I've been kicking around an idea for what I started calling a "Big Duck Project" for a while. It's a series of recipes and cooking techniques that utilize all the parts of a whole duck in the same way cooks would in a restaurant kitchen. Things like dry-aging duck breasts on the bone; making stock with the bones and reducing that for a jus; rendering fat for making confit; curing duck legs to make said confit; and so on. I wanted to come up with a fun and delicious cooking project that would serve as a welcome distraction during the long, cold winter months.
But I knew before I could get to any of those techniques, we needed to tackle the first piece of the Big Duck Project puzzle: breaking down whole ducks into the parts that will be used in the many recipes to come.
Shopping for Duck
Shopping for duck is more of a process than picking up a whole chicken to roast for dinner. Most supermarkets don't carry whole ducks and, in my experience, the duck that you do find at supermarkets (usually in the form of vacuum-sealed, boneless duck breasts) isn't air-chilled, and you end up with a water-logged, flabby-skinned bird.
You can always ask at your supermarket butcher counter if they can special-order a whole duck for you; if you can, you should request an air-chilled one. (Most butcher shops can fulfill this request.) You can also choose to cut out the middle-person and order whole ducks online from specialty poultry purveyors like D'Artagnan or LaBelle Farms.
As discussed in Kenji's primer for making Peking duck at home, the flavor and texture of any given duck's meat depend on how quickly it was raised to slaughter weight and how it was chilled after slaughter.
Most ducks and chickens are rapidly chilled after slaughter by plunging them in an ice-water bath, which adds up to 10 percent of extra water weight. This extra weight means more money for the purveyor, but that extra water dilutes the flavor and makes the skin on these birds much harder to crisp.
Air-chilled birds don't retain extra water weight, and seeing as a big aspect of this duck project is DRY-aging, why would we want to start with a WET bird? If you can get your hands on an air-chilled duck, that's what you should buy. Ducks aren't cheap, but we will be putting every bit of the bird to good use.
The Tools You'll Need to Break Down a Duck
If you read Sho's love letter to Japanese poultry knives and managed to add that to your wishlist in time to score one over the holidays, then that's the only knife you'll need for this butchering project. I'm a honesuki advocate as well; I love how nimble it is, but I also love that it has the heft to work through cartilage and bones.
No need to despair if you don't break down enough birds to make it worth having a designated poultry knife—as with a chicken, you can break down a duck with just a sharp knife (a chef's knife, petty knife, Western-style boning knife, and heck, even a paring knife will all work), and either a set of poultry shears or a meat cleaver (although if you don't own a poultry knife, odds are you also don't have a giant cleaver knocking around in your knife drawer).
Step-by-Step: How to Break Down a Duck For Dry-Aging and Confit
Breaking down a whole duck follows the same basic steps as other poultry butchery. If you've taken down a chicken or turkey before, you'll have no problem with ducks. And if you've never tackled cutting up a bird, rest assured that it's a technique worth learning and it's really quite easy.
The first job I ever had in a restaurant kitchen was as a prep cook in a fine-dining, Italian-inspired restaurant in Boston, where the chef, Jody Adams, was famous for her roast duck. I was as green as cooks come when I entered that kitchen and had to break down two cases of ducks every other day. The fact that a kid with no real kitchen experience was trusted to break down expensive birds for the top-selling dish on the menu should tell you how simple this task really is. And we've got plenty of step-by-step photos and videos to guide you through the process.
Step 1: Remove Neck and Wing Tips
Start by removing the neck, if it's still attached (some purveyors remove the neck and add it to the goodie bag containing the giblets and liver that typically gets stuffed inside the cavity of the bird). This is a good task for busting out a meat cleaver, but a chef's knife or Japanese poultry knife will get the job done just as well.
Don't cut the entire neck off; leave a couple of inches and vertebrae still attached. That bit will come in handy for when you hang the duck crown to dry-age later on.
Trim the wing tips by cutting the joint right at the wing tip. As with chickens, there is little to no useable meat on a duck wing tip, but they are good for stock.
This is usually when you'd remove the wishbone but not this time. In this case, it's easier to remove the wishbone after the duck crown has dry-aged in the fridge—the meat around the wishbone will firm up and dry out slightly during the aging process, making it a lot easier to cut out the wishbone cleanly without removing any breast meat with it.
