I’ve posted a few duck breast photos recently on the blog and even a couple of duck breast recipes (A duck breast salad and how to make duck ham). However, I’ve never taken the time to really focus on how to cook a duck breast really properly as I’ve always been featuring the accompaniments to the duck breast rather than the duck breast itself (Like these braised chickpeas or this ratatouille). Truth is that’s a crying shame as I love duck breast and many people don’t quite know how to cook it properly. Although it’s easy once you know how, cooking duck breast the wrong way can lead to it tasting super fatty, with flabby rubbery skin and a dry mealy ring around either a raw, overly iron tasting or equally dry and mealy centre. Another common error: people know honey and duck breast go super well together (and they do) but burnt acrid honey with undercooked duck breast is a bit much. I hope I can demystify how to turn out perfect a duck breast every time and get us cooking them more.
You see, the UK produces some great produce and for every ripe mango or rambutan I gave up by moving from Australia I gained a product like a British duck. Aylesbury ducks (increasingly rare and often mis-sold) are a fantastic product. The Gressingham ducks (which are almost ubiquitous in supermarkets now) are pretty good too and the wild mallards you can find are exceptional. In Australia you get Muscovy ducks, which is an exceptionally lean and muscly duck. This can make it fairly tough and a bit stringy unless cooked really well. British ducks meanwhile are tender and rich and after the fat has been rendered out (leaving behind flavour and moisture) they’re no less healthy. British people should eat more British ducks.
For a cheat sheet for cooking the perfect duck breast, then the recipe is at the bottom of the post. However, in the rest of the post I’ll talk about a few tips and tricks to get it just right and some of the reasons why they work.
Crisping the skin without overcooking the meat underneath
For me a perfect duck breast has to have crisp skin and not a fatty layer underneath it. AND the meat under the skin should not be overcooked. In fact it needs to be pink throughout and rare to medium rare. This introduces a tension as in order to achieve crispy skin you need to cook skin side down for at least ten minutes or the fat won’t have time to render. This is in direct opposition to our desire not to cook the meat and so we have to be careful about how we do it.
Firstly, don’t add any oil or butter to the pan, and in fact as the fat renders out, we periodically remove it (save it so you can make these potatoes or these duck confit scotch eggs). If we didn’t do this, the fat would eventually creep up the sides of the duck and overcook the meat under the skin (we’d effectively be deep-frying parts of the duck breast). This has the added benefits of removing fat from the dish and utilising the great flavour of roasting in duck fat. We do it over a gentle to medium heat so the fat renders whilst the skin browns and not burns.
In addition, cooking it skin side down follows one of the fundamental rules of cooking meat or fish. Have you ever wondered why the majority of the cooking is skin side down in any recipe yet you don’t have a really overcooked layer under the skin? Well, maybe you haven’t, but regardless the answer is quite simple. Skin is designed to insulate heat. As well as performing many other functions, skin and fat hold heat in and keep heat out. This insulation layer helps animals moderate their core temperature whilst they’re alive and once they’re in the pan it does the same thing. As the fat gradually renders out and the skin slowly browns the meat stays relatively cold until almost all the fat is gone. This insulation fact underlines just why it’s so important to periodically remove the fat. The insulation only works if the heat is only coming from the bottom of the pan through the skin and fat and not if it’s coming through the side of the duck breast from the hot fat.
To get a very crispy skin, it’s important that the skin stays in contact with the pan and doesn’t curl away. In many recipes they say you should score the skin in a diagonal pattern. That does work well but I’ve found it allows the heat to penetrate the skin and the meat ends up overcooked. Therefore I don’t score the skin. Instead I press firmly on the top of the meat with my fingers for the first 30 -60 seconds of the cooking to ensure it stays flat.
Ensuring the meat is tender and cooked evenly throughout
Duck breast is remarkably unpleasant when overcooked. It’s stringy, dry and a little bit livery. To avoid this you need to ensure you don’t heat the meat to beyond 55-60 degrees Celsius. 55 is rare and 60 is medium rare. My personal favourite temperature is 56 degrees but it depends a bit on preference. If you’re using an internal temperature probe, this means taking it to about 52-53 and then leaving it to rest for at least 5 minutes during which time the temperature of the centre will continue to rise.
However, most of us don’t have internal temperature probes or don’t want to use one so it comes down to timing. Unfortunately, as duck breasts vary wildly in size and the starting temperature of your duck breast will also vary (fridge cold v.s. room temperature) it’s difficult to give exact timings and experience will play a part. I could give you a load of waffle about how medium rare is like pressing on your palm with your thumb against your middle finger but unfortunately everyone’s hand is different! What I can tell you are some principles you should follow.
