How to Buy and Cook Duck

A brief primer on the rich, juicy, underrated bird.

The average American eats more than 65 pounds of chicken per year—more than a pound a week. Chicken certainly dominates, but in the end it's only one kind of poultry. There are many, and I believe that sometimes we should cook other tasty fowl.

Enter: duck, a bird similar yet completely different.

Duck is richer than chicken. It has something similar to the mineral, steaky quality of read meat. It also has a thick, fatty skin that crisps beautifully and renders fat that provides an ingredient you can use to crisp other foods, like potatoes.

Zooming out to the big picture, cooking duck feels special. If you're new to duck, here's how to approach the two easiest and most widely available cuts: whole animal and breast.

How to Buy Duck

Like chicken, duck is sold whole or as wrapped, packaged parts: breast, wings, leg. Whole duck and breast are the most common. You can find them at bigger or better grocery stores. Often, a whole duck will be sold frozen. At four to six pounds, whole ducks take a while to defrost and should be thawed overnight before cooking.

If you want to buy the very best duck, consider poultry farms or farmers markets. These places also provide a venue for you to learn how your bird was raised, and give you an opportunity to ask the farmer or vendor about how they like to prepare duck. There's really no better way to learn a new trick or two.

Duck costs two to three times as much as chicken. That isn't cheap. One way to maximize value is to reuse the rendered fat for other cooking. In any case, duck is definitely more of a special occasion meal.

Homemade Roasted Duck with rosemary and oranges for the Holidays
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How to Cook a Whole Duck

The two easiest ways to cook a whole duck are probably smoking and roasting. This article will focus on roasting.

Within roasting, you have two paths: spatchcocking (removing the backbone and flattening the bird) or roasting whole. Spatchcocking results in faster and and more even cooking.

To begin, lightly score the duck breasts' skin with a sharp knife, forming a checkerboard pattern of long incisions. (This will help the fat render and the skin cook.) Next, coat your spatchcocked duck with salt and pepper. You don't need to add oil or butter before roasting, as some chicken recipes suggest. This is because the duck's skin is fatty enough to crisp nicely all on its own.

Put your duck in a heavy roasting pan, ideally over vegetables like whole potatoes and big chunks of carrot. (The duck's fat will drip and help cook these. Add a half-cup of water to the bottom of your pan, too, to prevent the duck fat drippings from burning.)

Roast the spatchcocked duck at 450 degrees for the first 30 minutes. Next, finish the duck at 350 degrees for another hour, or until the temperature of its deep thigh reaches 165 degrees.

Let rest for 20 minutes, then enjoy!

How to Cook Duck Breast

Duck breast is sneakily quick and easy to cook, offering great reward for little effort. It brings a pretty enormous flavor boost over chicken breast.

Generally, duck breast comes in vacuum-sealed packages of one, two, or many breasts. Each duck breast weighs some 6 or 7 ounces, making one breast a good portion for one hungry person as a main dish.

When cooking duck breast, skin is everything. You want to use a hybrid stovetop-oven method to get the most out of that skin.

Begin by scoring the breast as mentioned in the whole-duck section above. Salt the breast. Add the breast to a cast-iron or sauté pan over medium heat, with the thick skin touching the pan. You don't need butter or cooking oil, as you would when searing steak. Keep the heat no higher than medium, or your duck will dry out.

Next, flip the duck breast skin-side-up. Finish your duck breast(s) in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, or your desired doneness.

Rest the finished duck for 10 minutes uncovered, so that the skin stays crisp. Slice against the grain and enjoy.

How to Save Duck Fat for Frying

The duck fat that renders off from the skin is liquid gold. Collect and store it in small glass jars, to be used for cooking fries, onions, potatoes, eggs, or whatever you think it might enrich. In this way, the goodness of cooking duck can spill over into several meals.

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