I resisted making duck a l’orange for many years. I blame third-rate restaurants I ate at in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Classic French duck a l’orange is a quasi-modern interpretation of a very old recipe that combines duck and orange, one called duck bigarade I’ve been making for more than a decade.
I say “quasi-modern” because it is my understanding that it was Julia Child who made duck a l’orange famous, with her classic book Mastering the Art of French Cooking that came out in 1961. American restaurants were already in a phase where great cooking meant classical French, and Child’s cookbook accentuated that.
A flock of new interpretations of duck a l’orange ensued.
And, just like the trajectory of General Tso’s Chicken, each interpretation here in the USA became less complex and sweeter. Much sweeter.
So by the time I first ate it, maybe in 1979 or thereabouts, duck a l’orange was sugary, gloppy and generally unpleasant. I grew to hate it. So much so that I abandoned it for the older bigarade recipe.
Then, on a whim, I read Julia’s recipe. It was mildly sweet, but way more complex-tasting than any version I’d ever eaten. So I thought I’d give it a go.
And, as usual, Julia did not disappoint.
This is, for the most part, Julia Child’s recipe for duck a l’orange. I made it with a hugely fat mallard drake Holly brought home on the final day of the season. It was so big, and so fat, I decided it had to be slow roasted. But beyond that, it needed something special.
This is what that duck needed. Julia’s recipe for l’orange is very orange-y, tart, slightly sweet, but with a rich sauce that is a helluva lot more interesting than orange juice and cornstarch.
Eat a taste of the Old School.
You’ll want a nice, fat duck for duck a l’orange. Or several nice, fat ducks if you are using wild ones. One nice farmed duck will do, as will a specklebelly goose.
Keep in mind that since this is a slow-roasted duck, the breast meat will be fully cooked, so the sauce is the star here. Make enough of it to go around.
Classic French Duck a L'Orange
- 2 fat ducks, like mallards or pintail
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 cups duck stock or beef stock
- 4 sweet oranges
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot or corn starch
- 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
- 1/4 teaspoon orange bitters (optional)
- 2 tablespoons room temperature butter
- Use a needle or sharp knife point to pierce the skin of the fat ducks all over, taking care to not pierce the meat itself; go in at an angle. This helps the fat render out of the bird. Salt the ducks well and preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Put the ducks in an ovenproof pan. I rest them on celery leaves to prop them above the level of the pan; this helps them crisp better. If you want, surround the duck with some root vegetables. Roast for 90 minutes.
- Take the pan out and increase the heat to 425°F. When it hits this temperature, put the birds back in the oven and roast until the skin is crispy, about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, boil the vinegar and sugar in a small pot until it turns brown. Pour in the stock little by little, stirring all the while. Set aside.
- Shave the peel off the oranges, grating some fine and keeping the peel of 2 oranges in large pieces. Juice 2 oranges. Cut segments from the other 2 oranges. Here is a tutorial on how to do that.
- When the ducks are ready, remove them from the oven and let them rest on a cutting board.
- Finish the sauce. Bring it to a simmer, then add about 1/2 cup of orange juice and the large bits of peel. Simmer 5 minutes. Whisk together a little of the sauce with the starch, and, when it's mixed well, stir it into the saucepot to thicken. Add the Grand Marnier and enough salt and orange bitters to taste. Swirl in the butter one tablespoon at a time.
- To serve, carve the duck and arrange on plates. Give everyone some orange supremes and pour over the sauce. Garnish with the grated zest, and serve with good bread, mashed potatoes or celery root, or polenta.