Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Duck

I did not grow up eating duck. It wasn't until my husband introduced me to one of his favorite dishes, "Aromatic Duck," at The Good Earth restaurant in his old neighborhood in London that I fell in love. And I fell hard. Duck, for me at the time, was still a little exotic and seemed a bit of a risky order but the beautiful setting, the theatrical table-side service and my husband's sense of nostalgia for the meal carried me forward. The skilled waiter did his work, a genuine Edward Scissorhands of efficiency at disassembling our bird into piles of minced meat steaming with five-spice powder and a neat little pile of crisp skin trimmed into matchsticks. With a flick of a scallion brush he slicked a steaming pancake with hoisin, piled in the duck, accessorized the lot with cucumber slivers and presented to me what was, on first bite, my gateway into true duck obsession.

A Brief History

Most ducks are descendent from a single species of wild Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos.They were first domesticated by the Chinese 4000 years ago and remain a pillar of Asian cuisine to this day. The Muscovy duck is the only duck that does not share lineage with the Mallard. It is a wild roosting duck that originated in South and Central America.

Ducks were not domesticated outside of China until the Middle Ages when a shortage of wild birds, brought on by over-hunting, most likely precipitated captive breeding. Through generations of selective breeding farmers have increased the size of the domestic bird, extinguished its ability to fly and perpetuated specimens that range widely in size and color.

Factual Nibbles

  • Asia produces 75% of the world's duck supply.
  • Long Island, NY used to be the epicenter of duck farms in the United States. By the early 1960s, Long Island farms were producing some 7.5 million ducks a year. One remaining farm, Crescent Duck, produces one million ducks per year.
  • Wild ducks were captured and fattened by ancient Egyptians who used them for sacrifice and possibly food.

Cultivation

There are dozens of varieties of domestic ducks being raised on small farms and in many backyards for their eggs and meat. The Livestock Conservancy website lists over a dozen heritage breeds that represent genetically distinct birds that they are working to protect.

In the market you are likely to find these varieties:

  • Pekin duck, aka "Long Island Duck," is the most common, mildly flavored bird. The breast is tender when sauteed and the legs are terrific braised.
  • Muscovy ducks are leaner and great for roasting and stewing.
  • Moulard is a cross between Pekin and Muscovy and is the bird typically raised for foie gras. Its breasts are extra fatty and are sold as magret. They are best seared and served rare like steaks.
  • Wild ducks are often hunted for sport and dinner. The many varieties found in North America are divided into two groups, "dabbling" or "pond" ducks that paddle in shallow waters and "diving" ducks that hunt underwater prey by plunging into the water to catch it. Meat from wild ducks is extremely lean and directly reflects the diet of the bird. Some eaters prefer to marinate or soak the meat from wild ducks in milk to temper the strong taste.

What About Foie Gras?

A small percentage of ducks are raised for foie gras. French for "fatty liver," foie gras is a culinary delicacy for many and, for others, represents a symbol of over-indulgence and animal cruelty. As is true of any operation that raises animals, the distinction is informed by the practices in place, but there is some debate as to whether sustainably (and ethically) raised foie gras is even possible.  

Palmipeds, web-footed birds such as ducks and geese, have the ability to store fat in their livers and under their skin. This allows the birds to feast when they can and survive long travel and extended periods of famine, all the while "feeding" off of their stored fat. Ducks will gorge themselves before migration, for example, in preparation for their journey.

Farmers who want to cultivate foie gras utilize the bird's natural ability and instinct to overeat to increase the fattiness of the liver. Techniques for over-feeding the birds, also known as "embucquage," range as widely as any other farming practice the duck might encounter. In the worst-case scenario, the birds are fed rapidly and roughly using a tube (a technique called "gavage") and caged to maintain every calorie they receive. Some farms allow the birds to forage naturally (uncaged) but still employ the gavage method. On the other side of the spectrum, some farmers allow the birds to forage naturally, and gorge themselves during the time period before they would naturally migrate.  Still others feed the birds individually and gently by hand, but more generously, while also allowing them to enjoy their usual behaviors and environment. A friend who visited a duck farm in France reports that the farmer simply rang the dinner bell twice a day, rather than once, and the flock came running for their extra helpings.

If you enjoy foie gras, look for products from operations that employ humane practices, although be forewarned that they may be very expensive and difficult to come by.  (And here is Dan Barber talking about sustainable, ethical foie gras from a farm in Spain if you want to learn more.)

