This blog started with the Sweetwater Restaurant at Cobble Beach near Owen Sound. As one of the appetizers they had duck breast on the menu. It was truly amazing. A delicate texture that melts in the mouth, succulently herbed, yet the quintessential taste of duck shines through. I was determined to copy it. Inquiring, I was told it had been slow cooked for 18 hours. That intel was a start…..
My first efforts were disastrous. Either the meat disintegrated to a liver like texture or was tough as nails. Not even close on the flavour.
We returned a couple of months later, and I inquired further. It was a confit. It was cured overnight and then cooked in it’s own fat. The curing was more important than the cooking. With that information I was on my way.
Enter the Owen Sound Market farmers – Doug Lemon and his friendly competitor Anita deJong. They both sell duck, and always with the sweetmeats – usually liver and heart. Enter also my wife who generally does not like duck except for one time when she had Peking Duck years ago. And there’s also the dog, Beja, who patiently lies at my feet anytime meat is being prepared.
The desire to maximize all parts of the bird while indulging my experimentation along with my various family factors has led to this: Five ways with a duck: from whole bird to 5 wonderful products.
Its all a matter of process, as with anything. So I will start at the beginning and work through everything with you.
To also note: this is not a one day affair. This process took place over 10 days, with the occasional 20-30 minutes of hands on work.
Cutting up – or quartering – the bird
Unlike chicken where you can buy either parts or whole, duck is inevitably sold whole. Its not as common and its more expensive.
At 8lbs/3.6kilos, this is a big duck!
Before beginning make sure your knife is wonderfully sharp.
There are a few YouTube videos that show best how to do this. I prefer the Good Housekeeping one though the Le Gourmet video is excellent too, though it leaves you with the bones on the breast, which I don’t want in my case. Its worthwhile checking out Gordon Ramsay’s How to Part a Chicken video as he provides great detailed tips about working around bones and generally being efficient about it all. In my duck process, I’m not too concerned about how the legs and wings are trimmed, though its important the skin remains on the breast.
Begin with the legs, pulling them out and popping the joint, then cut into the joint to separate it. Review the videos. They will explain a lot better than my text.
Once cut, you should now have the following pieces:
- 2 breasts with skin on
- 2 legs/thighs
- 2 wings
- The rest of the carcass
For now, put the carcass in the fridge – making the soup comes after the confit. Unless you are going to be serving the breast within the next couple of days, freeze it as well. We are initially going to be paying attention to the confit and pate options.
Confit is a culinary practice in which the meat is slowly cooked in its it’s own fat. To prepare it, one must first prepare a cure consisting of salt, sugar and spices.
In these duck experiments, I have been most concerned to get the confit right. The most challenging part of this is the cure – a rub that is primarily salt based, but also with herbs, spices and sugar in it.
A note about salt and meat
But first – a word on salt. In my initial attempts at this, I did not weigh out the salt, and my initial attempts at confit were definitely bordering on too much salt. Making confit reliably requires getting the salt amount predictable and correct. Not only does one want the confit to taste great, you also don’t want the fat you use to become forever salty.
Salt does a couple of incredibly important things to meat. The water from the inside of the meat is pulled to the surface, where it reacts with the salt.The salt works its way into the meat cells, and softening them, and making it possible for the meat to reabsorb its liquid. More importantly it loosens up the protein amino acids. These are typically like tight balls, and the reaction with the salt causes them to open up. In this way, salt tenderizes meat and allows it to reabsorb the liquid.
But – How much salt? As you are likely aware, salt has something of a goldilocks point: there is that ‘just right’ amount where it enhances flavour but does not overbear itself. What is that ‘just right’ point? Michael Ruhlman, in Ratio (an amazing book everyone should have) suggests 1:60 ratio (divide meat weight by 60). This yields a 1.66%. Stefan’s Gourmet Blog suggests 1.5% -2% salt per weight for a brine – either dry or wet – and this makes a lot of sense. 1.5%-2% is similar to the salt used for doing dry rub fermented vegetables, leaving them slightly salty, but not too much so. Its also the same salt range for dry fermentation such as sauerkraut. Finally, 2% is the baker’s percentage for salt in bread. (Stefan also did a duck leg confit blog a number of years ago before he sorted out the salt issue)
My subsequent discussion with the sous chef at the restaurant indicated that the cure was really the key, and that they had added sugar to the rub, more or less equal parts sugar and salt. So – that is one piece of the puzzle.
Finally, what else is in the cure? For this I turned to Cooking with the Wolfman where he proposes a poultry spice mix in which salt plays a significant role. It however does not include sugar. But you do not have to do such an extensive cure. At a minimum, you can get away with 2% salt, 2% sugar and less than a fifth of that in pepper. What else goes in the cure is up to you. Pepper and dried garlic immediately come to mind. Rosemary, sage, and thyme likewise would compliment a duck well. I appreciate also that people will prefer using teaspoons. If so, 1 g is about ¼ tsp, 3-4g is 1 tsp.
So what came about in the end?
What I did was to make a little scalable google sheet program for a cure based in part on the Wolfman cure and in part what I had been told. Here is the final recipe.
- Duck parts: wings, thighs, legs. (1070g)
- Lots of fat. If you already have some from bacon drippings or making soup, great. If you have not yet built up a store of fat, ask your butcher. While rendered fat is easier to work with, you can also use unrendered fat. It will render in the cooking process. You will need at least a litre depending on how much duck you have.
The following cure based on David Wolfman’s poultry rub is for 1.07 kilos of duck parts.
