Roast Duck With Cracklings

Rick Cooks Home Roast Duck With Cracklings
Our Traditional Christmas Dinner

In 1978, we watched Julia Child prepare a roast duck recipe on PBS as part of her "Julia Child & Company" series. It was the main course in her menu for a birthday dinner, and we thought it might be appropriate for a Christmas dinner, which is, after all, a birthday celebration. Since I received the companion book for my own birthday, I made this dish (along with the other menu items, except for the dessert, which Carol made) for Christmas, and have been making it ever since, but only for Christmas.

There have been years when I almost didn't make it, and a couple when I couldn't because I was away from home. On Year IV (1981, while stationed in Sicily), I was called in to work in the middle, and Karen Yerkes had to finish it. On Year XVII, I sliced my ring finger while opening the duck wrapping and had to get stitched up before I could finish. But traditions are hard to break.

This dish is quite a bit of work. Cooking ducks always means work. The first time you make it will take quite a bit of time, unless you are experienced in duck anatomy and preparing birds for roasting, knowing how not to over-roast, and then skinning them and carving them up. But after having prepared this dish for years, I can now pretty much prepare any bird for roasting, from cornish hen to turkey, in short order.

You can spread out the labor by preparing much in advance. Julia says the ducks can be prepared for roasting a day in advance, but I have prepared them two days ahead. She also says the ducks can be roasted and carved several hours before serving, but I have done this a day ahead, and refrigerated prior to finishing, since the finishing is done in the oven and in a skillet.

A note about duck fat: this is a very high-quality fat, not as greasy as chicken fat, nor as strong as bacon fat, and very flavorful. It also has much less saturated fat than butter, and more vitamins than vegetable oil. Some cooks pay a lot for it to uses as a secret saute fat (it has a high smoke point too). Julia's recipe allows melted butter as a substitute for duck fat, but I don't understand why anyone would throw away duck fat.

Severing the wing from the shoulder. The joint is easier to find by moving the wing around and feeling from the inside. I found that if you dislocate it first, it's easier to find and finish off with the knife.

Do this for both wings and both thighs. It's not necessary, but makes trussing and carving much easier later.

I do this for all birds I roast whole, especially turkey.

Severing the thigh bone. It's not as easy to find as it looks here. Once again, dislocation helps. The joint is hidden behind a membrane. The famous "oyster" sits behind this joint on all birds. (If you don't know what the oyster is, you'll have to learn the secret elsewhere.)

Trussing the neck flap and wings. In this photo, the duck is breast-down. Julia makes a loop between the shoulder blades to secure the flap. After snaring the wing, the needle goes all the way through the rib cage (behind the breast) to the other side.

Trussing the tail flap and legs. The duck is breast-up. The needle goes through the drumstick near the end, to the cavity, through the tail flap, and out the other side to repeat.

A neatly trussed bird roasts best and keeps its juices. You could have stuffed the bird with aromatics if you were going to finish it by roasting. But you're not.

Removing the skin. Note the first cuts either side of the breastbone. Use a sharp knife, taking care not to slice into the meat. Try to remove in large pieces, to make cutting into strips easier.

Slicing the breast meat. You should get about three slices per side. Separate the drumsticks from the thighs. You can also add the wings to the legs and thighs.

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Roast Duck With Cracklings

*Serves 3 or 4*

Preliminary Roasting

2 ducklings, 4-5 lb ea
1 T cooking oil
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
thyme or sage
2 bay leaves

Final Prep and Finishing

c Dijon-style mustard
1 c fresh nonsweet white breadcrumbs
2 T duck-roasting fat (from above)
1 T minced shallots (can substitute scallions)
Freshly ground pepper
c port or madeira (can substitute red wine)

Advance Preparation

These first steps may be prepared a day or two in advance:

Chop the ducks' wing off at the elbows and brown them in the cooking oil with the neck, gizzard, and vegetables in a heavy saucepan, then simmer in water to cover and t salt for an hour. Drain, degrease, and reserve liquid for sauce later; you should have at least 1 c of strong meaty liquid. If you chill for later use, it will become gelatin, which is good. (A true stock is gelatinous.)

