Well, this was supposed to be last weekend’s project, but we didn’t end up finishing it until last Wednesday night! A frozen duck will seriously rival a turkey in how long it takes to defrost. It was fully defrosted by Monday night, but we had our six month doctor’s appointment and the hospital tour of the Labor & Delivery department that afternoon and evening, so it had to wait until Tuesday. And I originally wanted to do a step-by-step photo post but seeing that it was a weeknight and I was exhausted, it just didn’t happen. So you’ll have to settle for the play-by-play this time. 🙂
Working with a whole duck is similar to working with a whole chicken in many ways, but also quite different. They’re anatomically similar in that the legs and wings are arranged the same, but ducks are longer through the torso, have less breast meat and a surprisingly thick layer of fat under the skin. And a sharp knife is paramount. My goal for the duck was to freeze the breasts, render the fat, confit the thighs/legs and make some stock.
Taking Down the Duck
I don’t know how other people take down their ducks and I doubt I did it “by the book”, but I decided to take off the skin and layer of fat off the main body first. I used my knife to score down the length of the breast, then worked one side at a time. I eased the tip of my knife down the incision, underneath the layer of fat until I found the layer of meat. I then began to score away the fat, being careful not to knick and gash the breast meat. After about an inch fat was pulled back, I found I could mostly lose the knife and just pull the fat layer off the breast with my hands. Once the entire breast was exposed, I trimmed off the peeled back layer of skin and fat and stuck it into a saucepan. Then I chopped off the wings and set them aside for stock.
Removing the thighs/legs was fairly straightforward – I scored around the skin and then worked the thigh joint away from the body and cut through the joint. Using my knife, I trimmed off the excess fat and skin so they looked tidy and nice. The trim went into the saucepan for rendering.
The breast meat I wanted to freeze for a later meal, and they came off the duck pretty easily by running the knife along the breast bone. I had a few jagged cuts along the bottom, so I trimmed those off and added them to the pile of parts for stock. I repeated the whole process on the second side, and this is what I came out with – two breasts for the freezer, two thighs/legs ready for confiting, a saucepan full of skin and fat for rendering, and the carcass, wings and meat trim for stock.
Making the Stock
With the breast meat in the freezer, it was time to get a head start on the stock. I usually make stock by eye with a basic understanding of ratios (Michael Ruhlman explains it much better than I can in his book Ratio) rather than measuring, so pardon my lack of precise measurments. I decided to also do a “white” stock, meaning that I didn’t roast and caramelize the bones first.
So, I filled up my big stockpot halfway with water and tossed in the duck’s bones, wings and meat trim. I also added some large-diced celery, carrot and onion. I put it over a high flame to bring it up to a near boil quickly, then turned the heat down so that it was barely at a simmer. We let it go like that for most of Tuesday evening, then took it off the flame and cooled it to room temperature before sticking it in the fridge overnight. I suppose we could’ve let it simmer all night on a super-low flame, but being pregnant I wasn’t comfortable doing that. Go figure.
Wednesday morning before I headed to work, I hauled the stockpot out of the fridge and got it back on the flame. Husband happened to be home that day, so I asked him to keep an eye on it, skimming any rising scum periodically. He said there wasn’t much to bother with. Around noon, I asked him to add a couple of fresh bay leaves from our tree as well as a small handful of whole peppercorns. (You can bet I was checking on my precious stock via phone all day!) He let it go all afternoon, and by the time I got the home the liquid had reduced by about half, it smelled delicious, and was a beautiful chestnut color.
Once it cooled, we removed the solids and strained it. We elected to strain it only once since we’ll use the stock in rustic preparations, and not anything where total clarity is paramount (like consomme). We used a muffin tin to freeze it into portion sizes. My tin is a 12-cup pan, each well holding a half cup. We had enough stock to fill the pan twice, so we ended up with 24 half cup portions. Not too bad. They are all ready to go in a large zip top bag in the freezer (which is filled to bursting at the moment).
Rendering the Fat
Tuesday night we also rendered the fat. It was much easier than I thought, and it was a really cool process. All of the skin and fat from the bird went into a large saucepan with a quarter cup of water. You’d think adding water to fat is counterintuitive, but nearly everyone said to do it, so I figured tons of people wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect on the matter. And they were right, and here’s why – the water will help the skin and fat from scorching and sticking to the bottom of the pan as it heats up and starts to cook. And since you’re using such a small quantity of water it literally all evaporates away by the time all the fat has rendered out. Pretty cool.
It took about 25-30 minutes for all the fat to render. I stirred it occassionally (very carefully – hot fat splashed on you is no fun) just to ensure nothing was sticking to the bottom and burning. You can tell it’s done by the fact that you now have a saucepan full of golden duck fat, and the skin has shriveled up into cracklings and are also golden brown. They look a lot like crispy pork skins.
We let it cool for about an hour so we weren’t working with boiling hot fat, then removed the cracklings with a slotted spoon. We put them on a paper towel to drain, then salted them. We haven’t tried them yet, but they’re in a zip top bag should the mood for fried duck skin strike us (and waste not, want not!). We then strained the fat into a large mason jar. You don’t want to leave any solids in your fat as that can promote spoilage. After all the work you don’t want your fat to go rancid. I was suprised at how much we ended up with – a good two and a half cups! More than enough to confit both thighs/legs. I had enough that I could’ve confited the wings also if I had wanted to. Duck fat can store for several months in a sealed container in the fridge, just like pork fat (yep – you can bet I’ve got a jar of bacon fat in my fridge!)
Making the Confit
And finally, the grand finale of our duck experience. I consulted with Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook on method, and he calls for a 24 hour cure in an herbed salt, but since I didn’t want to do a “flavored” confit for the first time, I rubbed the thighs/legs in salt, stuck them in a zip top bag and put them in the fridge overnight on Tuesday.
I had to enlist husband’s help on Wednesday with the confit since I had to go to the office and the confit required a ten hour oven cooking time. Working with this duck was truly a joint effort. So, on Wednesday morning, he rinsed both thighs/legs of their salt brine and put them into the bottom our our small oval enameled cast iron dutch oven. He remelted the duck fat by immersing the jar in a pot of boiling water for a minute or two – a quickie double boiler. He then poured the fat over the duck and put it in a very low oven (190 degrees) for ten hours. It was done by the time I got home from work, and will keep in the fridge for a good long while (the fat and the refrigeratation will preserve the meat) until we’re ready to eat it. Even though it’s hot, I just may have to make a cassoulet soon to see how we did.
So, all in all an awesome experience. We have lots of duck product in our larder now, which is a bit of a treat for us. And I’ll definitely do it again, though I’d love to get my hands on a fresh duck so I can skip the multi-day defrosting marathon. Or, if I’m stuck using frozen I’ll buy it on a Wednesday next time so it’s ready to go for a Saturday. 🙂