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 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 on a cutting board or some such 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…
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.
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.
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!