Duck breast is widely misunderstood. Perhaps due to a perception that it is fancy, duck has acquired a reputation for having a difficult personality that’s best left to the professionals. From the imagined perils of blazing-hot duck fat spluttering forth from the stove to the specter of the dreaded technical fail—meat that is greasy, rubbery and not remotely crispy—duck cookery can seem like the sort of high-stakes game you’d best steer clear of in favor of more forgiving fowl, like chicken, or familiar company fare, like steak. And yet ….
“Duck is a weird thing for people to cook,” concedes Jim Palmeri, executive chef of Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. But “when it’s done right, it’s fantastic.”
Palmeri contends that excellence in the duck-cooking arena hinges largely on a healthy respect for duck fat. There’s a lot of it, and rendering it properly is crucial. Luckily, doing so requires no major feats of bravery and only a basic level of skill. “The key principle is to start with a cold pan,” Palmeri counsels. “It’s counterintuitive to everything else we do when we cook,” but a cold pan allows the fat to render slowly, smoothly and evenly for that crackling crust and juicy interior that are the stuff of dinner-party dreams. By contrast, placing the meat directly on a hot surface will cause it to seize up, curl, retain too much fat and ultimately burn.
In order to deliver a neat result without mangled skin, it’s also important to remove extra moisture from the duck before cooking it. “As long as the duck is patted dry and the pan is dry, it won’t stick over the time that it renders—it will release from the pan,” Palmeri says.
It’s also helpful to lightly score and generously salt the fat side before cooking it. Scoring creates additional surface area, letting the fat melt away evenly into the pan. Because a lot of the fat will render off, extra salt on that side helps to maintain a good level of seasoning.
Palmeri also notes that the meat-to-pan ratio is important for even browning. “The edges will burn on the duck skin prior to rendering it out if you only have, let’s say, one duck breast in a large pan,” he cautions. “So if they’re not overlapping but they’re near each other enough that it creates enough rendered fat to cover the entire bottom of the pan, you’ll more efficiently brown it.”
A 12-inch pan should do the trick. The duck breasts are then flipped skin-side up and transferred to the oven for a few minutes to reach a rosy medium-rare.
Several ingredients here punch well above their weight. The richly flavored duck fat is used to cook a tangle of nutty, sweet spaghetti squash strands. Red onions are pickled for a tangy edge, and the pickling liquid is reduced into a sweet-tart syrup, which gives the soul-warming meal a pleasantly piquant jab. “The sharp flavor accentuates the duck,” he says.
The tastiness of the result belies its thrift and ease. Just start with a cold pan and let the slow build of heat bring dinner into being.
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Jim Palmeri’s inspiration, read the companion article, "A Perfect Match: Duck Breast With Red Burgundy," in the Oct. 15, 2018, issue (available on newsstands from Sept. 11–24), via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated red Burgundies in our Wine Ratings Search.
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. In a shallow baking dish large enough to fit both squash halves side by side, place squash skin-side up. Add just enough water to cover the bottom of the dish and create some steam, about 1 cup. Cover dish tightly with foil. Bake until squash is tender and can be easily squeezed, about 45 minutes. Remove and let sit, cut-side up, until cool enough to handle. Leave oven on.
2. Use a fork to scrape the flesh out of the squash. It should shred with the look of fine pasta. Cover and set aside in a warm place.
3. In a small saucepan, combine onion, vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft but not falling apart, 5 to 8 minutes. Set a strainer over a bowl and strain out onions. Transfer onions to a bowl and add salt to taste; cover and keep warm. Return liquid to pan and cook over medium-high heat, swirling as needed, for about 10 minutes until reduced to the consistency of maple syrup, about 3/4 cup in volume. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.
4. Pat duck breasts dry. Score skin side in a crosshatch pattern, taking care not to cut into the meat. Rub both sides of duck breasts with salt and pepper, with just a small sprinkling on the flesh side and a generous coating on the skin side. Place duck breasts skin-side down in a large, dry, heavy-bottomed sauté pan, so that they fit snugly without touching, and set over medium heat. Starting with a cold pan aids in rendering fat. Cook until skin side is golden-brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Flip over to flesh side and transfer to oven. Cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of each breast registers 130° F for medium-rare, about 5 minutes. (Meat will continue to cook after you’ve taken it off the heat; the final temperature should register at 135° F.) Transfer to a cutting board and let rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes before slicing.
6. Leaving the rendered fat in pan, reheat over medium. Add butter and swirl to incorporate. Add squash, cook until just warmed through, and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the chives.
7. To serve, place some squash in the middle of each dinner plate. Thinly slice duck breast and place slices atop squash. Garnish with pickled red onion and drizzle syrup around plate. Serves 4.