Step 2: Trim Away Excess Skin and Fat
It's no secret that ducks have a lot more fat on them than chickens; it's part of what makes them so delicious. But you don't want to be chewing on all the fat a duck has to offer, especially when there are so many ways to put its flavor to good use in the kitchen—everyone needs more duck fat-roasted potatoes and sous vide duck confit in their lives.
So before you start carving up the bird into parts, take a minute to trim away excess fat and skin from the neck and cavity areas. All of the meat on the bird should still be covered by skin, so don't get too aggressive in trimming it away, keeping in mind that skin seizes and shrinks up a little when cooked. But you can cut away large pieces of overhanging skin that aren't protecting any meat.
Make sure to set up your prep station, so that you have a sheet tray or containers of some sort by your cutting board for reserving this excess fat and skin as well as bones and scraps for making duck stock.
Step 3: Remove the Legs
Trimming the excess skin and fat from the cavity makes it easier to perform the only real butchering task of this whole project: removing the legs. If you've ever broken down a chicken, the process here is the same.
Working with one leg at a time, grab the duck by the drumstick and pull the leg outward from the body until the skin is stretched taut. Using a sharp knife, cut through the skin between the leg and the body with light and smooth slicing motions; you're just looking to cut through the skin and you don't want to pierce the flesh underneath.
Flip the duck onto its side, so that the leg you’re working on is facing up toward you, with the legs pointing off to your left and the place where the neck used to be pointing to your right. Using only your hands, grab the leg you’re removing with one hand so that four fingers rest on the skin-side of the leg and your thumb can firmly grip the exposed flesh side, sort of the way you’d grab a thick book. Then, while holding the body of the duck against the cutting board with your other hand, rotate the hand holding the duck leg forward, pulling up with your thumb and firmly pushing back with your four fingers to pop the ball joint out of its socket. The motion is similar to one you’d use to turn a sock inside out.
Use your knife to remove the leg by cutting through the joint you just exposed, cutting around the oyster and riding the spine of the bird with your knife to make sure you maximize yield and don't leave any delicious leg meat on the carcass. Flip the bird back over and repeat this process with the second leg.
Step 4: Crack and Remove the Back
With the legs removed, it's now time to cut away most of the backbone, which will be used for stock. Position the duck on your cutting board vertically, with the neck area flush against the board and the cavity facing up.
Hold and pull the backbone down toward the cutting board with your non-dominant hand to crack the duck's back, then use your knife to cut away the spine where it meets the rib cage. This is very easy to do with a honesuki, which is nimble enough to get between the vertebrae and cuts through the backbone and cartilage with ease. If you are using a Western-style chef's knife, this task is a tiny bit trickier, but you can always enlist the help of poultry shears or a meat cleaver if you find it's giving you trouble. Again, don't throw anything away—the back will be used for stock.
Step 5: Trim Away More Fat
Because the duck crown will be kept whole to dry-age, that's it for butchering steps (no splitting of the breasts here), but there's still some final cleanup knife work to be done before we can move onto making stock, rendering fat, curing legs for confit, and hanging the crowns to age.
Take a minute to trim away excess skin and fat from the duck legs and removed backbone. For the legs, there are big pockets of fat under the skin at the top of the thigh and at the bottom where the thigh meets the drumstick.
You can easily pull out these morsels of fat with your hands (as with all butchery, avoid using your knife as much as possible; you'll be amazed by how much you can do with your hands, thanks to anatomy and gravity).
It's often the case that you will have large overhanging pieces of skin at the bottom of the duck leg quarters. These can be trimmed away and saved for rendering. Make sure to leave enough skin to cover the meat, leaving half an inch or so of overhang to compensate for shrinkage during the confit cooking process.
For removing the skin and fat on the backbone, slide your knife under the skin so that the blade is parallel to the bone, and trim away the skin and fat.
And that's that for the duck butchery portion of this Big Duck Project. You should have the following: one duck crown for dry-aging; two leg quarters for duck confit; duck fat and skin for rendering; two wing tips, a neck, and the back for duck stock. Depending on where you purchased a duck from, you may also have a baggie with the giblets, heart, and liver. I would recommend tackling this project with at least two ducks to make the effort worthwhile. Trust me, you won't have trouble finding people willing to come over for a duck feast.