Why It Works
- Scoring the skin increases the surface area of the fat, allowing it to render off faster with greater exposure to heat.
- Starting the duck breast in a cold pan, and then cooking the duck breast low and slow, gives the fat more time to render, while the meat becomes tender and juicy.
- Finishing with a quick pan sauce ensures that none of the tasty browned bits bits will be wasted.
Cooking duck breast at home is as easy as one, two, three. First, score the skin so the fat can quickly render away. Second, cook it low and slow for tender meat and crispy skin. Third, use the tasty browned bits that develop during cooking to make a quick pan sauce to top it all off.
Ducks are busy commuter birds who need lots of fat to fuel them through long flights. This thick fat, when rendered down to a slender and succulent layer beneath crisp skin, is a culinary marvel, but you can easily end up with too much of a good thing. Scoring gives the fat more exposure to heat by increasing the surface area and allowing it to render faster.
Because I prefer some fat left under the skin, I make very shallow cuts in a tight crisscross pattern across the surface of the duck. With a sharp knife, this requires virtually no pressure: I just slide the blade along, while barely breaking through the skin. If you prefer to render out more of the fat, simply make deeper cuts. But take care—if you see flesh, you’ve gone too far! Even if you don’t plan to eat the fat at all, don’t be tempted to remove it prior to cooking. That layer of fat protects the meat, allowing you to cook it gently and evenly; because duck is best served medium-rare, that extra protection is one of the core reasons why searing it to the perfect degree of doneness is so easy. Cutting through to the flesh, however, will expose the meat to direct heat, overcooking it before enough fat has rendered out, so maintain a delicate touch while scoring the skin.
After scoring, I season the duck with kosher salt, heavily on the fat side and just lightly on the flesh side. Much of the salt on the fat side melts off during cooking, so you need more than you’d expect to fully season that side. That’s all the prep you need before you start cooking.
Now, calling this a "seared" or "pan-roasted" duck breast feels somewhat misleading, because both those terms imply high heat. Instead, this method cooks cold duck breast in a cold pan over low heat.
Because the duck starts in a cold pan, it’ll be a silent start, but you’ll know you’ve hit the right pan temperature if, after about five minutes, you hear quiet bubbles of fat gently gurgling away. Fifteen minutes later, crank up the heat to medium and flip the duck before continuing to cook it on the flesh side for an additional one to two minutes, or until the internal temperature hits 130°F (54°C). This’ll get you a perfect medium-rare breast. Prefer a different temperature? Our primer on duck breast cookery has more details.
The duck needs to rest for about 10 minutes before you can dig in, which is exactly how much time it takes to scrape up all the delicious brown bits into a quick pan sauce.
I deglaze the pan with a splash of dry white wine and cook it down until it's almost dry. Next, I add collagen- and gelatin-rich homemade chicken stock for body and a sticky mouthfeel. (If all you have is store-bought chicken stock, you can fake it by adding powdered gelatin.) Once the stock has reduced by half and is rich and sticky, I finish the sauce with a pat of butter, orange juice, and orange zest.
By the time the sauce is done, the duck will be fully rested and ready to slice and serve. Just like with steak and chicken, it’s important to slice the duck breast against the grain, which cuts the muscle fibers short, making the duck feel more tender when you chew it. I cut it into thick, quarter-inch slices for a nice, meaty bite.
4 duck breasts, 4 to 5 ounces (112 to 140g) each
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste), divided
1/2 cup dry white wine (4 fluid ounces; 120ml)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 ounces; 60g)
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/4 cup (60ml) freshly squeezed orange juice from 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)
With a sharp knife, gently score duck breast skin in a tight crosshatch pattern, keeping the scores 1/8 inch apart. If you prefer a little fat left on the breasts after cooking, just barely score the skin; to render more fat, score more deeply, taking care not to expose the flesh.
Season duck breasts with salt, heavily on the skin side and lightly on the flesh side.
Place duck breasts, skin side down, in a large, cold sauté pan. Place pan over low to medium-low heat. To keep the edges from curling up, press duck breasts down with the help of a smaller sauté pan. After about 5 minutes, the fat should begin to gently bubble. If the fat is either silent or spitting, adjust heat accordingly. Maintain the gentle bubble of fat, pouring out excess rendered fat throughout the cooking process, until much of the fat has rendered, skin is golden brown, and duck's internal temperature is 125°F (52°C), about 15 minutes.
Increase heat to medium and further brown skin if needed, about 1 minute, before flipping and cooking on the flesh side. For medium-rare meat, cook until breast registers 130°F (54°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 to 2 minutes. Continue cooking until duck registers 140°F (60°C) for medium or 155°F (68°F) for well-done. Remove duck from pan and set aside to rest.
For the Pan Sauce: Over high heat, deglaze sauté pan with white wine. Scrape up any brown bits stuck to pan and let wine reduce until pan is almost dry and only 1 to 2 tablespoons remain, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and let reduce by half, until sauce is sticky and rich, about 2 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and swirl in butter until melted and evenly incorporated. Season sauce with orange zest and juice, salt, and black pepper. Serve with duck breast.
Thermometer, large sauté pan, small sauté pan