Many of us love the taste of duck but are scared off by its reputation that it's tricky to cook. Plus there's all that fat. Cookbooks can intimidate us with recipes that advise steaming, pre-poaching, piercing, fast cooking at high temperatures, slow cooking at low, and even drying with a hair dryer. No wonder we instead satisfy our duck appetites with an occasional pan seared breast or a confit.
Even cookbook author Paula Wolfert, who is a master of the cuisine of southwestern France where duck is king, writes in her splendid The Cooking of Southwest France: "There is no need to cook a whole duck. Here you'll find a slew of wonderful dishes to make with the cut up duck parts." But please, Paula -- couldn't you give us some encouragement to experience the luxury of cooking a whole bird and carving into its golden crispiness.
After some experimentation with roasting whole ducks, I've come to two conclusions: One, after it's been roasted, a whole duck -- at least the kind found in our markets and butcher shops which are most commonly Long Island or Pekin -- produces only enough meat for about three persons (maybe four if the uncooked duck weighs 5 pounds).
And two, while there may be some benefits to marinating, air drying, pre-steaming and other tricks before roasting, the results are only subtly different and in my view, not usually worth all the trouble.
I recommend that especially if you've never roasted a duck before, that you try this simple method of roasting in a medium oven so as to give the layer of fat time to melt while also producing a crispy skin and tender meat below. And if you're encouraged to keep roasting duck, go on and investigate refinements to your method and judge for yourself if they're worth it.
Tip: This recipe is for domesticated, not wild duck. Wild duck is a true game bird and most game has far less fat and thus needs to be cooked using a different method. Game birds also usually benefit from being roasted with a layer of bacon or other fat placed along the entire surface of the bird. If buying a wild duck, talk with your butcher about how best to cook it.
Tip: Most ducks sold in city markets and butcher shops are Long Island ducks, also called Pekin. These typically weigh 4 to 5 pounds and after cooked, will produce 2 or 3 servings. Less commonly found is the Moulard, a hybrid of a Pekin and a Muscovy duck which is about twice the size of a Long Island duck. All ducks can be cooked in the same way but you'll need to adjust the amount of time in the oven to take the bird's larger size into account. Also note that Muscovy ducks have much thinner skins.
Serves 3 to 4 depending on the size of the duck.
1 whole Long Island or Pekin duck (about 4 to 5 pounds)
1 lemon, cut into quarters
1 orange, cut into quarters or eighths
- Pre-heat the oven to 375º F and place the rack to the center of the oven.
- Remove the duck from the refrigerator and remove any giblets that may be in the duck's cavity.
- Rinse the duck in cool water, patting it completely dry inside and out with paper towels.
- Using the prongs of a fork or the sharp tip of a skewer, pierce the skin of the duck all over the bird, every half inch or so, pushing the prongs through the skin and into the fat below, but not through the underlying meat. This step will help the fat release as it melts and cooks.
- Generously season the duck inside and out with salt and freshly ground pepper and place 2 pieces of lemon and 2 to 4 pieces of orange inside the duck's cavity.
- Tie the duck's legs together with a piece of butcher's twine. This will help keep the citrus inside the cavity and also keep the legs from flapping around while cooking.
- Place the duck breast side up on a rack that has been placed on a roasting pan. It is important to use a roasting pan that has some depth so that as the fat renders from the bird it is safely captured and doesn't spill into the oven.
- Place the bird into the pre-heated oven. The bird will cook for a total time of about 1 hour to an hour and a half depending on its size, but every 20 minutes or so, remove the bird from the oven and drain off the fat that has been rendered into a heat-proof dish or bowl. Each time you return the bird to the oven, rotate it to help the duck cook and crisp evenly.
- At about 50 minutes into the cooking, use an instant thermometer to check the duck's cooking progress. The duck will be done when the skin is golden brown and crispy and when an instant thermometer pieced into a thick part of the bird's thigh registers an internal temperature of 165º F.
- Remove from the oven, pouring out any liquid from the cavity (discard this liquid) and let rest for about 10 minutes.
Carve by slicing a knife under each breast and removing each in a single piece. Continue carving to detach the wings and the leg-thigh pieces.
Tip: The rendered duck fat can be cooled and saved to use in other dishes, such as frying sliced potatoes or making duck confit. Store the duck fat in clean plastic containers and keep it in the refrigerator or freezer.
Serve with little roasted potatoes or noodles, plus braised red cabbage. Red currant jelly or cranberry sauce are nice tangy accents to the duck's rich flavor.