3g Pepper (1 tsp)
(Past this point everything else is optional. You can create your own masterpiece rub.)
3g dry rosemary (1 tsp)
4g paprika (1 tsp)
1g chili flakes (1/4 tsp)
3g dehydrated onion (1 tsp)
4g dry garlic (1 tsp)
1g thyme (1/4tsp)
1g cayenne (1/4tsp)
1g cinnamon (1/4tsp)
1g ginger 1 tsp (1/4tsp)
1g celery seed (1/4tsp)
1g nutmeg (1/4tsp)
Thoroughly rub the cure into all parts of the meat and leave in the fridge overnight or for up to a couple of days.
Wings, legs and thighs with the cure on
Prepare a large pot, ideally 12-15L mostly full of water, and heat up.
Pack the joints into wide mouthed 1litre or 500ml mason jars along with the fat. The jars must be big enough to take a limb. It should be filled to the top.
Almost there. Wide mouth jars are critical for this.
Put a lid on each making sure there are no leaks.
Initially the fat won’t penetrate everywhere. Check the jars after a couple of hours – you may need to top up with fat or stock.
Sous vide at 180F/82C for 10 hours or so. If you do not have a sous vide machine, heat the water with the jars in it until nearly boiling, insert a meat thermometer in the water and adjust your burner until it holds at approximately 180F/82C. Although sous vide is typically done with zip lock freezer bags, I prefer mason jars for this as the temperature is relatively hot, and for a long time.
After 10-12 hours, remove the jars and let cool until you can comfortably work with the jars and meat, but not so cool that the fat begins to harden.
The meat will gradually get up to the water temperature, but usually never quite. Its one reason to have them cook overnight.
Gently remove the meat from the jar and slide it off the bone. Serve or store refrigerated until needed.
The final result. I’m still looking for a better way to serve it.
Pour the fat into a jar and freeze, or refrigerate if you will be using it again. Put the bones with the carcass, ready for soup.
I’m wondering if its necessary that all the liquid surrounding the meat be fat. Could, for example, 50% be stock? It will still cook, the taste of the stock will infuse the meat. This could be a good solution if one does not have quite enough fat.
This is not fois grasse – but it’s all yours, and it will be delicious.
For quite a while I’ve tried to do something with the sweetmeats that come with birds. Only recently have I been successful. The key to success was taking an idea from my Haggis experiments: make the ratio of sweetmeats to flesh 1:1. This cuts some of the dryness and texture of the liver. With birds this works really well as it amounts to cutting out the meat around the spine and using that.
Here’s the recipe:
Note: Weigh the meat, onions, garlic and butter. This will enable the correct amount of salt.
- Sweetmeats that come with your bird – usually liver, heart,
- A more or less equal amount of flesh scraped from the carcass
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic
- 75g unsalted butter
- 1 tsp pepper
- Salt – 1.5% the weight of all ingredients – in this case 8g
- 1 tbs sage*
- 2 tsp thyme*
- 1 tsp mustard*
* these can be varied/substituted as you wish
Your mise en scene – more or less
- Sautee onions and garlic in butter
- After onions have softened, add salt, pepper and herbs.
- Cook covered over a low heat for about 30 minutes, letting the onions caramelize a bit
- Add the meat and continue simmering, covered, on a low heat for about an hour.
Cooking covered over a low heat for a long time is good.
- Remove from heat, cool a bit, and puree.
- Once pureed, adjust for taste. It will be a little runny, but will firm up once chilled. Other than making your salt 1.5% of the weight, other quantities are left to your best culinary judgement.
At the point of serving, interesting variations can be tried in addition to the basic pate: adding bbq sauce, ketchup, or even mayo will give you a wonderful one-off dip.
So, from a big duck, 500ml of pate.
Sous vide duck breast is a tried and true technique – see Chef John’s All Recipes YouTube for an excellent instructional video. This was done before sous vide machines became a common tool. Pull out your finest pinot and enjoy!
Duck makes great soup because it has so much fat. I suggest doing the soup once the confit has been done. Use everything leftover, add onion and carrot, any other vegetables too, and some salt and pepper. Fill with water until bones and vegetables are covered.
In retrospect, the temperature should have been higher. The meat did not fall off the bone the way I would have liked.
Bring to a point just below a simmer, about 180-200F, cooking for 6-8 hours. The “just below a simmer” is important. If it were to boil the fat would become emulsified.
Taste and adjust. Once cooled a bit, strain the stock, pour into litre jars all the way to the top, cover and refrigerate.
From our big duck, we get 4.5L of excellent duck soup! You can already see the fat separating to the top.
Once it has thoroughly chilled the fat will rise to the top and solidify. Skim this off the top, put into a jar and refrigerate or freeze until needed (for the next confit?). Whatever you use it for you will have delicious and amazing duck fat. The stock will be fine for a couple of weeks, but if kept longer should be waterbathed in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes. Beware of freezing. If you use glass there is a chance of the jar breaking even if there’s some expansion space.
Dog food is a by product of the soup. The strained out meat and vegetables from the soup are separated: the meat will fall away from the bones. Discard the bones.The remaining meat and duck infused vegetables will assure your position as the boss-god with Fido. Beware though, it won’t have the same nutritional value as raw meat.
Sorting out the soup: (L to R) bones, soup, veggies, meat, cooking pot with some onions. Apparently dogs should not have onions.
To see how this all ties in, see my blog on from scratch dog food.
Patience is finally rewarded.
Well, that’s it!. One duck, 5 delicious products from it. A little goes a very long way!