Here in Minnesota duck is a pretty typical dish at restaurants focused on local ingredients; but until recently, it was hard to find at a reasonable price for home cooks. Which seems strange in a place with such a long tradition of duck hunting and so many bobbing around our lakes.
Since it was hard to find and even harder to get to turn out well, at least for me, making duck was only for special occasions. Every time I would drop the money for a couple of nice duck breasts they would end up tough and stringy or solid as a rock. They never came out anywhere near as tender and juicy as the ones from restaurants with their beautiful pink color and crispy skin.
I know cooking duck shouldn’t be that hard, but even after trying all sorts of different techniques, like scoring the top to let the fat out and roasting them on a rack to elevate them during cooking, they still weren’t turning out very well. So for a while, I moved on and tried to accept that beautifully cooked duck breasts, like really good sushi, we’re going to be a restaurant only dishes.
A couple of things changed this. The first was when some local grocery stores started carrying these pretty little ten-ounce duck breasts for around eight dollars apiece, making them reasonably priced for kitchen experiments and dinners at home.
The second piece of the puzzle was sous vide. The more I’ve gotten into cooking sous vide, the more I appreciate how well it handles things that are easily overcooked. The reason this technique works so well for duck breasts and other tender cuts of meat is the amount of heat being applied never rises above the finished temperature while all of the juices and extra fat stay close to home adding to the dish’s flavor.
Why Sous Vide Works So Well
When you start researching recipes for cooking duck sous vide most of the discussion is on whether or not to brown the duck before cooking. One big advantage to browning a chilled duck breast, skin-side down in a cold pan, for a few minutes before dropping it in the bath is it reduces the amount of time it takes to get nice crispy skin before serving.
The downside to pre-browning is it does tend to shrink the breast a bit, as you can see from the picture above. That being said, it’s still worth doing because the pre-browned duck needs to spend less time in the pan at the end, which helps keep it a nice medium-rare, compared to the duck that hasn’t been browned and has to spend a lot more time in the pan, increasing the chance of overcooking the duck while you’re getting the skin crispy.
There wasn’t a noticeable difference in flavor or texture between the two techniques.
As with all sous vide recipes, there’s some debate about how long to cook the duck breasts and what temperature to use.
The time and temperature we recommend for sous vide duck breasts is 131°F for 90 minutes, which creates a nice balance between texture and doneness.
During testing the duck breasts cooked at 133°F or for longer than two hours tended to be more done that I was looking for and were too firm. A well-cooked duck breast should be easy to cut without a lot of sawing and should never be chewy.
To season the duck, I wanted to find something that brought out the duck’s flavors without overpowering everything. Our Sous Vide Duck Breast recipe uses a little smoked paprika to bring out the richness in the duck along with some fresh thyme to add some bright herbal notes. If you like your duck with a little more smoke flavor to it try making our Smoked Duck Breast recipe.
The last tip is to crisp up the duck in a pan, instead of using a grill or torch, so you can use all those beautiful brown bits and fat left in the pan for finishing whatever you’re eating with the duck or making a sauce. Just toss potatoes or vegetables, after they’ve finished cooking, in the pan on medium-high heat for a couple of minutes to add some of the duck’s delicious flavor to your dish.
One of the great things about cooking duck sous vide is how easy it is to get the duck to turn out perfectly every time, which makes it a lot easier to play with the seasonings and sauces and helps move duck from being a special occasion dish to something worth cooking at home.
If you’re just getting started cooking sous vide check out our story on Getting Started Cooking Sous Vide. Umami also has a whole section on Sous Vide that has all the stories, recipes, and equipment you need for great cooking.