There are generally two groups of people in this country that eat duck, those with plenty of money to buy it in restaurants and those that hunt it themselves. Duck breast and duck confit adorn the tables of the finest restaurants, while roast duck and duck sausage abound in the hunter’s kitchen. But there is no reason that you shouldn’t be cooking high-class duck breast in your own home, whether or not you hunted it yourself.
To make it well, just be sure that you render the thick layer of fat under the skin and you don’t overcook the meat! All you need is some salt, a good pan, and an instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen® Mk4.
USDA Duck Breast Temp: 165°F
Chef Duck Breast Temp: 130°F
Duck doneness temps
According to the USDA, duck, like other poultry, must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) to prevent foodborne illness. Now, as we’ve discussed in our writing about chicken temperatures, that is a piece of advice that will get you some dry, dry, not very tasty bird meat.
As if that weren’t bad enough, take into account the high cost of duck breast and its wonderful steak-like texture and flavor, and that USDA poultry temp recommendation starts sounding more and more constraining for duck. Would you cook a tenderloin filet steak to 165°F (74°C)? I hope not!
Let’s look at restaurants that serve seared duck breast: they almost all serve it medium-rare to medium. What?!? In fact, if you order your duck well done, you’ll get the same scornful look you would get if you ordered a prime cut of steak cooked well done. In truth, duck breast is absolutely delicious served medium-rare. It is tender and rich and juicy and delicious.
But isn’t it…unsafe?
How is medium-rare duck OK to eat?
What we fear most in poultry at lower temperatures is the pathogen Salmonella. As Harold McGee notes about Salmonella:
In the United States it’s especially prevalent…apparently thanks to the practices of industrial-scale poultry farming: recycling animal byproducts (feathers, viscera) as feed for the next generation of animals, and crowding the animals together in very close confinement, both of which favor the spread of the bacteria.Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, pg. 125
In many American chicken farms, such common farming practices are typically paired with water-cooling techniques in the harvesting factories, wherein the birds are soaked together in vats of cold water, swishing and washing the bacteria from one bird onto another and letting it penetrate more deeply into the tissues. Put those together and you’ve got a bacterial nightmare on your hands. That’s why you always need to properly cook your chicken!—if not all the way to 165°F (74°C), at least to its equivalent through time and temperature pasteurization (read more about that here).
BUT! Duck is, in general, another story all together. In the U.S. and Canada, ducks are generally raised more humanely and are processed with significantly more care. If you choose a good domestic supplier (our duck breasts for this cook were provided by D’Artagnan Meats and were very high quality), the risk of bacterial contamination drops exponentially. Duck meat, by virtue of its luxury status and lack of popularity, is intrinsically safer to eat.
And because duck is a migratory bird that evolved to use its breast muscles, they are structurally different than those of the chicken. They are, as mentioned above, steak-like and rich when cooked to medium rare, not squeaky and rubbery like undercooked chicken.
Is it perfectly, 100% safe to eat with absolutely no risk of infection? No. But think of that little warning you see at the bottom of almost any menu were eggs or steak or sushi are served. You know, the one that says “the risk of consuming foods that are not fully cooked…” the one you ignore when you ask for a steak done medium rare or medium or your eggs done over easy? It’s the same story here. A medium-rare duck breast is relatively safe to eat and is a treat that, to me, is worth the very minimal risk.
Rendering the fat: a slow sear
As ducks are waterfowl, they have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat. When you look at a duck breast, you can see the fat under the skin, and though duck fat is delicious for use as a cooking fat, it is squidgy and chewy when it is in tissue form. To combat this, we must score the skin and fat of the duck,(not the meat, though!) and render it out.
Rendering the fat without overcooking the meat is a slow-ish process that takes a little patience. The scored, salted duck breast must be placed skin-side down in a cold pan and heated over low to medium-low heat. It will not take long for the fat to start to render out. As the fat continues to render, you’ll want to keep it at a heat level that will keep it bubbling gently without popping and splattering. Every few minutes, pour the rendered fat into a heat-proof vessel to keep for later. Don’t throw it away! It is an amazing cooking fat and should be cherished.
It should take about 15–20 minutes to render the fat and brown the skin. It so happens that in that amount of time, your duck breast should also get pretty close to 125°F (52°C), which is just where you want it. Increase the heat to medium for a minute longer to finish browning the skin, then flip the breast over and sear the meat-side, watching for an internal temp of 130°F (54°C). Like I said, it’s a bit of a slow process, and one that can’t really be rushed. You need that long, slow render to crisp the skin and extract that golden fat, so reverse searing it or something similar won’t be as effective.
Once cooked, how you sauce it and serve it is your choice, but a classic pan sauce with fresh orange like we use below is a nice accompaniment, as are potatoes that have been blanched in salted water and then crisped in the duck fat. Yum.
Based on a recipe by Sohla El-Waylly at SeriousEats.com
- 2 large duck breasts, boneless
Optional ingredients for a sauce
- 1/2 C white wine
- One orange, zested and juiced
- About 3 Tbsp cold butter
- Score the duck breasts neatly down to the meat, but not through the meat. You want maximum fat scoring without any chance for the meat to drain its juices out.
- Salt the duck heavily on the skin/fat side and lightly on the meat side.
- Place the breasts skin-side down in a heavy pan, such as a cast-iron or heavy stainless steel pan.
- Turn on the heat to low-medium-low. Place another heavy pan on top of the breasts to keep them from curling up out of shape.
- Cook the breasts slowly, maintaining a gentle bubble in the rendered fat—it should be moving and bubbling but should not be popping or splattering.
- Every five or so minutes rotate the breasts in the pan for even browning. If the fat gets deep enough to start encroaching on the bare meat at the edges, pour some of it off into a container and save it for later.
- As the fat more fully renders, start to check the temperature of the breast in the center with your Thermapen Mk4. (Move the weighting-pan first, obviously.)
- When the internal temperature reaches 125°F (52°C), increase the heat under the pan to medium for about a minute to finish browning the skin.
- Flip the breast over and cook for another 1–2 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 130°F (54°C). Remove the breasts from the pan and let rest, skin-side up, on a plate.
- If desired, make a pan sauce in the pan after draining the remaining fat.
- Over medium-high heat, add about a quarter of the orange’s zest and stir it in the pan, then deglaze the pan with the wine.
- Cook the wine and orange zest until the pan is almost dry.
- Add the orange’s juice and heat to a simmer.
- Remove the pan from heat and swirl the cold butter, 1 Tbsp at a time, in the pan to give it depth and texture. Taste and season with salt if necessary.
- Serve the duck with the sauce, sliced for a nice presentation.
If you’ve never tried properly cooked duck breast, I highly recommend it. And if you’ve been put off by the gamey/swampy flavor that often attends wild-harvested waterfowl, I’d recommend getting some farm-raised duck and giving it another try. It is a rich, elegant meat that has truly earned its place at fine restaurants. And who cooks better than a fine restaurant? You do! If you like steak, you will almost certainly like properly cooked duck breast. And with proper thermal management and monitoring, you can easily accomplish the same quality as any chef on this simple, delicious dish.
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