(But before that, a short note on changes and feelings, and such. Skip past the first photo if you don’t care).
A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece titled “On Being a Cook… At Home.” It was shortly after I returned from Duck University at Maple Leaf Farms, where I spent a few (too) short hours with food writers and recipe developers from across the country. Prior to my trip, I had been slightly frustrated with identifying the “why” of, well, everything. Why cook, why does food taste great, why do I love it so? My time spent around these folks was incredibly valuable, because while I didn’t know it at the time, it allowed me to further develop my sense of self, and therefore my sense of Solid Gold Eats.
My reaction to the words “home cook” came from my quest to identify what sets me apart from chefs and professional cooks. I am here to inspire other people to cook at home, not invest time and money in culinary school, because the idea is that everyone has to eat, and eating at a restaurant all the time is just not feasible for most ordinary people, and it would be ridiculous to think that for people to cook great food at home, they’d have to go to culinary school.
However, my love of food, in particular the science, technology and creativity that comes with it, pushes me to explore food much further than just through recipes that I make for our dinner table. I’m pretty sure I knew that all along, but I easily became caught up in the recipe part – or more specifically, the need to create a recipe and share it with you through mouthwatering photos that would drive traffic to my site.
Instead, as I explained in that post on being a home cook, I’m going to step back a little on the recipe front and instead offer more on cooking and food in general. There are so many topics I want to explore:
- Why is salt so important?
- Cooking without a recipe (funny enough, this is what I do most of the time)
- Understanding different types of cooking oils and what they are good for
- Sauces, roux’s and creamy things
- Highlighting one ingredient in many ways
I want to get beyond the fancy photos and insanely expensive or unique ingredients that some food bloggers use to bring people to their site. The reality is I just don’t cook like that and I don’t have the time to spend on such things. I’d rather educate myself and my readers on the importance of quality, simple ingredients and how they can make a huge difference when you truly understand them.
There’s that researching, art history major coming out in me. My need to read.
Speaking of reading, I’m finishing up Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (yes, this is the first time I’ve picked up this book, remember how much time I’m spending in the kitchen?) and it reminds me of all the reasons why I love food so much. That inspiration was needed.
Okay, enough of that. Onto the duck breast.
My time spent at Duck University taught me many things, but here are just a few reminders for why you should eat more duck:
- Duck is NOT fatty. It actually has less fat than a chicken breast and the fat it does have is unsaturated, better-for-you-fat.
- Duck is red meat, not white, poultry meat. Cook it as such.
- Duck is hard to prepare. No way! This was the most simplest recipe I’ve made in a while.
Don’t believe me yet? Keep reading.
Take your standard boneless skinless chicken breast. A typical, “healthy” protein that you may grab at the grocery store.
- You think it is healthier, white meat, so you decide you want to cook it for dinner.
- But you say to yourself, “Wait! Chicken breasts are bland, dry and boring on their own!”
- You decide to do anything but fry it (because that wouldn’t be healthy) to make it taste better – slather it in sweet sauces or toss it in something cheesy or creamy.
- Not so healthy anymore, eh? And it likely took much longer instead of cooking the chicken breast plain.
Sure, a chicken breast can taste pretty good – I’ve got a Cheetoes Crusted Chicken recipe to prove it and I love how the sous vide machine cooks a tender, moist chicken breast, but in all honestly, the meat itself can quickly dry up when using conventional cooking methods which therefore gives you more of a reason to use a sauce. When you cook a piece of meat to 165 degrees, you are ensuring that any undesirable bacteria is killed, but it is also drying out the meat.
Duck is less likely to be affected by salmonella and all of the nasty things chicken can harbor. Why?
- The muscle structure of duck meat is tighter than chicken meat. It is harder for salmonella and other harmful bacteria to enter into duck meat because of those tight fibers.
- If you buy Maple Leaf Farms, I can assure you from my own trips through the feed mill, duck barns and processing plants that the ducks are not only clean, but what they are fed and how they are processed is done with top notch care. Chickens, unfortunately, are not treated as such.
Convinced yet? Let’s move on with the recipe.
