This is it, the last chapter of the Big Duck Project. After breaking down and stringing up duck crowns to dry-age for two weeks, it's finally time to roast, slice, and serve them for a show-stopping feast. This is the payoff moment that got me excited about this whole series to begin with. For my money, it's hard to beat the rich, complex flavor and tender chew of dry-aged duck breast, cooked to a juicy, rosy medium.
The problem is you generally have to spend a lot of money at a restaurant to enjoy duck prepared that way. Dry-aging takes time and space that most people don't want to give up for a pair of dead birds, and roasting duck crowns to the perfect doneness isn't exactly home-cooking 101. But if you are into the idea of turning out a restaurant-worthy roast duck on your own, and finishing it with a flourish of spoon-coating jus, then you've come to the right place.
Before embarking on this final duck journey, let's set out the goals for this iteration of roast duck breast, that, due to dry-aging and target serving temperature, may be slightly different from other roast duck recipes.
Tender, Juicy, Rosy Meat
While most duck recipes place top importance on crispy skin, for this version, the most important thing to get right is the internal temperature of the breast. The dry-aging process has done its magic, producing tender meat with improved flavor while also drying out the skin of the bird. While well-done duck can be delicious, this is a case where overcooking the meat after putting in all that work and time would be a crime. To fully enjoy the qualities of dry-aged duck, it shouldn't be cooked beyond medium. Our top priority is to not hammer the duck.
Keep in mind also that because I'm roasting the crown alone, and not the legs, I have the benefit of being able to choose a doneness level that is ideal for the breast without having to worry about the legs. A whole roast duck with its legs attached comes with a different set of considerations, given that underdone duck legs are unappealing to eat.
That's not to say that we'll turn our noses up at nicely browned duck skin! Roast duck skin should always have some color to it, and while it can achieve a nice burnished hue on its own, it's also easy to give its Maillard browning a helping hand by glazing the duck's skin before cooking it. As outlined in the dry-aging article, I experimented with painting the surface of two duck crowns with both a Peking duck–style glaze of soy sauce and maltose syrup, and a paint job of puréed shio koji.
In the photo collage above, you can see the before and after for each treatment. The untreated duck crown on the left clearly has the most lightly colored skin, while the sugars in the soy maltose and shio koji glazes produce much deeper browning. While some areas of the skin look quite dark on the glazed duck crowns, only the very bottom areas of each were too dark to serve, and that is an area of the breast that has very little usable meat and gets trimmed away before serving anyway (more on that later). You can also protect those areas with foil when the ducks first go in the oven, and then removing the foil midway through the cooking process.
As far as flavor goes, tasters unanimously picked the koji-glazed duck as their favorite. The marinade adds even more funk and savory depth to the dry-aged duck, while also promoting enzymatic activity that tenderizes the meat further. The untreated bird was the second favorite, with the Peking-glazed crown coming in last (it was still delicious, but we all found the maltose syrup to be overly sweet and distracting from the flavor of the duck).
It's worth noting that none of the three versions boast the crackly crisp skin that is usually associated with seared duck breast. In order to keep the duck meat rosy, the crown isn't roasted long enough to fully render all of the fat and crisp the skin. However, the fat is meltingly tender, thanks to the dry-aging, rather than chewy and flabby as it is on fresh duck. And the skin is a similar tender-crisp to roast pork skin. You won't be disappointed.
Simple Cooking Process
With all the work that has gone into getting to this point, I wanted to keep the roasting process for the duck very simple. No fiddling around with multiple oven temperatures or a broiler. Just get the duck in, then get it out. Let it rest, and it's good to go.
And finally, the carving process should be simple to pull off. There's no worse feeling than nailing the cooking of a piece of meat, only to mangle your masterpiece while slicing it for serving.
The Road to Duckcess
Achieving all these lofty roast duck goals is possible. Here are the keys to taking the metaphorical duck crown and perfectly roasting the physical one.
Roast It Hot and Fast
At its most basic, cooking is the transfer of energy (heat) from a source to your food. With roasting, we can control the rate at which this energy transfer happens by toggling the temperature dials on the oven—the higher the temperature used to cook, the faster energy is transferred. Along with its effect on cooking time, oven temperature also plays a part in determining the outcome of a roast's tenderness, surface browning, and temperature gradient—that is, the difference in temperature as you work from the edges toward the center of a roast.
The bulk of the roasted meat and poultry recipes on Serious Eats employ one of the following two approaches to oven temperature: low and slow with a high-heat finish or hot and fast. In the low-and-slow category, we have the reverse-sear technique, which uses a low oven temperature to minimize the "gray band" temperature gradient, producing evenly cooked steak, prime rib, tenderloin, tri-tip, and pork loin. The meats are then blasted with high heat at the end to give them a burnished brown crust. Tougher cuts of meat, like pork shoulder and leg of lamb, also benefit from gentle roasting at lower temperatures, in order to break down connective tissue, turning tough collagen into melty gelatin.
In the hot-and-fast camp, we have the likes of roast spatchcocked chicken and turkey, that rely on high heat from a cranking oven to deliver crispy skin and dark and white meat that reach their optimal internal temperatures at the same time. So where does that leave us with duck, which is technically poultry, but eats a lot more like red meat or pork than chicken? What is the best roasting route to take?
