Dear Eric: What’s your favourite way to cook duck breast?
Dear Bill: For many, duck breast is a special-occasion dish. It’s something exotic-sounding that you might order in a fine-dining restaurant.
Because of that status, if you’re a novice cook and you have never prepared it at home, you might wonder if you’re up to the task.
Simmering that doubt even further is that when you research how to cook duck breast, you will discover often-conflicting methods and might wonder if you have chosen the best one.
I confess to feeling that way when I set out to answer Bill’s question. I prefer cooking a whole duck or duck legs at home, and I couldn’t recall the last time I cooked duck breasts, most often sold boneless with skin on.
That said, it didn’t take me long to remember what the goal is. And that is to end up with a duck breast that has crispy skin, with the fat under the skin rendered out, and with flesh that’s juicy, with a touch of pink in the centre.
Most sources said that to achieve that, you should cook duck breast in a skillet with no oil, as the duck will soon be cooking in its own fat when heated.
From that simple advice, some sources, such as the book Cooking at Home With the Culinary Institute of America, said you should start cooking duck skin-side-down, in a very hot skillet. After that hot start, you then turn the heat down to medium-low and cook the duck until the skin is crispy, about 15 minutes, before cooking it on the other side 10 minutes.
Other sources, such as celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, say you should put the duck breast in a cold skillet, and then set it over medium heat. The logic to cooking duck breast that way is that, because it more slowly comes up to cooking temperature, the fat under the skin will more thoroughly render out. Proponents of this method say if you start it in a red-hot skillet, you’ll too quickly sear and seal the duck, locking some of that fat inside.
With the start-it-in-a-cold-pan method, when the skin is crispy, you then turn the duck over and cook it on the other side. Some said to do that on the stovetop for as long as Culinary Institute of America suggested. Others, such as Ramsay, said you should only do that a short while, until just browned, before turning it skin-side-down again. You then finish cooking the duck in the oven, not on the stovetop.
After trying various methods, I concluded starting the duck from cold on the stovetop and finishing it off in the oven worked best, and that’s what I used in today’s recipe.
Before checking it out, I should note that most culinary sources said that to prevent duck breast from become overly dry, you should cook it anywhere from medium rare to medium in doneness, about 135 F or 140 F. Then, let the duck rest after cooking, where it will continue to cook and become pink in the centre. That’s how most restaurants cook it.
However, government health agencies disagree with this. They say there’s a chance duck, similar to other poultry, might harbour harmful bacteria. That’s why Health Canada and the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest that, to kill any potential bacteria, you cook duck pieces, such as breast, well done to 165 F.
I have always eaten duck breast a bit pink in the middle and not had an issue, but doneness level comes down to personal choice. If you’re pregnant, elderly or if you have a compromised immune system, I would cook it more thoroughly.
Duck Breast with Sweet and Sour Cherry Ginger Sauce
Succulent duck breast served with a beguiling sweet-and-sour cherry sauce.
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus soaking time
Cooking time: About 25 minutes
Makes: Two servings
1/4 cup dried cherries (see Note 1)
2 (6 to 7 oz./170 to 200 gram) boneless duck breasts, thoroughly patted dry (see Note 2)
• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup orange juice
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp maple syrup or honey
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp cornstarch
Place the cherries in a small bowl and add one cup of warm water. Let cherries soak until softened, about one hour. While cherries soak, let duck breast warm at room temperature.
When the cherries are done soaking, drain the liquid, cover and set aside until needed below.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Season the duck with salt and pepper, and then set skin-side-down in a cold, ovenproof, non-stick skillet (see Note 3). Set the skillet over medium heat.
When the duck begins to cook and crackle, set a timer for seven minutes. Cook the duck those seven minutes, and then drain excess fat from the skillet (see Note 4). Cook the duck three minutes more.
Turn each breast over and cook on the other side one minute. Set the duck back on the skin side.
Set the skillet in the oven and cook the duck 10 minutes, or until medium, medium-rare doneness, about 135 F to 140 F. Or, if you prefer the duck to be cooked well-done, cook it 15 minutes in the oven, or until about 155 F to 160 F (the duck will continue to cook as it rests and reach well-done status).
While the duck cooks in the oven, combine the juice, vinegar, syrup (or honey), soy sauce, ginger and cornstarch in a small bowl.
When the duck is cooked, transfer it to a plate and cover with foil. Meanwhile, drain away the rest of the duck fat in the skillet and set over medium-high heat. Add the orange-juice mixture and reserved cherries and bring to a simmer. Simmer one minute, until lightly thickened, and then season sauce with salt and pepper. Cover and reserve sauce on low heat.
Slice each duck breast, widthwise and at a slight angle, into 1/2-inch pieces. Fan each duck breast on a dinner plate. Top with the sauce and serve.
Note 1: Dried cherries are sold at bulk food stores and some supermarkets.
Note 2: I used Brome Lake duck breasts in this recipe. This product from Quebec is sold frozen at some supermarkets. I bought it at Thrifty Foods. Thaw before using.
Note 3: If you don’t have an ovenproof skillet, after cooking the duck on the stovetop, transfer it to a small baking pan, before you finish cooking it in the oven.
Note 4: If desired, you can keep the leftover duck fat from the pan for cooking other foods, such as fried or roasted potatoes. Store it in the fridge, until ready to melt and use.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His latest is The Great Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook (Appetite by Random House). His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.