The following step is entirely optinal, but recommended for any bird to make carving easier: working from inside the duck sever ball joints where wings join shoulders and where thighs join small of back. Remove wishbone from inside of neck opening and add to duck stock.

Sprinkle inside with salt, thyme or sage, and tuck in the bay leaf. Pull out any loose fat from inside neck and cavity. Prick the skin all over on the back and sides (where you see the yellow fat under the skin) with the trussing needle, but do not go too deep where the rosy flesh shows through the skin, or the duck juices will seep out and stain the skin as the duck is roasting.

First truss: push needle through carcass underneath the wings, then come up around one wing, catch the skin flap against the backbone; come out over opposite wing, and tie.

Second truss: push needle through underside of drumstick ends, catching the the tail piece as you go, come back over the tops of drumstick, and tie. The neatly trussed duck will look like a rugby ball.

The next step may be prepared several hours before serving, or the day prior and refrigerated before finishing:

Preliminary Roasting

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place ducks breast up in roasting pan and set in middle level of preheated oven. Roast 30 to 35 minutes, or until the breast meat is just springy to the touch (rather than soft like raw duck) -- this means the breast meat is just rosy and easy to carve, but the legs and thighs (which will roast more later) are still rare.

There will be quite a bit of hot roasting juices inside the ducks. Make sure you untruss them inside a deep pan. These juices can be used to make a gravy or to add to the poaching liquid later.

(Save the roasting fat at the bottom of the pan for the finishing step, to drizzle over the legs and thighs and to film the frying pan for the breast slices.)

Allow the ducks to cool a little before you begin carving.

Skinning and carving--preliminaries to final cooking

I use disposable latex gloves for this step, a habit acquired from necessity during year XVII, but for convenience thereafter. I also use a good wood carving board with a well to catch all the juices.

While the duck is still warm, peel off its skin as follows: cut a slit down the length of the duck on either side of the breastbone, and remove skin from breast and thighs.

Then cut up the duck by first removing the leg-thigh sections, and separate the legs from the thighs; peel off as much skin from them as you easily can, and cut off visible fat. Cut fat and skins into strips inch wide and place in a baking dish. Paint legs and thighs (and wings too, if you like) with a thin coating of mustard, roll in crumbs, and arrange in another baking dish; sprinkle tops with a dribble of duck-roasting fat.

Cover and refrigerate the baking dishes if preparing a day ahead.

Carve the breast meat into neat slices and refrigerate if preparing a day ahead (or refigerate breast meat whole and carve later if you prefer). Otherwise proceed.

(Julia recommends roasting the carcasses and wings a few minutes more for leftovers. But duck wings are larger than chicken wings -- while the legs are smaller -- so I like to treat them as drumsticks and include them with the legs and thighs.)

Final preparation prior to finishing

Film a frying pan (not of cast iron) with duck fat, sprinkle in half the shallots or scallions, carve the breast meat into neat slices, and arrange in the pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the remaining shallots or scallions. Pour in the port or madeira or wine and the duck stock from the first step.

Finishing the ducks

Preheat oven to 400°F, and half an hour before you plan to serve, set dishes with skin strips and crumbed legs and thighs in the upper-third level. Roast skin until the pieces have browned nicely and have rendered their fat; remove with a slotted spoon into a plate covered with paper toweling to drain; then toss with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Roast legs until just tender when pressed -- about 20 to 25 minutes. Keep both warm in turned-off oven, door ajar, until you are ready to serve.

Between courses, as you are changing plates, bring the pan with the duck breast slices barely to the simmer, to poach meat but keep it the color of a deep blush. Then arrange it on a hot platter and rapidly boil down the cooking juices until syrupy while you arrange the legs and the skin cracklings on the platter; pour the reduced pan juices over the breast meat and serve at once.

Adapted from "Julia Child & Company", 1978, Alfred A. Knopf publisher