I originally wrote this piece in October 2008. I decided to revise it, considering how much I’ve learned since then. ~Hank
Opening Day of duck season has come and gone, and as you can see, Holly and I did well. Very well. This is, officially, a pile of ducks, almost all of which we shot ourselves; our friend Bob gave us four of the 14 you see here. I hunted both days of Opening Weekend. On the opener itself, Holly and I went up to a private ranch near Chico as a guest of Bob and had the time of our lives — the weather was balmy (almost too balmy), the companionship was stellar (check Holly’s blog for her account of our special guest, a vegetarian!), the ducks were flying and our shooting was, well, pretty good.
The place we were hunting was a perfect spot for ducks: Natural marsh and not a ton of hunting pressure. Before shooting time the birds were everywhere. One even landed between Holly and me as we were wading out to our blind. Flocks of wigeon whistled by. Aloof and beautiful pintails glided overhead like austere supermodels. Gadwall wheeled and circled, looking for a meal; they are the homely hobbits of the duck world. Vast flocks of teal swarmed the air like starlings. And the mallards — hens nagging constantly — swooped hither and thither, looking for a nice little patch of open water to set on. It can be more than a little overwhelming.
When shoot time arrived, we could have blazed away at will. But we found ourselves watching more than shooting, partly from our inability to focus on just one set of ducks to shoot, but partly out of sheer awe. It’s like a New York City rush hour of duckdom. Every bird is flying here and there, looking for a place to spend the day. Some decided our set of decoys would be a good spot. Bad for them.
Holly downed the first bird, a young drake wigeon. This is fitting, as her first duck ever was a young drake wigeon. I dropped a gadwall hen, then a wigeon, then another gadwall. I was on fire, killing three birds with six shots. I mentioned as much to Holly, who shot me a look. So much for karma, and I immediately fell into a slump, the worst of which was missing an easy double on a pair of gadwall — I love gadwall, too, because they have an unusual, earthy taste. Gadwall are an eater’s duck, not for beginners.
As dawn turned to morning turned to day, I racked up six ducks: Two wigeon, two gadwall, a pintail and a green teal. Holly came home with “only” four ducks, but three were mallards — and two of those were so big we thought they were farm ducks. Bob gave us two more mallards, a pintail and a teal. Sunday’s hunt was a little disappointing: I killed a teal that decoyed perfectly. And that was it. The birds stopped flying, the breeze died and the weather got hot. No matter. Holly and I have 15 ducks. What to do with them?
First the birds need to be aged, plucked or skinned.
Generally I don’t age waterfowl too long, because our birds tend to be fat, and duck fat goes rancid fairly fast unless you hang the birds in temperatures under 50 degrees. But at those temperatures, aging takes a long time. I wrote extensively on hanging game here if you want more detail. My general practice is to hang 1-2 days, then pluck or skin. I do know some people who keep ducks — in the feathers and ungutted — in the fridge for a week or more with no ill effects though.
When it comes time to decide whether to skin or pluck, it depends on the bird. Sea ducks and divers shot over salt water I almost always skin. I also skin snow geese, and spoonies (a/k/a shovellers) if their skin is orange; orange skin and fat means the birds have been eating crustaceans and will be fishy. The color is the same thing that turns a salmon’s meat orange.
For step-by-step instructions on skinning, Holly and I made a video on how to skin a duck.
We pluck most birds, though. There are lots of ways to pluck birds, but we use paraffin wax and a hot-cold water bath. For why you ought to consider plucking more birds, and not just waterfowl, read here. We also made a video on how to pluck a duck, too, so you can see how we do it.
Our method of plucking takes about 10-20 minutes per bird, depending on how skilled you are or the size of the bird. Diver ducks are harder to pluck than puddle ducks, and snow geese are harder than specklebelly geese or Canadas.
Once plucked or skinned, gutting is easy. I take kitchen shears and clip off the feet, then chop off the head and the second joint on the wing (I toss the wingtips). I save all of them — more on that later. Then I use the shears to chop off the tail, taking care to not damage the gizzard. I save the tail, too.
After that I get some cold water running and then reach into the cavity and grab the gizzard. This usually pulls out the intestines, too. I toss the intestines and keep the gizzard. (Here is a video on how to clean the gizzard).
That leaves the heart and liver. I gently reach inside and with my fingers dislodge any connective tissue holding the liver in place, then pull it and the heart out. I trim the top part of the heart off, right above the ring of white fat. For the livers, you need to remove the bile duct, which looks like a green Nyquil gel cap. I gently pinch this away from the liver under cold water without breaking it — if you break it, the bile fluid is very bitter and can spoil the liver, thus the running water.