First things first, before you even start cooking, you need to make sure it’s properly trimmed. A good butcher will do this for you but supermarket duck breasts still have a silvery skin on the meat side of the breast. This skin toughens as heat is applied and tightens. As it tightens, it curls up the duck breast and can squeeze moisture out. Running the knife under this silver skin and cutting it away makes a large difference.
Secondly, just like a steak, drying and seasoning the meat is important. You need to first dry the surface of the meat with kitchen towel. Try side by side tests to see how important this is for browning any meat. It takes a lot of energy to boil liquid and all that surface moisture needs to be evaporated before the surface can get above 100 degrees celsius (browning happens around 140). This means that whilst the outside is hovering around 100 it’s dramatically overcooking the exterior parts of the meat (remember we want a final temperature of about 56!). As for seasoning – it should be liberal (most people under season meat) and just like the guys over at SeriousEats say it should either be done immediately before cooking or at least 40 minutes before cooking – the middle ground is the worst option. So for me, I always season seconds before I start cooking (but if you’re super organised you can salt two days in advance like they recommend.
Thirdly we have temperature control. Once you’ve rendered all the fat at a lower temperature, you want a higher temperature to finish the cooking. This is because, like with a steak, you’re looking for a crust on the outside without cooking the inside too much. The high heat will dry out the outside giving you the browned crust without having enough time for that heat to permeate all the way through and overcooking the meat inside. I’m lucky enough to have an induction hob (stovetop) which will bring the pan up to temperature very quickly. Gas hobs are also good but if (like me until recently) you have an electric hob then I recommend having two rings going – one super hot and one cooler. Once you’re done rendering the fat you simply transfer the pan to the hotter ring and turn the first one off.
Fourthly we have timing. Timing is very dependant on the temperature of your pan and the individual duck breast but I can give you some indicative timings. On a medium heat it takes about ten minutes to render all the fat from a duck breast. What you should be looking for is almost all the fat to be removed from under the skin and for it to have turned golden brown and crisp all over. Then you ramp up the heat and continue to cook flipping quite frequently until it’s cooked through (about another five minutes).
Finally, the duck breast needs to rest. It’s honestly as important as the cooking itself as the resting process allows the centre to continue to cook and helps achieve that even gradient of doneness throughout. It also allows the muscle fibres to relax so when you cut through them the juices don’t leak out everywhere. It should be rested for about 5 minutes. Don’t be tempted to rest the on top of each other, the extra weight will squeeze the juices out. Also rest the duck breast skin side up so the skin does not go flabby and you keep the crispiness you worked so hard to achieve.
Flavouring the duck breast
This one is quite simple. Most ground spices can be applied before the cooking starts – in particular things like five spice work well. You have to be careful not to burn them but most are robust enough to survive.However, whole spices like fennel seeds will burn if applied at the beginning. For more delicate flavourings like herbs you can infuse the flavour through either dry or wet brining (I find dry works best) but chopped herbs on the outside of the duck breast have a tendency to burn and go acrid. Finally you have marinades and glazes. Marinades can be applied beforehand but will rarely penetrate deep into the meat and interfere with the important drying step before cooking. As such I only use marinades when I’m serving the duck breast as part of a salad or with noodles and not as a whole pan roasteed duck breast. Glazes are thick sauces which can be brushed on. Many recipes call for honey to be added at the beginning of the cooking or to be drizzled into the pan towards the end. Both of these are likely to end up with burnt, acrid black honey coating the duck breast. It’s far better to brush on a thick glaze like honey after the duck breast has finished cooking and is resting. You can even then use the stickiness of the honey to attach spices such as fennel seeds after the cooking – in fact fennel and honey work brilliantly and I’ve included them in the recipe below. Other glazes that work well include a sticky golden syrup, soy sauce, chilli and rice wine glaze or a thick port or Banyuls reduction. I’ve even had some success with a marmite or vegemite based glaze but I want to tinker with it a bit more before sharing on the blog!
Cooking a duck breast with honey and fennel
- 1 duck breast
- Fennel seeds
- Lightly toast the fennel seeds in a dry pan over a medium heat until lightly golden.
- Trim the duck breast of any silver skin following the instructions above. Season well with salt but not pepper.
- Place the duck breast in a cold pan and place over a low-medium heat for ten minutes until the fat is rendered completely and the skin is crispy and golden. Make sure to periodically remove the duck fat which will collect in the pan. The duck breast should be cooking fairly gently and you shouldn’t hear an aggressive sound.
- Turn the heat to high (see some of the tips above) and flip the duck breast. Flip periodically and cook for five minutes – the duck breast should spend the majority of those five minutes skin side up but flip whenever the heat is getting too aggressive for the flesh side.
- Remove to rest for five minutes placing it skin side up. Meanwhile gently heat the honey until warm to the touch.
- Brush the skin with honey and sprinkle on the fennel seeds. Cut lengthwise down the centre of the duck breast and season the exposed cut sides. Serve immediately.