After the duck breasts are remove from the package seen above, you can place them on a meat-safe cutting board (blue for meat, green, white or wood for veggies in my house) and pat them dry with a paper towel.
Using a sharp knife, gently score the meat by creating diagonal cuts just deep enough to open up the fat. You do not want to cut all the way through the fat to the meat. Patting the breasts dry with a paper towel will allow you to grab the fat easier and get a grip so you can drag your knife through the skin. Use the tip of a sharp knife and be gentle.
Once the meat is scored, set a cast iron skillet or a nonstick skillet on your burner. Do NOT turn it on. Sprinkle the pan lightly with kosher salt. This is an Alton Brown trick for searing a steak that I have adapted for duck breasts. Salt on meat creates that delicious crust we all know and love.
Place the breasts fat side down in your cold pan.
Turn the heat up to medium high and watch how that thin line of fat around the duck breast will quickly shrivel up. After about 2 minutes, to wear you can see some liquid fat from the duck in the pan, turn the heat down to medium and do NOT move that duck!
Lowering the heat allows the fat to render without burning, and for the meat to start cooking. You’ll let the meat cook for about 8 to 10 minutes for medium rare duck breasts, which is how I like mine served for optimum tender, moist meat. If you like it cooked longer, you can do so, but you may want to cook it longer on the meat side.
If you look closely at the meat, you can see it start to turn white and brown, a sign that the meat is cooking. You are not just rendering fat!
After the fat has rendered to a slightly brown color and it’s been about 10 minutes, flip the duck to the meat side. Cook for 5 minutes longer for medium rare, about 8 minutes longer for more well done duck. You can test the doneness with the finger test if you like (more on this later) or use a meat thermometer.
Let the meat rest for 5 minutes. This is crucial – do not miss this! In the meat time, I warmed up some brown rice with quinoa and garlic and the roasted strawberry balsamic sauce (recipe to follow).
When it is time to slice the meat, grab a sharp knife and create 1/4 – 1/2 inch slices of meat with the fat side up. Place it on your plate and top with the roasted strawberry balsamic sauce and juices from the rested meat. Trust me on this.
Here’s the final product:
See the crispy fat and lightly pink meat? Some of the pink meat is from the roasted strawberry sauce, but for a tender, moist, medium rare duck breast, you are going to want it a little pink. The more well done the meat is, the whiter the meat will be.
But wait, didn’t you say duck tastes better plain than chicken? So why are you putting a sauce on it?
I have strawberries on hand. I am in love with fresh strawberries. Fresh strawberries are eating at least once a day, therefore they made their way onto my dinner plate. This duck definitely did not need the sauce, but it was a nice compliment to round out the meal. And I love strawberries.
The point is, duck doesn’t need to be sauced with BBQ or something overly sweet or fatty. Strawberries are naturally sweet and the balsamic vinegar, while may smell a little potent when you first mix it in, reduces down with the juice from the roasted strawberries to create a sweet, tangy sauce.
Now, wasn’t that pretty easy? The next time you are creating your grocery shopping list, swap out chicken in one of your meals for duck and give this recipe a try. Not only is it easy, but it comes together so quickly, requires few ingredients and is reasonable in price.
Duck Breasts with Roasted Strawberry Balsamic Sauce
- 2 duck breasts
- Kosher salt
- 1 quart strawberries, hulled
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 375. Quarter the strawberries and place them in a glass baking dish. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and place in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring halfway through. Set the roasted strawberries aside to cool. The sauce will thicken up on its own.
Pat the duck breasts dry on both sides with paper towel. Gently score the fat diagonally without cutting through to the meat.
In a large cast iron skillet or nonstick skillet, salt the pan with a three-finger pinch of kosher salt. Place the duck fat side down onto the cold skillet. Turn the heat to medium high and cook 2-3 minutes or until some of the fat has rendered from the duck. Turn the heat down to medium and cook 8-10 minutes until fat has rendered and is slightly brown. Do not move the duck at this time.
Once the fat has rendered, flip the duck and cook it for 5 minutes longer for medium rare (145 degrees), 8 minutes longer for more well done. Rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Top with the strawberry balsamic sauce and the juices from the rested meat. Serve with quinoa and brown rice or roasted vegetables.