After that, a quick rinse and the duck is ready for the fridge. I pat them dry with paper towels and put them in a closed plastic container in the refrigerator for up to a week before freezing. I always will keep them at least overnight to firm up the fat. Once they’ve aged a bit in the fridge — they dry out a little, like dry-aged beef — I vacuum-seal them and freeze.
Oh, and those heads and feet I’m saving? I cut out the tongues, which are used a lot in Chinese cooking. I have some special recipes for them I’ll share soon. The feet go into my duck broth. Feet have collagen, and, once you hack them up with a cleaver or kitchen shears, that collagen is released into the broth, making it thicker and richer without adding fat.
EATING EVERYTHING BUT THE QUACK
Over the years, I have learned to eat pretty much everything but the quack on a duck or a goose. I have grown used to the funny looks I get from hunters who typically just cut out the breast meat on their birds. Hell, I even get funny looks from people who pluck their birds. I can’t help it. I shot these ducks. They’re dead because of me. The least I can do is not waste them.
So what can you do with all these lovely bits of bird?
Hearts can be eaten in several ways, either sliced and stir-fried, or braised for a long time. I am fond of deviled duck hearts. I actually make a raw, duck heart tartare that is one of the dishes I make in cooking competitions a lot — it has never failed to impress. If this is a bit much for you, use the hearts in your broth-making or add them to your ground up duck for meatballs or duck burger.
Gizzards are destined for the stockpot if they are small, such as those from teal or spoonies. If they are large — and especially goose gizzards — I clean them, trim them and make them into confit. I learned this trick from Paula Wolfert in her The Cooking of Southwest France. If you hunt ducks and don’t have this book, you are missing out on a lot. Trust me.
In general, gizzards need to be cooked for a long, long time. Like overnight kind of long. My favorite gizzard dish is where I “corn” the gizzards like corned beef and then cook them gently for a full day in a SousVide Supreme. It is a magical, mystical dish.
You can also fry gizzards, the way they do in Montana, or add them to your duck broth. Once cleaned and ground up, they’re a great addition to sausage. I’ve actually designed a duck giblet sausage specifically for this.
Livers had always been a problem for me. I don’t like the texture of liver, although I like the flavor. There is one exception, however, and that is when we get a “wild foie gras,” a liver that has grown large and fat from the bird gorging itself on rice or whatever. These livers are spectacular seared simply and served with good balsamic vinegar and salt.
Normally I make duck liver ravioli; my recipe is inspired by Mario Batali’s Babbo Cookbook, which has a similar version. Livers are also excellent in pâté. I am experimenting with a couple German liver recipes — liver dumplings (leberknoedel) and a liver sausage like liverwurst. I’ll post on them when I get the recipes just right.
Now we get weirder.
If you happen to have a mallard, pintail or goose, you should try saving the neck skin. What I do is push out the bones and meat (they go into the stockpot), then clean the inside of the skin, pull out the windpipe and voila! You have the greatest sausage casing Nature has ever devised. I came up with this idea all by myself and was so proud of it — until I later read that those damn French have been doing it with geese for centuries. Nothing new under the sun. You’ll find more on making sausages with a bird’s neck here.
I’m not done yet. Not by a long shot.
As it happens, the tails — the Pope’s nose — on ducks and geese are typically very, very fatty. And one of the great joys of eating wild ducks is that they are among the precious few wild animals blessed with copious amounts of delicious fat; the fat under the skin is why you never skin a duck breast unless that fat is fishy-tasting. So what do I do with the various Pope’s noses? I hack them to bits and render the duck fat. I got a cup and a half from the batch of 15 ducks Holly and I shot that opening weekend back in 2008, and that is not uncommon. I once got 1/2 cup of white, sweet-tasting fat from one drake pintail.
Be sure to use the tails from puddler ducks or seed-eating ducks. Don’t use divers, and be careful about spoonies — they can be fishy. My advice is to start with pintails and teal, then move to wigeon and mallards. Gadwall are up to you; if you like gadwall flavor, add them. Here is how I render duck or goose fat.
For those of you who do not hunt, keep in mind all this works with domestic ducks and geese just as well as it does with the birds we bring home from the marsh. And for those of you who do hunt, I hope this gives you a little inspiration to do something a little different with your birds this year. May you shoot well and lose none!