I love duck but it was always something I'd order in a restaurant and rarely make at home. When I did try, I'd roast a whole one, only to have so little meat on the finished bird that it just fed two. Duck breasts seemed to be a better way to go, but the recipes were always all about the sauces instead of how to just cook the breasts.
But I finally figured it out. This method is easy and foolproof. Plus, if you want to add your own sauce, you can still make the duck this way.
Any good butcher sells duck breasts, often packaged individually in plastic vacuum packs. D'Artagnan is an excellent producer and this brand is sold in markets across the city and from their web site. Whatever your source, you're likely to get either a Pekin or Moulard duck breast which usually weighs about 1 pound each (Moulards are a cross between a female Long Island/Pekin duck and a male Muscovy duck). Most vacuum packs won't be labeled as to what kind it is, but you're looking for a whole boneless breast that's about 1 pound, with dark red meat and about 3/4"-1" of white fat. You can also buy Muscovy duck breasts which are larger and about 40% leaner than Pekin or Moulard ducks, but they also cost more and are scarcer to find.
Duck breasts are a great choice for entertaining -- your guests will think it's a treat and you won't be spending hours in the kitchen. I usually cook one breast for two persons. Cooked this way, the duck breasts will have a slightly sweet finish, making it perfect when served with a combination of white and wild rice, plus haricots verts or steamed asparagus. Plain duck breasts also make fantastic salads, luxurious sandwiches, and a satisfying main course with any green vegetable.
This process is long to describe but easy to do so hang in there with me.
2 boneless Pekin or Moulard duck breasts (about 1 pound each)
2 teaspoons Demerara sugar (a granular brown sugar; usually found in a market's baking section)
2 teaspoons sea salt (plus a bit more for overall salting)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup Cassis (a black currant liquor) or ruby port
2 teaspoons white granulated sugar
2 shallots, finely minced (about 3 tablespoons)
- While the duck breasts are still cold from the refrigerator, score them through the skin and fat, but not through the meat. Make the scores on an angle and to indicate serving pieces, about 3/4" apart. Let the duck breasts now sit and come to room temperature so they are not cold when you start to cook them (30-45 minutes). Just before cooking, lightly sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper.
- Heat a large (12" or so) sauté or fry pan on high heat until it's blazing hot. Add no fat to the pan. Do not use a non-stick pan and only use a pan that can go into the oven.
- When the pan is very hot, add the duck breasts, fat side down. Immediately lower the heat to medium low. Just let the pieces cook in the pan -- don't turn or fuss with them. They won't burn, I promise.
- Cook the duck breasts for about 12-15 minutes, until the fat side becomes a rich, golden brown. During this time the layer of fat will melt and get much thinner, melting from about 1" thick to 1/2", and the pan will begin to collect the liquified melted fat.
- Half-way through this process you may need to take the duck out of the pan and pour off the melted fat that has accumulated (I think this is easier and safer than trying to spoon off the hot fat). If you do this, keep the pan's heat at medium-low and return the pieces as they were, still skin-side down, to continue cooking.
- After about 15 minutes total time, remove the duck breasts from the pan and pour off most of the fat that's collected in the pan.
- Keeping the heat at medium-low, return the duck breasts to the pan, but this time put them meat-side down. Again, just leave them and don't fuss.
- Cook for another 10 minutes. The meat will become dark brown and it should be cooked to medium rare. To test for doneness, touch the meat under the skin. If it's still very soft, it's rare and needs a bit more cooking; if it's firmer to the touch, but still with some give, it's medium rare.
- Remove the duck breasts from the pan and hold aside covered in foil. Let rest about 5-10 minutes before slicing on the diagonal and serving.
Tip: You can cook the duck breasts to this point and serve immediately with your favorite sauce, totally skipping the next broiler step which is added only to give a carmelized surface to the duck, not to continue cooking.
Tip: You can cook the duck breasts to this point and hold for an hour or so and finish in the broiler just before serving. This last broiling step will both add a caramelized surface plus bring the breasts back to being warm instead of room temperature.
- Turn on your oven's broiler and place the upper oven rack about 5-6" from the heat source.
- Mix together the salt, Demerara sugar, and cinnamon plus several grinds of black pepper.
- Sprinkle this mixture on top of the fat side of the duck breasts, rubbing with your hands to spread across the entire top.
- Place the sugared duck breasts on a broiling pan or on a rack set in a rimmed sheet pan, and place under the heat for about a minute, until the sugar starts to caramelize. Watch this carefully so that you don't burn the duck.
- Remove from the broiler and let rest for a few minutes, especially if there was no resting period between cooking the duck breasts on the stove top and this final broiling.
- Slice along the scores made in the top of each duck breast.
Tip: If you or your guests don't want to eat the cooked duck fat, just cut it off. The meat by itself is quite lean and will have a rich, wonderful flavor.
- While the duck breasts are resting, using the pan you just sautéed them in, pour off most of any duck fat remaining in the pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons. Return the pan to a medium high heat.
- Add the shallots and cook to soften and slightly brown the pieces, about 1-2 minutes.
- Add the red wine and cassis, or port, to the pan, along with the 2 teaspoons of white granulated sugar.
- Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula to dissolve the sugar and deglaze the pan with the bubbling wine.
- While keeping an eye on the pan and periodically stirring, gently boil the wine/cassis and shallot mixture until it reduces to a sauce-like consistency (look to see when it begins to coat the back of a spoon). This means you'll reduce the liquid by about half, which will take about 3 or 4 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper, as needed.
- Pour the sauce into a serving container and pass at the table on the side.
Tip: If you want to skip the Demerara sugar rub, you can replace it with just a little salt and pepper and still do the quick broiling.
Tip: If you don't have or want to buy cassis, increase the wine by a 1/4 cup and add a heaping tablespoon of red or black current jelly to the red wine to add the same tangy sweetness that the cassis would.
Tip: Duck is considered a red meat and many prefer to eat it rare or medium rare. If you want your duck more well done, cook the duck a bit longer in each step of the stove-top cooking; if it appears to be cooking too fast, just lower the heat so that you can cook it longer without getting the surfaces too dark or leathery.