I’ve noticed that some of our eaters have felt intimidated by preparing whole ducks. In this, the first in a series of posts on raising, and eating, muscovy ducks, I offer a few tips on simple preparations for your whole bird.
Howdy y’all. A have a few caveats before we begin… namely that we use woodheat to cook around here, though I have roasted smaller whole birds in our sun oven before. I personally do not “set my oven temp.” For those of y’all who feel a need for numerical accuracy, sorry. I employ a fair bit of intuition and guesstimation in my cooking, not so much with sausage-making and charcuterie.
The “problem” with ducks
Ducks are generally fat creatures. This is a part of their nature, and one of the reasons why we raise them. As I’ve mentioned before, obtaining fat locally is difficult without animal agriculture. Obtaining it sustainably is even harder without the pasture-based management we employ. Duck fat, when well prepared, is a rich, warming, high quality oil. When a duck is not roasted properly, and the fats do not adequately render or become reabsorbed into flesh and vegetables, what we end up with is a dry bird encased in a thick, rubbery skin. Our aim in roasting a duck is to help the fat migrate. The biggest obstacle is the fat itself.
Meat in general, and moreso fat, is a poor conductor of thermal energy. It takes consistent time at temperature to heat up, especially when encased in a thick layer of insulation. Be sure you have enough time to roast your duck before deciding to do so. Your whole bird should be completely thawed if previously frozen on the day of roasting. My oven temp fluctuates a bit, depending on what we feed it. I err on the low and slow side and crisp the skin at the end.
The skin on your muscovy duck is tough when undercooked. There is a balance to hold between keeping the skin crisp and enjoyable and overcooking the whole bird. I’ll describe my technique for this further on.
One other problem some folks have with ducks is the sight of a few stray pinfeathers, particularly on darker ducks. I’ll cover the plucking techniques that have worked best for us in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I will offer two words of advice: fresh thyme. Its a flavor that it well suited to roast muscovy, camouflages the sight of a few dark specks, and if your duck comes out well, you’ll have forgotten all about a couple stubborn feathers. Of course, a person could perform a quick picking if they had the time on their hands, but I’m never one to reject a little extra protein.
So you’re standing in the kitchen with your dead duck. Now what? One option is to brine it overnight. A quick brine can thoroughly thaw a frozen duck in a matter of hours, imbue it with flavor, and help the meat retain moisture. This may serve you well in the quest for crispy skin, but don’t let brining stand in as a substitute for proper roasting. I typically reserve poultry brining for less fatty birds, like our heritage turkeys and roosters. My go to brine is 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water to 3 cups brown sugar and your favorite herbs. (Tarragon, garlic, thyme, bay and black pepper are mine for poultry.) But you try that out some other day. Instead, what I believe works best, and is far simpler, is rubbing salt and seasoning thoroughly inside and outside the duck, and lightly scoring or pricking the skin to allow the fat to render out a bit. A good amount of root vegetables, fruit, and alliums in the bottom of your roasting pan can reabsorb the excess fat and make for a very flavorful side dish. Adding vegetables will of course increase the thermal mass of your roast, and therefore cooking time. But if it’s as cold at your home today as it is here, the extra time spent around a warm oven is a reward in and of itself.
A rack inside your roasting pan can be helpful, but I don’t own one, and that’s what I use pears and potatoes for. Allow me to say that Asian pears and Muscovy duck are a perfect pairing. I don’t typically stuff my duck, and if I do I mostly just use fruit and onion, because they cook quickly.
I roast ducks using a three step procedure: Slow roasting, resting time, and finishing. A nice thing about this is that I can perform the first step early on in my day when I have the couple hours it requires, allow the carcass to rest, and then finish it up before our agreed upon dinner time.
I sometimes use a lid, and sometimes not… it depends. Smaller hen ducks are easier to overcook, so I lid them until the second part of my procedure. With drake ducks that may be 5 or 6 pounds, I start off with the lid off until I’m confident that the contents of the pan are becoming “well-heated”, and use the lid to keep the duck from drying out. It is possible to burn poultry and undercook it at the same time. Please don’t. Look at your duck regularly. You can carefully flip your bird over to even out the cooking if need be. In our wood cook stove, I often do this, but not as much in the earthen oven. If you have an instant-read probe thermometer, use it. I plunge it into the thigh and try to get it to 150 or 155 fahrenheit at resting. Another technique is to poke around the thigh with a knife. Liquid will run out… it should be clear, and not pinkish or red. This first round of roasting should achieve three things: meld flavors and render fat, thoroughly cook the meat, and break down tendons and connective tissues in the bird. A good way to make sure your duck will be tender is to manipulate the leg and thigh… do they move freely, does the flesh tear? Or is it stiff and difficult to move? We’re going for the former
Allow the duck to rest at room temp for at least 30 minutes. Now may be a good time to spoon out extra fat and meat juice for making a gravy. After the duck has cooled, kick up your fire or turn a knob, whichever technology suits you, and quickly flash roast it, until the breast crisps up and turns brown. A light application of soy sauce or tamari is a cheater way of getting the color right. It may take another 20 or 30 minutes to get the skin crispy. Just remain observant. After another, shorter 10 minute resting period, carve it, serve it, eat it all.
If you are still unsatisfied with the skin on your duck, no worries. It ain’t for everyone. With this technique we have extracted the most important part of the skin, the fat, and reutilized it in our gravy and vegetables. What remains, along with your finished bones and carcass bits can be worked into a broth. I personally like to paint my duck bones with tomato paste and roast them before splitting and cooking. The acidic paste can help in extracting nutrients in the bone, and unlike vinegar, is not sour. But make sure to scan the back of your duck for the oysters, a couple of real tasty bits near the thighs. Scoop them out and eat them, they’re right up there with the tongues as the best part of the duck.
I will be putting up a few more recipes this month for duck: breast steaks, carnitas, soup, and a quick confit before moving into some instructions for processing, curing and sausage making. Got any questions about preparing duck? Contact me please! Muscovy ducks have been a staple food source for us on our homestead, and I’ve been working on my techniques from hatch out to hatchet for 8 years. I hope they will serve your own nutrition, if not your homestead, as well as they have ours.