Seasonality

Farm-raised domestic duck is available all year round. Fall is the traditional hunting season for wild duck when they are airborne and migrating. This timing also allows them to be taken at their peak weight after a bountiful summer of eating. Check with your local hunting and game commission for exact dates and bag limits.

Environmental Impact

Wild ducks have no detrimental impact on their natural habitat, they are a natural part of the ecosystem. However, they do face an uncertain future in the face of climate change. Drought is limiting some of their natural habitat while in other areas they are being flooded out of their feeding grounds.

In Japan, the aigamo method of rice farming capitalizes on the natural synergy of crop and bird to generate a symbiotic aquaculture system. Ducks are introduced to the rice paddy shortly after the planted rice sprouts. The ducks eat insects and weeds, eliminating the need for pesticides, herbicides and backbreaking hand-weeding. Their droppings create a natural fertilizer for the plant and their paddling action aerates the water and gently agitates the soil, making its nutrients more available to the plants. After the harvest, the ducks can be sold for their meat.

  Domestic duck farms, like any poultry farms that employ industrialized practices, often have a detrimental impact on their environment. Overcrowding can lead to reduced air quality around the facility from airborne dust and toxic emissions such as ammonia. Waste run off can leach into local water supplies. Often animals are fed a steady diet of antibiotics so they can survive their wretched conditions and hormones to increase their growth rate. Not good for the birds, the environment or you.

Characteristics

What to look for

Like any meat, duck should be plump and fresh looking. Press your finger into the meat if you can. When you pull your hand away, your finger's depression should fill in relatively quickly. If it stays depressed, the duck has lost its freshness. Give it a whiff if possible. Perhaps because of the high fat content or the fact that duck isn't as popular and doesn't turn over as quickly, I have often come across some quite funky ducks in the market. Your nose, knows - don't buy any meat that has an off odor.

Duck eggs are bigger than chicken eggs and have a thicker shell. The color can be white, cream, brown, blue or light grey.

Duck fat is sold in jars and tubs. It has a creamy yellow to white color.

When buying duck and duck products, the same guidelines apply as they would for any poultry. The best choice is a bird that is raised sustainably. Look for duck, eggs and fat from birds that are:

  • Raised in cage-free environments, are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors
  • Never over-crowded
  • Raised on pasture and supplemented with natural, non-GMO feed
  • Not administered antibiotics, except when the animals are sick

Nutrition and effects on the body

Duck is an excellent source of high quality protein containing a well-balanced array of amino acids. Duck also contains generous amounts of iron, phosphorus, zinc, copper, selenium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and lesser amounts of potassium, magnesium, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and folic acid.

Nutritionally speaking, duck fat weighs in somewhere between butter and olive oil. However, one of the aspects of duck fat that makes it so appealing, aside from its amazing taste, is that it isn't readily absorbed by the foods cooked in it, so much less gets used in comparable dishes.

The quality of meat from wild duck is directly dependent on its environment. Check with local health authorities to ensure that hunting areas are free from contamination before enjoying wild duck.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Duck is extremely versatile. You can use every part of the bird in delicious recipes and the feathers in your pillow. The meat can be prepared in a variety of ways. The eggs have yolks that are rich and unctuous. The feet, wing tips and carcass make excellent stock. Even the fat has great flavor and excellent cooking properties. Its high flash point means that you can get the fat very hot before it scorches. Here are some ways that you can eat more duck:


Roast - It's really simple to do but makes for a "Wow!" at the table.

Stew - Duck gumbo is the best gumbo!

Sear - Duck breasts cook up like steak but (maybe even) better.

Duck Fat - Duck fat fries for the win.

Eggs - Serving up duck eggs over easy lets you enjoy their extra rich flavor.

Duck Stock - A great base for pretty much anything you want to make.

Wild Duck - Here are prepping instructions and recipes to take full advantage of their unique taste.

Storage

Raw duck and its giblets should be cooked within a day or two of purchase. Well-wrapped meat will keep in the freezer for up to six months, the giblets for three to four months. Cooked duck can be refrigerated for three to four days. The thick shells of duck eggs give them a longer shelf life - up to six weeks if properly refrigerated.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

Delicious cooked duck not only keeps, but improves in flavor, when stored in the refrigerator under a blanket of fat. Two dishes, rillettes and confit can be used to store cooked duck this way. These dishes are great anytime, but are fantastic for entertaining as they can be made well in advance and taste better for it.