Delectable Wild Duck
With a few tips and recipes, you can tame the aggressive flavor of wild duck and cook up a dish to savor.
by Teresa Marrone
photography by Bill Lindner
The first time I hunted ducks, I had more enthusiasm than common sense. Having come from a family of nonhunters, I was 30 years old the first time I stood on the shores of a marshy lake with a duck-hunting friend, scanning the skies for birds. My friend called a small flock within range, and gave the signal to shoot. Being unversed in the fine art of identifying birds on the wing, I picked a poor first target: a merganser.
After the smoke cleared, we waded out and retrieved our birds. My friend looked at the beautiful creature I held in my hand and shook his head. "You cant eat that," he laughed. "Mergansers are fish-eating ducks, and taste terrible."
Well, I was new to this business of duck hunting, but I decided I could not just throw the bird in the weeds. I had shot it; and, by gum, I was going to eat it too.
The next day I boned the merganser and immersed the meat in a concoction of brandy, herbs, and olive oil. That evening I cooked it in bacon drippings with sliced onions. Though you wouldnt find it in a three-star restaurant, the dish was surprisingly good.
Since then, Ive gotten better at wing identificationand at cooking ducks. What follows are some of my tips for preparing delectable ducks.
Not All Equal. When it comes to cooking, not all ducks are created equal. The birds diet has a big impact on the flavor of the meat. Dabblers (such as mallards, wood ducks, and teal) are considered better table fare than divers, such as bluebills (scaup). However, the canvasback is a diver and one of the best-tasting ducks.
If I were cooking for someone who had never eaten wild duck, my first choice would be mild, sweet teal; my second would be wood duck. Other excellent choices: mallard, canvasback, gadwall, pintail, and redhead.
Age of the duck, especially divers, affects eating quality. Younger birds are more tender and milder tasting than old specimens. Unfortunately, age is impossible to judge on the wing, but once you have the bird in hand, you may be able to judge its relative age. Younger ducks may not have full adult plumage. A young bird may have more pinfeathers later in the season than adults of the species, and its breastbone may be a bit softer at the pointed tip.
While youre inspecting your ducks, note the fat content as well. A layer of fat over the breast keeps the meat moist during roasting. If the duck is well-endowed with fat, the skin over the breast will look thick and have a yellowish cast; if the skin appears dark and thin, the duck is lean. A quick note: The fat of bluebills (scaup) and goldeneyes may be strong-tasting, so these ducks are often skinned. In Minnesota, we have the opportunity to harvest ducks just as they are beginning their long migration, so they will probably have more fat than a duck taken in, say, Arkansas.
Choice Cuts. Duck needs to be properly prepared to be palatable. Choice cuts, such as breast meat, are best when cooked quickly and served medium-rare. A slow braise is better for tenderizing tough portionslegs, thighs, and wings.
This brings up the difficulty in cooking whole ducks. Medium-rare duck breast is an Epicureans delight; medium-rare duck thighs are another matter entirely. This problem has three solutions:
- Cook the duck whole, using relatively low heat and long cooking time.
- Cut and cook breast meat apart from thighs, drumsticks, and wings.
- Cut up parts and braise all.
Unfortunately, many duck hunters have another solution: Pull out the breast meat and discard the rest of the duck. This is wanton waste. As these recipes show, all parts of the duck have a place in the kitchen.
A Universal fix. Slow cooking in liquid (braising) produces moist, tender duck. Use a crockpot or a covered pot on the stovetop or in the oven. Place a duck or two, cut up like chicken, into a pot with orange juice, a bit of chopped onion, and a few herbs. Eight hours later, youll have meltingly tender duck in a delicious sauce.
The citric acid in orange juice mellows the ducks aggressive flavor, and also helps tenderize the meat. Sauerkraut performs similar magic. Cover ducks with drained sauerkraut, add a few slices of onion and a few tablespoons of brown sugar (or half-cup of barbecue sauce), and braise.
Every Last Scrap. When cutting up a whole duck, save the backbone and any parts too bony to cook. Place into a large pot and cover with at least 1 inch of water. Add a few carrots, celery stalks and leaves, quartered onion, bay leaf, and whole black peppercorns. Heat just to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer for about two hours, skimming any foam frequently at first. Strain stock, cool quickly, and skim fat from top. Store in refrigerator for up to three days. For longer storage, freeze in convenient portions. Use for soups or in any recipe calling for chicken broth.
