It's surprisingly easy and affordable to make outstanding duck breast for a weeknight meal.
Seems like most people I know either love duck or hate it. I'm in the former category. If there's duck or lamb on the menu, it's rare that I pass it up. The only thing that typically might stop me is the price. It's crazy what many restaurants charge for duck breasts or rack of lamb. I've taken to cooking these things at home quite frequently, as the savings are big and the quality is comparable.
Here's where I shop and what it costs as of March 2018:
- Duck breasts - $7.99 at Kroger, frequently on sale for $6.99 each. If your Kroger does not have them, ask the butcher if they can special order them.
- Whole duck - watch the frozen poultry section around holidays. This past Christmas, I bought 4 excellent frozen ducks for about $13 each - half of the normal price at butcher shops.
- Rack of lamb - Costco sells New Zealand racks for 10.99 or 11.99 per pound. American lamb is larger and tastier (aka fattier), and can be found in some butcher shops. The Gratiot Central Meat Market in Detroit sells American racks for comparable pricing to Costco. Saad Wholesale meats, also in Detroit, appears to have great lamb pricing, but I haven't been there yet. See my Baby Lamb Chop Yakitori Recipe for some ideas.
- Leg of Lamb - 5.49/lb at Costco for New Zealand lamb. See my suggestions for Smoked (or Grilled) Leg of Lamb.
Back to duck breasts! Even if you find them for a good price, they still probably sound like too much work for a weekday meal. I'm here to tell you that they are not. They defrost quickly, and there's only a little prep before throwing threm on the skillet. Also, I have found I prefer them plain, or with a little store-bought orange sauce. No need to go to a lot of work making a fancy sauce if you are one of those who just loves the taste of duck.
The first time through, it will take longer. Once you get it down, however, they're as easy as cooking chicken. Also, I'll give you a couple of optional shortcuts below:
1) Skip the flour. Adding flour take a couple more minutes of prep. In my opinion, it's worth it. The skin crisps up better, and you get more real duck flavor. However, most duck recipes you will see do not flour the duck.
2) Cook it entirely on your cooktop (do not finish it in the oven). There's not a huge difference here, although I'd give the nod to the oven for cooking it more evenly (more pink, less gray edge). The oven is more work: You have to pre-heat it, should use a temperature probe so you can monitor the duck temperature without opening the oven door, and you need to make sure the skillet you use is safe in a hot oven.
I can't really credit a single chef for this, since I have tried numerous recipes and this combines my favorite things from each. If you want a tutorial on rendering duck fat, however, here's one that I used from Doyouevencookbro.blogspot.com.
TOTAL TIME: 35 min
- Prep: 10 min
- Cook: 15 min
- Rest: 10 min
YIELD: 2 servings
Thaw the duck an hour or more in advance (optional). If you thaw it just before cooking, you may over-thaw it, and are likely to have big temperature differences inside the breasts. That will result in hot and cold spots that can have you confused as to when you should pull it off the skillet. For best results, thaw it "almost" completely an hour or more in advance, then put it in the fridge so it finish thawing and come to an even temperature throughout.
Pre-heat your oven to 400F (optional). You can skip this if you intend to cook the duck entirely on your cook top. Starting on the cook top, then transferring it to the oven, will result in more uniformly cooked meat (less gray band surrounding the pink meat)
Pat breasts dry with paper towels.
Score the fat in a cross-hatch pattern about 3/4 inch apart. Try to break open the fat but not cut into the meat. A sharp knife really helps here.
Rub the breasts with olive oil (only if you plan to use flour). I recommend the flour as it really improves the crispiness and flavor.
Sprinkle each breast with salt and pepper.
Flour each breast. Either dredge it in flour, or sprinkle the flour on. The oil will help the flour to stick.
Place the breasts fat/skin down on a non-heated skillet that is oven-safe (metal handle). I prefer non-stick skillets for easier cleanup, and haven't noticed a difference in performance when it comes to duck. Starting with a non-heated skillet seems to me to do a better job of rendering the fat (making it thinner and crispier).
Turn the cooktop to medium-high heat and monitor it closely. Do not cover the skillet. As it heats up and starts to sizzle, you want it smoking "just a little". The non-stick pan makes it easier for you to lift the duck with tongs and check on the underside periodically. It should become medium brown and crispy. If it starts smoking more and begins to turn dark brown or black, reduce heat. If it is not browning well and the clear fat is not running off, turn the heat up.
The reason to not cover the skillet is that it will dramatically speed up the cooking time, and the duck will be done before the skin can crisp. Just accept that there will be some grease spatter on your cooktop:)
If the fat pools up too much in the skillet while cooking, tilt the pan and scoop some off with a spoon. You might want to save it (if clear and clean) and use for frying potatoes, etc.
Cook the duck skin-side down for about 9 minutes until the bottom is golden brown and the fat layer is thin and crispy like bacon. Use the crispiness of the fat as your guide, not the time or even temperature. As a reference, the internal temperature tends to be 70 to 80 when it's time to flip, but that can vary based on how hot you cooked things.
With tongs, sear each of the 4 edges of the duck for 30 seconds or so until they appear cooked.
Flip the duck skin-up, insert a good quality temperature probe, and transfer the entire skillet to a 400 degree oven.
Continue cooking until 115 degrees internal temperature, about 5 - 6 minutes.
Remove and rest on a covered plate for 7 minutes or so until they reach 130F (or 125 for more rare). Slice them once they reach temperature to stop them from cooking much further. Resting the duck has several benefits: 1) it slowly achieves the correct internal temperature so that you can slice it at the right time, 2) it achieves a more uniform temperature through as hotter areas cook cooler areas, and 3) tasty juices are re-absorbed, improving juiciness and flavor and reducing their tendancy to run all over your plate.
- 2 boneless duck breasts, skin-on
- Salt and pepper
- Flour or Wondra (optional)
- Vegetable or olive oil (optional)