Cooking Duck Breasts at Home Is Easier Than You Think
Just stick to these three steps.
Great hosts have great tricks. In Supper Club, Jonah Reider taps into the joys of do-it-yourself hospitality, sharing his essential tips for becoming a more creative, improvisational, and confident host.
With a gently gamey flavor and gorgeous contrast between juicy lean meat and caramelized crisp skin, duck breasts make an elegant focal point of any home-cooked meal, whether casual or celebratory. Plus, the active cooking time is no more than 30 minutes (though if you want restaurant-quality results, there are a few things to do a day or two before eating.)
First, I slowly salt-cure the meat to make it tender and juicy. Next, I score and gently pre-sear the skin side of each breast, rendering plenty of valuable duck fat and guaranteeing an extra crispy final result. Lastly, right before eating, I use my oven’s fiery broiler to bring the meat to a ruby medium-rare while securing that mouthwatering brittle skin. Voilà.
This process is perfect for everyday hosting because most of it can be done well before mealtime. And, as an added bonus, it consistently makes my apartment smell like a fancy French restaurant.
1. Cure to improve flavor and crispiness
I always start by patting raw duck breasts dry before showering their skin and flesh with kosher salt. This salt cure penetrates the meat, creating a natural brine that boosts flavor, tenderness, and ease of cooking. Often, I like to add ground spices like cumin and coriander to the salt for an aromatic punch. Other times, I brush umami-laden fish sauce over the meat instead of using salt at all.
Whatever you use, let the salted duck breasts sit on a wire cooling rack in the fridge for at least a day—exposure to circulating air inside the fridge encourages the exterior to dry out while the salt seasons and moistens the meat. After a day or two, the duck breasts will have shrunk and tightened, revealing a taut skin that’s easy to crisp and a deeply red flesh.
2. Render fat and pre-cook on the stove
Duck breasts are very lean, with almost all the fat stored in a thick layer of skin. Making this skin incredibly crispy requires slowly rendering out much of the fat. A few hours before eating, I remove the cured duck breasts from my fridge and quickly slice a criss-cross pattern gently into the skin. This scoring technique helps ensure that the fat is evenly rendered. I place each scored breast skin-side down onto a skillet and then turn the burner on.
Pro tip: Rest a heavy pot full of water on top of the meat to ensure that the skin remains evenly pressed against the pan.
It’s very important that the duck and pan are cold when I start cooking—like other poultry, duck dries out easily if even slightly overcooked. After a few minutes over medium-low heat, I expect to hear a gentle, appetizing sizzle and to see duck fat slowly start to fill the pan. Periodically, I might drain off the fat, but whatever you do, never throw this liquid gold away. Duck fat is my secret ingredient for exceptional roasted potatoes, toasted bread, sautéed bitter greens, and even extra-rich roast chicken.
I take the breasts off the pan after about 10 minutes of gentle heat, when they have a golden crisp skin but an essentially raw interior.
3. Finish cooking in the oven
As long as dinner is no more than a few hours away, I’ll let these pre-seared duck breasts sit skin-side up in a small baking tray near my oven. About 20 minutes before mealtime, I’ll turn on my oven’s broiler, pre-heating it to maximum temperature using direct flame from above. When it’s time to eat—and I really mean it: once guests are actually sitting down, finishing snacks, etc. — I slide the tray into the lower racks of my oven.
The broiler’s overhead flame re-crisps the duck skin as the hot oven brings the room-temperature meat up to a juicy medium rare. While this is happening, I can easily also fit some side dishes in the oven for a simple multi-course meal.
Depending on the size of your duck breasts, it will take no more than four to ten minutes for them to come to medium rare temperature. I push a slender metal cake tester through the meat, then press it against my upper lip. When the cake tester feels warm, my duck is perfectly cooked. If it’s cold to the touch, keep cooking. If it’s hot to the touch, the meat has overcooked. Err on the side of undercooking, though—you can always slide the meat back under the broiler to continue cooking to your liking.
Lastly, cut those crisp beauties up into slices and serve them immediately with a sprinkle of flaky finishing salt, a simple pan sauce, or a few bright side dishes. Make more than you need: I love to use leftovers in salads, sandwiches, or a homemade spicy larb. And don’t forget about those exquisite duck fat potatoes!