Years ago ducks were almost always soaked in saltwater after cleaning. The salt was intended to "take out the blood" and remove some of the wild taste. Modern cooks have discovered that whole milk actually works better for this purpose, and the lactic acid in milk helps tenderize the meat.
In recent years, however, saltwater has found its way back into the kitchenbut not for the old reasons. Savvy cooks today use a saltwater soak to add moisture and succulence to chicken, turkey, and other lean meats, including duck. This technique is called brining.
Sweet and Smoky Grilled Duck (page 49) calls for brining in apple juice. Consider brining an option for most duck recipes, though I would never brine meat to be cooked in a crockpotespecially if I planned to cook it in sauerkraut!
To brine a duck, in a ceramic bowl, stainless-steel pot, or food-safe plastic container, mix 1/4 cup coarse kosher salt (dont substitute iodized salt) per quart of water. Stir until salt dissolves. Add other seasonings, including brown sugar or maple syrup, as desired. Make sure mixture completely covers the meat. Place a ceramic plate atop the duck to keep it submerged. Refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.
SWEET AND SMOKY GRILLED DUCK
Serves 2 to 4
Prep time: 31/2 hours
Equipment: covered kettle-type grill, metal baking pan, few handfuls of fruitwood chips soaked in water, charcoal (genuine hardwood preferred).
1 or 2 whole ducks, skin on, halved, washed
4 cups apple juice
4 cups cold water
1/2 cup coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco or substitute
1/3 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1. Combine apple juice, water, kosher salt, and Tabasco in large ceramic bowl or stainless-steel pot. Stir until salt dissolves. Add duck halves and weigh down with ceramic plate. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Near the end of brining time, prepare medium-sized fire by arranging charcoal in two banks at sides of grill. Place metal pan between banks and fill with water. Light coals and let them burn until covered with ash.
3. When coals are ready, remove duck from brine and pat dry. Discard brine. Drain wood chips and toss half onto coals. Place grill grate over coals and arrange duck halves, skin side up, on grate over water pan (not coals). Cover grill and cook 30 minutes (20 minutes for small ducks). Then add remainder of wood chips to coals and move the ducks around, keeping skin side up. Cover and cook another 30 minutes (15 for small ducks).
4. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients in small bowl.
5. At the end of the second cooking time, turn ducks skin side down and brush with orange juice mixture. Cover and cook, turning and basting every 5 minutes, for 20 minutes longer.
DUCK BREAST À LA RITZ
Prep time: 30 minutes
2 boneless, skinless duck breast halves, about 3 ounces each
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup crushed buttery crackers such as Ritz
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
Garlic salt, salt blend, or plain salt
1 ounce Gruyère, blue, or aged Swiss cheese, sliced or coarsely crumbled
1. Heat oven to 375° F. With sharp knife tip, lightly score duck with parallel lines 1/4 inch apart, then score in the other direction to create a grid. Place each half between sheets of plastic wrap and pound gently with meat mallet until meat is even in thickness, about 1/4 inch.
2. Coat with flour. Dip into egg, then into crushed crackers.
3. In large oven-safe skillet, melt butter in oil over medium-high heat. When butter stops foaming, quickly add coated meat in single layer. Reduce heat slightly and cook about 1 1/2 minutes. Turn pieces with tongs. Salt lightly and cook about 30 seconds.
4. Top with cheese and bake 5 minutes (4 minutes for small duck pieces). Serve immediately.
Prep time: 30 minutes
15 ounces boneless, skinless duck meat, chilled and cut into 1-inch pieces (12 ounces if using breast meat only)
4 ounces thick bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 small onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
Ground Beef variation:
10 ounces boneless, skinless duck meat, chilled and cut into 1-inch pieces (8 ounces if using breast meat only)
8 ounces ground beef (80 to 85 percent lean works well)
1/4 small onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Fit grinder with fine-cutting plate. Grind duck first, add bacon pieces (if using), then onion (to push through bits of meat).
2. In mixing bowl, combine meat mixture with salt, pepper, and ground beef (if using). Mix gently but thoroughly with your hands. Shape into four patties. Grill, broil, or pan-fry until just done, about 4 minutes per side. Serve on buns with regular hamburger fixings.
Teresa Marrone, Minneapolis, is author of Dressing and Cooking Wild Game and other cookbooks. She is writing a cookbook on wild edibles to be published next spring.