Smoked ducks are my favorite way to save our hunting season’s bounty for the warmer months. Holly and I spend most of our days in December and January hunting ducks and geese, and we eat them several times a week over the winter months. In that time I do a lot of preserving: Mostly confit, salami, cured goose “prosciutto.” But I will also smoke ducks and geese and freeze them for the rest of the year.
Those who know their way around a smoker know that fat is a critical element in the process. Fat absorbs the smoke’s flavor better than the meat itself. This is why you see lots of recipes for smoked pork and salmon; both are fatty animals. So are waterfowl. Domestic ducks and geese are essentially avian pigs, and even wild ducks will have enough fat on them to make it worth some smoke time.
I smoked a flock of ducks and geese to get to this post, so here are my thoughts on what to do, and what to avoid.
For starters, if you are using domestic ducks and geese you will want to remove as much of the fat inside the body cavity and around the neck as you can. Save it, though, and render the duck fat for cooking later.
You will want to prick the skin of a domestic duck or goose all over with a needle — be careful not to pierce the meat, though. This helps rendered fat escape. I’ve even done this on fat wild ducks such as pintail and gadwall that had been gorging themselves on rice.
If you have wild waterfowl, follow these guidelines:
- Don’t smoke sea ducks, divers or shovelers you think might be fishy. Smoking will not help you. Skin these birds and do something else with them.
- Avoid smoking snow geese or any other wild bird that is über-lean; you need some fat to make this work. Even a little is OK.
- Only smoke plucked birds. Remember, the smoky flavor lingers in skin and fat far more than meat. If you smoke a skinned duck it will be more like jerky and less like a proper smoked duck.
- Smoking whole birds give you better results than pieces. Smoking a whole goose or duck will keep the meat more tender and juicy.
- Big ducks smoke better than small ducks, although there is no reason you can’t smoke a teal.
To brine or not to brine? I’ve done both. If you want to eat the smoked duck for a Sunday dinner or whatnot, you can skip the brining — unless your duck is pretty lean, in which case the brine can help the meat stay moist. But brining a duck, especially if you use pink salt, will help preserve the bird longer in the fridge and will let you smoke it longer without drying out the meat.
So, if you choose to brine, do this:
- Mix 1/4 cup kosher salt with 4 cups water and submerge your duck in the fridge overnight.
- If you want to cold-smoke (below 90°F) or smoke for a very long time or if you want that pretty pink color, add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of pink salt, sodium nitrite, a/k/a Instacure No. 1.
- When your duck is nicely brined, take it out of the water and pat it dry. Set it in a cool, drafty place for a few hours to dry out a bit. If you want to go the extra mile, put a fan on the ducks. After it is dry, then you can smoke it. if you skip this step and put a wet duck in the smoker, the smoke will not adhere as well to the skin or meat of the bird.
If you are skipping the brine, simply pat the duck or goose dry, let it dry out for a few hours and salt it well before smoking.
As for flavors, I am in love with the combination of smoke, duck, salt and maple. And not just any maple: I prefer the thick, super-premium maple syrup from Blis, which you can buy online. If you don’t want to bother with fancy syrup, boil down regular maple syrup by half; it’s close, but not the same. I need no other flavors in my life, but honey would be good, as would a Cajun rub, something vaguely Indian, chiles, French quatre epices, etc. Use your imagination.
Wood is another choice you will need to make. I am a big fan of fruit or nut woods, like apple, pecan or walnut. Oak is OK, mesquite too weird.
How you place your duck in the smoker doesn’t really matter. I’ve stood them on end like a beer can chicken, with a glass jar jammed up its butt, and it worked well. But I’ve also just set the duck down on the rack, breast side up, and it went fine, too. You will always need a drip pan under the birds, as they will drip fat.
Your final issues are temperature and time.
If you plan on serving the smoked duck for dinner, go with a hotter temperature, between 250 to 275°F. This renders fat pretty well and gets you closer to a crispy skin. As for time, I prefer 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours at this temperature.
To crisp the skin, get your grill or oven ripping hot — 500°F or so — and put the ducks in with a drip pan underneath for a few minutes, until the skin crisps. Check after 5 minutes, and in no circumstances let the ducks or geese sit in this temperature more than 15 minutes.
If you want to have a traditional smoked duck, served cold as a luncheon meat or as an appetizer, keep the temperature closer to 200°F, and not hotter than 225°F. This will still render some fat, but will not crisp the skin — duck skin will lose its crispiness anyway once you put the cooled duck in the fridge. As for time, at least 3 hours and up to 6 hours. If you go to the long end of this scale, you will need the pink salt.
Allow the duck to cool before carving. Sliced thin and on the diagonal, smoked duck is fantastic as part of an appetizer plate or in a sandwich. You can also carve a whole breast, sear the skin side in a frying pan until it crisps again, and serve it with lentils or polenta. Again, use your imagination.
- 1 large duck or small wild goose
- 1/4 cup thick maple syrup
- Salt the duck well inside the cavity, then paint the outside of the bird with the maple syrup. Salt the outside well.
- Set the bird in your smoker with a drip pan underneath. Smoke between 200 and 225 degrees over apple wood for 4 hours. Baste the ducks with the maple syrup every hour. When smoked, allow to cool completely, then carve. Serve cool or at room temperature as a cold cut or appetizer, or carve the breast whole and sear in a pan. Slice and serve with lentils.