With its red meat–like texture, duck breast can be easily cooked to a rosy medium, or even medium-rare if you don't mind a bit of chewiness, over low heat in a skillet on the stovetop. But duck is also delicious when roasted in a hot oven to more or less well-done for Peking duck and duck à l'orange. The thick layer of fat sandwiched between skin and muscle insulates and bastes the meat as it cooks, keeping it tender and unctuous even as the bird's internal temperature rises to levels that would turn chicken into sawdust and beef into jerky.
While developing his recipe for duck à l'orange, Daniel tested different roasting methods, pitting hot and fast against low and slow. He found the reverse-sear method wasn't particularly well-suited for duck; the oven's low temperature isn't able to render fat effectively, which in turn insulates the meat, making the cooking process even slower. Also, the Maillard browning reaction, which we want to take effect on the duck's skin, doesn't kick into gear until that skin hits 300°F, which won't happen in a low-temperature oven, and Daniel points out that even a high-heat finish isn't enough to make up for lost time.
So, when it comes to roast duck, high heat is the way to go. However, for this version, I wasn't shooting for the well-done meat that Daniel was after. I wanted pink, juicy duck breast cooked to a nice medium (my preferred level of doneness for duck breast). Daniel's recipe starts the duck in a ripping hot oven to jump-start the fat-rendering and skin-browning processes, and then the heat gets dialed down to finish roasting the bird. For my dry-aged roast duck crown, I also start in a hot oven for the same reasons, but in order to keep the breast meat rosy, I pull the duck out of the oven after just 16 minutes, and let it finish cooking on the kitchen counter, thanks to a phenomenon known as "carryover cooking."
Carryover Cooking and Resting
Going back to the "cooking is the transfer of energy" business from earlier, one of the fundamental principles of this energy exchange is that heat moves from hot areas to cooler ones in order to reach an equilibrium. This process is called conduction. What does conduction mean in terms of roasted meat? Well, seeing as food cooks from the outside in, a roast cooked in a hot oven will be hotter near its exterior than in the center (remember that temperature gradient?). But that hot outer area will share its energy with the cooler center of the meat, even after the roast has been pulled out of the oven. This is the basic principle of carryover cooking.
When you cook a large piece of meat with high heat, it's important to remove it from the oven, grill, or stovetop well before the center hits your target serving temperature. A piece of meat can easily climb an extra 10 to 15°F after it comes out of the oven. The reverse-sear method and sous vide cooking are designed to minimize this effect; their low cooking temperatures promote even cooking from edge to center, with very little temperature gradient. But you don't always need to resort to those methods to achieve a nice rosy piece of meat. If you plan for carryover cooking, you can build it into a recipe.
And that's what I've done for this roast duck crown. After cooking on a wire rack–lined baking sheet in a 425°F oven for 16 minutes, the duck comes out of the oven, and I give it a quick check with an instant-read thermometer. For duck that straddles the line between medium-rare and medium, the breast should register between 120°F and 125°F at its thickest part when it first comes out of the oven.
Now, just let it hang out and finish cooking on its own. Fifteen minutes later, the breast will "rest up" (some restaurant kitchen lingo for you) to between 130°F (medium-rare) and 140°F (upper end of medium). Along with the carryover cooking, this 15-minute rest also gives the meat time to redistribute and hold onto its juices when it comes time to carving and slicing. You can read more about the importance of and science behind resting meat here.
Keys to Carving
If you've ever carved a roast chicken or turkey before, then you've got nothing to worry about, because cutting the meat off a duck crown is the same as carving the breasts of any roast bird. And even if you haven't done much carving in your life, don't sweat it; it's easy.
The most important thing you need to do in terms of carving happens before the duck even goes in the oven—removing the wishbone. As I mentioned in the primer for dry-aging ducks, I like to remove the wishbone after the birds have finished aging in the fridge. The skin and flesh around the neck cavity dry out during the aging process, making it easier to locate and cut out the wishbone cleanly, without taking a chunk of breast meat with it.
Once the crown is roasted and rested, carving the breasts off the cage is pretty simple. Use a sharp knife, preferably a slicer with a long thin blade that allows you to cut with smooth even strokes. Slice into the breast on one side of the breastbone and use steady, smooth knife strokes, riding the contour of the breastbone with the blade and gently pulling the breast back with your off-hand as you cut. The breast will gradually pull away from the cage, and you can cut it away completely at the point where it connects with the shoulder joint. Remove the second breast and then set aside the crown carcass for making another batch of duck stock.
Take a second to trim up the breasts before slicing and serving. The bottom edge of the breast where it protruded from the crown has very little meat along with some tough cartilage and skin. Place the breasts skin-side-down on your board, trim off those pieces, and discard them. On the upper edge of the breast, you will find a large pocket of fat between the meat and skin. I like to trim that away as well.
Now you get to pick your preferred slicing presentation for serving. You can slice the breasts crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces that are ideal for a family-style meal or in half, lengthwise, if you're going for more of a minimalist fine-dining vibe.
Either way, give the duck a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt to season it up and provide some crunch before serving. And then go to town with the rich, glossy jus you made, spooning it all over that perfect dry-aged roast duck breast. Dig in—enjoy the deep flavors you coaxed out of a couple of ducks with a little time and knowhow. And there you have it. The Big Duck Project. That's it. That's the tweet.