A couple of weeks ago I boarded an insanely early flight and headed to Indiana for a few days, courtesy of Maple Leaf Farms. Many of you know that I was born and raised in Indiana and I still have a lot of family in the area, so while Maple Leaf Farms is really a global company they have always felt “local” to me. Most of their contracted farms are in Indiana, as are their plants (there are two, right across the road from each other) and their headquarters. I was drawn to the experience not only because I am a fan of duck, but because it is a company that has put a lot of effort into keeping agricultural jobs in Indiana. I also really wanted to hang out with Chef Sara Moulton, who did some duck cooking demos for the group of bloggers in attendance, and who happens to be an exceptionally wonderful human being. I learned a lot during the trip, not the least of which was that I am too old to keep up the pace with the younger bloggers, who followed up their full, rich days of tours and dining by heading out to hit the Northern Indiana nightlife (I am talking to you, Jenny and Sara). So, I had a great time, but they made me feel old. It happens to the best of us.
One of the key refrains during the visit was that Americans tend to view duck as difficult to cook and/or something that is only for special occasions. Few people have grown up cooking duck, which makes it seem intimidating or mysterious. In fact, duck is pretty straightforward and versatile, and the key mindset with duck breasts is that you need to think of them more like a steak than a chicken. Duck is a red meat and it can be served rare, just like a steak. Is it dangerous? Not any more dangerous than any other piece of rare meat–in fact, one of the highlights of the trip was a five-course duck dinner prepared by Master Chef Dale Miller. My favorite dish–and that was a high bar, because it was an excellent, inventive meal–was a lightly seared duck carpaccio with horseradish aioli, fried capers, and parmesan. So yes, it was raw duck, and it was amazing.
Why is it is o.k. to eat duck breast rare, when the risks for chicken are well known? It turns out that there are a number of answers to that question, but there are a few that are key. The risk of salmonella is not only variable by species, it is also tied to methods of production and handling. Salmonella is fairly endemic in chickens produced in the U.S., and this is both a species issue and a conditions issue. It is also a question of preference, in that even if it were safe to eat rare chicken, most people would opt out due to the flavor and texture. Duck, on the other hand, works well when treated like other red meat. It should go without saying that if you have a compromised immune system or you are generally risk-averse, you should cook any meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. I hope those caveats don’t apply to you, however, because rare to medium rare is really ideal for duck breast. My personal preferences for both steaks and duck breast is pretty rare, but medium will still give you a tender piece of meat. Duck legs are not best cooked rare, but that is an issue for another post.
Edited note: After a couple of comments asking about cost and availability I realized that I should have included this important info. Duck breast is really affordable from Maple Leaf Farms, and is cheaper than most steaks. If you can only find whole duck in your area you can buy duck online to get just what you need. They also have a variety of already-cooked products, including the duck bacon I mention below.
Raw duck breast can be pan-seared and finished with a simple sauce in about fifteen minutes, depending upon the size and breed. Maple Leaf Farms raises only White Pekins, and they are less fatty than some other breeds and brands. Here’s a simple dinner that I made with some seasonal plums and a slosh of port wine. Salt and pepper, and you are good to go. This is my portion, which is nice and rare.
To prepare duck breast just involves a few simple steps. First, pat it dry to make it easier to hold onto while you score the skin. Scoring the skin will help keep it from doming up as at it cooks, plus it allows more of the fat to escape and results in a crispier end product. Using a sharp knife, cut some shallow cross-hatching into the skin. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. Now place the duck breasts, skin side down, in a cold pan. See how much they resemble steak in color?
Turn the heat on to medium-high. When the skin starts to sizzle, reduce the heat to medium and LEAVE THEM ALONE. Don’t flip them or mess with them–just let the skin render and get crispy. This is going to take 8 to 10 minutes. When the sides of the skin are looking lovely and golden, flip them over. You want some good color and crisp edges.
At this point you have some choices to make based on how thick the duck breasts are and how “done” you prefer your final dish. Testing the level of “done” works the same as it does with steaks–if you apply some pressure to the center of the breast and it feels really soft, it is still basically raw in the middle. The more firm it becomes, the more “done” the final product. If you have never tried the “finger test” to tell when meat is cooked to your preferred degree, there is a good tutorial here. As a general rule, about four minutes on the non-skin side will produce a medium-rare product. When you have them to the degree of done that you prefer, remove the breasts to a plate, skin side up, to let them rest while you make the easy pan sauce. If you want to skip the pan sauce, just let them rest for five minutes before slicing–but pan sauce is so great, really. Last week I did a super-delicious sauce by stirring in some thinned tamarind chutney to the duck pan juices. It was that simple, and so good.
Anyway–while the duck is resting make your sauce. Duck pairs really well with tangy things, including most fruits. Here’s a basic recipe for plums. Note that if you don’t drink alcohol, you can deglaze the pan with water or with some apple juice.
- 2 raw duck breasts, about six ounces each
- salt and pepper, to taste
- ⅓ cup Port or Madeira
- 2-3 firm-ripe red plums, pitted and cut into wedges
- Prepare the duck breasts as instructed in the post. When you have removed the duck breasts to rest after cooking, turn off the heat and spoon off any excess fat, leaving about a tablespoon or two in the pan (reserve the excess duck fat to use with vegetables).
- Turn the heat back on to medium. Carefully pour the Port wine into the pan from the side--it is going to sizzle like crazy. Use a wooden spoon or a spatula to stir the browned bits up from the bottom of the pan as the wine is cooking down. Add in the plums at this point and just let them warm through--this will only take a couple of minutes. Remove from heat.
- Thinly slice the duck breasts and pour any accumulated juices into the pan sauce. Fan out several pieces of duck breast on the serving plate and serve with some of the plums and a drizzle of sauce.
Above is a less-rare serving of the finished dish. And what is that beside it? Why that is a roasted green bean bundle wrapped in duck bacon. That’s right. Duck bacon is a real thing.
I had a great time at the event and appreciated that Maple Leaf Farms was so transparent with their practices–we toured a farm, as well as both plants and the facilities–and it is clear that the company is a good citizen in numerous, deliberate ways. Right now they do not offer an organic product (I will continue to nag them about this, because it is important), but they have antibiotic-free animals that are never fed growth hormones. Duck breast is something that can actually be treated as “fast food” once you get the hang of it, and it has far more flavor than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. If you are still convinced that fat is the enemy, you can cook the breasts exactly as I described but then pull off the skin right before serving. Just be sure to save the duck fat for someone who is not afraid of fat, because it is a fantastic medium for sweet potato hash.
Thanks for reading,