your flavor injector.
3. Butterfly the duck by placing it on the board breast side down. Using a pair of kitchen shears or a large knife, snip from the open cavity along the back bone. Cut down one side of the backbone and then up the other. Around the tail it will be a bit harder, so be careful. Flip the bird back over breast side up pull the cavity open. (You should hear some cracking). Using your weight, lean onto the breast lightly to press relatively flat (You should hear a bit more crack). The duck is now butterflied.
4. Using your scoring from earlier as guide points, inject a small amount of the mix into the bird.
Stage Three: Time to Roast
1. Remove the grate from one side of your grill. Place a small aluminum pan under the grate. If you are using coal, this should be away from the heat, since you will be cooking indirectly. This pan will be under the duck the whole time, so make sure it’s large enough and in an area comfortable for you to work in.
2. Heat your grill. For me, with gas, I have all burners on high until I am ready to cook.
3. Finalize the prep for your bird by using a paper towel to pat dry any moisture left over from the brine. Liberally salt the skin. It’s now done. Your bird is ready for roasting.
4. Turn off the heat from under your aluminum roasting pan. Place the duck on the grill above the pan. Close the lid. Walk away.
(NOTE: I would not check it for at least an hour. The FDA recommends that you cook duck to 180F. You can serve duck breast a medium rare, and that’s the preferred restaurant method. Since I had a frozen duck, wasn’t entirely sure of what I was doing, and was trying to cook the entire body at once, I followed the FDA’s guideline hoping I’d get even crispier skin.)
5. Let roast until the internal reading of the breast of the meat is 175F. Remove from the grill. Let rest for 10 min before carving.
6. Carve. Serve as you like duck. I served mine over a bit of rice with a tiny bit of hoisin. Whatever you do, enjoy!