Stuff To Know About Cooking Duck
& A Recipe

Sliced duck brest

Stuff To Know

While most wild ducks enjoy a good reputation, geese are undeservedly maligned as greasy, livery and tough. Yes, they can be all these things, but properly done, a wild goose (or a domestic, for that matter) is essentially a large duck. A normal wild goose, such as a Canada, Snow or Whitefront will feed four – while a small goose (Cackler, Aleutian or Ross’) will serve two heartily. A domestic goose or a Giant Canada (really any Canada larger than 10 pounds) can serve as many as six.

Don’t overcook waterfowl breasts or they will be livery. Rare-to-medium is the mantra. As for the legs, thighs and wings, slow cook them to make them tender. Duck and goose legs are not nearly as tough as pheasant legs because waterfowl don’t do as much walking around. But their wings can be very tough.

If you find yourself with diving ducks, such as; scaup; ringnecks; red-heads; buffleheads; goldeneyes; ruddy ducks; oldsquaw; or eiders; (or brant, for that matter); you may need to brine them to soften any possible fishy taste. One easy way to tell is to cut off the “Pope’s Nose,” or tail of the duck, and render out the fat in a small frying pan. If the fat smells icky, brine the duck with salt, sugar and garlic, plus any aromatic herbs that strike your fancy.

**A note on all recipes: If you use domestic geese or ducks, it is vital that you remove all of the body cavity fat and then prick the skin all around with the point of a filet knife or something else narrow and pointy, after you thaw them out. Domestic geese are flying pigs, raised for their delicious fat as much as their meat.

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Photo by Holly A. Heyser
I get a lot of requests for simple wild game cookery tasks, so I thought I would run through a few of them as my whims and household activities warrant. Lately I’ve been searing off a lot of duck breasts. So I thought I’d kick off this set of posts with step-by-step instructions on how to sear a duck or goose breast properly.

I know, many of you are thinking, “I know how to do this already, Hank.” To you I apologize; what’s more, my method is idiosyncratic and is likely to be different from yours — but it works. For the rest of you, here it goes…

Be sure to have breasts with skin on them. Skinless breasts are not good candidates for searing, as they are boring. Use them for something else.

STEP ONE: Take the meat from the fridge and let it come towards room temperature. If you are using a domestic duck or a very fat wild duck, score the skin (but not the meat) in a cross-hatch pattern, making the cross-hatches about an inch across; this helps the fat render and will give you a crispier skin. Salt it well on both sides, then let it stand for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour.

STEP TWO: Right before you plan on cooking the duck breasts, use the back of a chef’s knife (or other knife) to scrape the skin side of the duck — this removes a lot of excess moisture. Pat the breasts dry.

STEP THREE: If you are cooking a domestic duck or a very fat wild duck, lay the breasts skin side down in a large pan (not non-stick) over medium heat. If you are working with normal wild duck breasts, heat the pan over high heat for 1 minute, then add a tablespoon of duck fat, butter or some other oil. Let this get hot for another minute. Do not let the fat smoke. Only then do you lay the duck breasts in the pan, skin side down. ou will notice the “tails” of skin and fat from the head and the tail side of the fillet contract immediately. What? You cut off those parts? Shame. Don’t do it again…

Start cooking with skin side down

STEP FOUR: Let the pan do its job. Cook at a jocular sizzle — not an inferno, not a gurgle — for… it depends. I like my duck medium-to-medium-rare. To do this with small ducks like teal or buffleheads, you need only about 2 minutes on the skin side, and you might want to keep the heat higher. Medium-sized ducks like wigeon, gadwall or spoonies need 3-5 minutes. Mallards, pintail, canvasbacks and domestic ducks need between 5-8 minutes. If you are cooking a goose breast, you will want the heat on medium-low and you’ll need to cook the skin side a solid 8-10 minutes. The key is to let the breast do most of its cooking on this side — it’s the flattest, and will give you that fabulously crispy skin we all know and love.

Turn the breasts over

STEP FIVE: Turn the breasts over. When? Follow the guidelines above, but also use your ears: You will hear the sizzle change; it will die down, just a bit. That’s when you turn. Now — this is important — lightly salt the now-exposed skin immediately. Doing this seems to absorb any extra oil and definitely gives you an even yummier, crispier skin. Let the ducks cook on the meat side for less time. I recommend:

  • 1-2 minutes for small ducks
  • 3-5 for medium or large ducks (and domestic duck)
  • 4-6 for geese

STEP SIX: “Kiss” the thick side of the fillet by standing two breast halves next to each other. You will notice that duck and goose breasts plump up and contract as they cook. One side of the fillet will be wider than the other, and this side will need some heat.

tip the breasts on their sides and cook for 30 seconds to 2 minutes

You can see the wider side in the picture (above, left). Just tip the breasts on their sides and cook for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, just to get some good color.

STEP SEVEN: Take the duck off the heat and let it rest on a cutting board, skin side up. Tent loosely with foil. Teal need only need a minute or two rest, while big Canada geese might need 10 minutes. Everything else benefits from about a 5 minute rest. A duck breast is just like a steak: If you don’t rest it, the juices will run all over your cutting board — and not down your chin, where they should be.

You can slice the breast from either end, either side up. You can get thinner slices by starting at the meat end, but you lose a little of the crispiness of the skin. If you are serving a whole breast, always serve it skin side up, with its sauce underneath.

That’s it. This may sound like a long process, but it all comes together in a few minutes, once you start cooking. What’s funny is that it took me quite a lot of thinking to write this piece: Much of what I do is instinctive, from cooking hundreds of duck breasts. Breaking it down was harder than I’d thought. But I hope this helps the next time you feel like cooking duck breasts — wild or domestic. And if I am unclear or you have other questions, ask away!


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