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How to cook duck, whether store-bought or hunted – just be sure to save the fat

Duck

If your usual winter proteins have you bored, consider roasting a duck.

Hunters chasing the Pennsylvania hat trick of white-tailed deer, wild turkey and black bear can be, without a doubt, a dedicated group. If you have a duck hunter in your life, though, you might know an altogether different version of dedication. Absurdly early mornings, icy water, and, at times, owning arguably more hunting gear than a sporting goods store can be the life of even a novice duck hunter.

Whether you consider duck hunters dedicated or desperate, you can’t blame them for taking to a local lake, pond or river to chase these fast-flying birds. All this effort is an attempt to trick wild birds that can, at times, leave you questioning your life’s decisions, or convinced you’re the greatest hunter that ever lived.

Opportunities to hunt ducks in Pennsylvania and the Lancaster County area abound. Located in the Atlantic Flyway (the aerial route ducks will use to migrate north and south) public and private access to waterways like the Susquehanna River and Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area offer hunters the chance at this challenging game. Duck hunting seasons in the South Zone of the state, where we live, are Oct. 8 to 15 and Nov. 22 to Jan. 21.

You don’t need to be a lifelong waterfowler to hunt ducks. Many hunters will add this activity to their schedule later in the Pennsylvania hunting season, after they spent the season chasing other species, as a chance to get outside for the challenge and the protein.

Cooking ducks for the dinner table can be as tricky as hunting them. Generations of hunters have scoffed at the subject of cooking ducks, some even uttering the phrase “flying livers.” But life doesn’t need to be so bleak, and your trophies don’t have to bear such a sad destiny on your dinner plate.

Almost every region of the United States has ducks, so there’s a wide variety of recipes available to explore. From fine dining restaurants to farmhouse kitchens, dishes such as duck gumbo, roast duck, smoked duck, duck confit and routeed ducks show how these migratory morsels are represented in their wide travel range.

Consider these tips to help elevate your duck cooking skills so those you cook for will keep coming back to the dinner table and, more importantly, ask you to keep going back to the duck blind.

Should you decide to start hunting ducks, check state and local game laws for where you can hunt and bag limits. In Pennsylvania, you’ll need a migratory game bird stamp, and you’ll also be required to purchase a federal duck stamp if you are 16 years old or older.

If you don’t have the time to hit the duck blind this year or are looking to serve duck outside of hunting season, the good news is there are plenty of farm-raised ducks available for purchase. Farm-raised ducks will cook like their plump wild cousins that filled up on late-season leftovers from a farmer’s field.

Few things in this world are perfect, but crispy duck skin and fat are about as close as it can get. So, by all means: please try to pluck your ducks and do not remove the skin from the meat; you and your dinner guests will be happy that you did. (More on glorious duck fat later.)

Parts of a duck and how to cook them

Duck breasts

To avoid being accused of serving flying livers, you may need to change your perspective when cooking a duck breast. Duck meat is more like beef than chicken, so you want to think more like you are cooking a beef steak. Aim for a final serving temperature around medium rare.

You might also want to avoid cooking the duck whole until you become more familiar with the meat, or you are comfortable with what is considered an overcooked duck breast. (An overcooked breast is not necessarily a bad thing, just a tougher sell to some.) After being cleaned and plucked, filet away the breast meat from the skeleton by carefully cutting it away at the breast bone. A thin filet or boning knife is the best tool for the job.

Set your duck breasts on a plate, if refrigerated from the previous day. Let them come to room temperature for around 30 minutes to help them cook evenly in the pan. Cold breast meat and skin will retract to heat that is too high. If the skin has a thick layer of fat, you can score it by cutting thin lines into it; just don’t cut so far that you see the meat. This will render extra fat from the skin layer. Season the breast meat with salt.

Coat a frying pan with a little olive oil. Start by cooking the breast meat skin side down in a pan on medium-high heat for a few minutes. Look for the meat to start to brown and crisp, and listen for the fat to bubble slightly. If you smell the meat starting to burn, turn down the heat. Then, flip and cook the other side for a few more minutes. You can use tongs or a spatula to press the breast meat in the pan so that all surfaces are in contact with the heat.

You can also put the whole pan into the oven around 300 F after flipping from the skin side down to finish in the oven for a few minutes. You should be aiming for the final temperature of your duck breast to be between 130 and 140 F.

Remember to let your duck breast meat rest before serving. Resting is leaving the meat to sit without a heat source for around 10 minutes, allowing the moisture to return back in the meat after the cooking process. If you’ve ever sliced into a roast or steak and noticed the liquid spill all over your cutting board, resting the meat will help avoid that.

The meat will continue to cook during the resting process by a few degrees, so pull it off the stove or out of the oven when it reaches lower end of (or even a few degrees under) the final temperature you are aiming for.

In addition to salt and pepper, a great way to elevate the duck’s flavor is to add a little citrus juice at the end. A splash of lemon or lime juice will bring some bright acidity and add to the depth of the flavor.

Duck legs and thighs

The leg and thigh meat of a duck will be much more forgiving to cook than the breast meat. While not as tough as a ground-running bird like a pheasant, there’s a technique that is easy and reliable: sear the legs and thighs in a hot pan on the stovetop before cooking for hours in the oven or a slow cooker with a liquid such as water, stock or wine.

When you are cooking a larger duck, like a purchased farm-raised duck, score or pierce the skin to allow the fat to render out and the skin to crisp up when cooking. Whatever fat is left in the pan you can carefully pour into a glass jar to cool and store in the refrigerator as a secret weapon in the kitchen.

Coveted by chefs in faraway big cities and country cooks alike, the flavor and versatility of a jar of duck fat can commonly be referred to as liquid gold. A great way to extend the fruits of your hunt is by appreciating as much of the hunted animal as possible – and keeping the fat from your ducks does just that. Stored duck fat can be used in place of butter or beef fat in many recipes.

You can use it for frying, roasting or a classic confit, in which duck legs are submerged in duck fat and cooked at a low temperature. They will remain safe to eat for quite some time due to duck fat’s ability to create an environment that inhibits bacterial growth.

Whether you like to hunt ducks or just like to see them around, consider making a donation to waterfowl conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited or Delta Waterfowl. These nonprofit groups work hard on population research paired with habitat preservation and restoration. Simply put, the folks working for and with these groups are doing the hard work on the ground to keep ducks in the air.

If you find yourself fortunate enough to have taken a few wild ducks this year and still have them in the freezer, consider experimenting with some of these techniques. If you’d like to start getting your skills down for next year, consider getting a few ducks from the store to practice on. You’ll look like a celebrity wild game chef next year when they come back into season.

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