What started out as my pursuit of homemade Peking duck has turned into a pursuit of Sichuan fragrant and crispy duck. As I mentioned last week in my initial foray into cooking a whole duck, the deep-fried Sichuan preparation is often served instead of roasted Peking duck at Chinese restaurants abroad. In many of the Chinese cookbooks that I have, authors such as Irene Kuo, Barbara Tropp, and Ken Hom say that the Sichuan approach is their favorite for home cooking. When you think about it, most Chinese home kitchens do not have stoves. Deep-frying is a fast and fuel efficient substitute for roasting.
That said, the first Sichuan fragrant and crispy duck was phenomenally good, but I wanted to make the skin a tad crisper. Last week, I went back to the Chinese market and carted home another duck, in addition to a wealth of locally grown, pesticide-free Asian vegetables. Rory and I went at it again this weekend and the following things came to mind about creating a Chinese crispy duck:
1. Type of duck – Head to a Chinese or Vietnamese market where the ducks are super fresh, still have their heads and feet intact, and MOST importantly, are the Pekin variety. Fancy Muscovy ducks have bigger breasts but they also have more fat. The smaller Pekin (and I don’t know where the “g” went to in that name) is appropriate.
2. It’s not hard or time consuming – The cooking process spans days but most of the time, it’s passive work, like the duck is marinating or steaming. The fast-paced action comes with deep frying the duck at the end.
3. Cut the duck in half – It is hard and daunting to turn a whole duck around in a wok of fat. I thought about how I could make things easier for myself – and you! – so I used a cleaver to cut the duck in half after it steamed and cooled. The frying was less dramatic and it was much easier to chop the duck up duck for serving.
4. Coat the duck with starch – You’ll notice below that instead of the soy sauce and flour, I switched to a cornstarch or water chestnut starch coating. Starch creates a more delicate and crisper skin than regular all-purpose flour. The flour coated fragrant and crisp duck had a more robust flavor.
5. Fry at a moderately low temperature – This longer cooking helped the skin get nice and crispy, and stay that way for a while.
6. Blowing up the duck didn’t do much – We did manage to inflate the duck to the size of a baby porpoise but the amount of fat rendered during steaming was the same. It was the starch and longer frying that crisped the skin up. I’ll save the inflating for Peking duck.
That’s what I learned this weekend. You can pick and choose whichever techniques that you want to apply by comparing the two Sichuan duck recipes. Check the first fragrant and crispy duck recipe for more how-to photos. The end result will be equally tasty.
Fragrant and Very Crispy Duck
Xiang Su Quan Ya
Purchase Sichuan peppercorns at Chinese markets and specialty grocers. Asian markets have great prices on whole duck. Select one that is fresh and not frozen or thawed.
Makes 1 duck, enough for 4 as a main course
1 duck, about 4 pounds, with head and feet on
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 star anise (8 robust points)
1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
5 quarter slices fresh, unpeeled ginger, lightly smashed with the broad side of a knife
2 whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths and lightly smashed with the broad side of a knife
Starch coating: choose 1
4 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
Water chestnut starch
1/4 tablespoon water chestnut starch/flour, pounded to a powder in a mortar and pestle
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
3 tablespoons warm water
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
Canola oil, for deep frying
12 to 16 Chinese Steamed Buns
1/4 cup hoisin sauce diluted with 1/4 cup water or duck steaming juices rendered during steaming
Season and Marinate
1. Use your hand to remove the excess fat near the tail and discard. Then cut off the feet, tail, and neck (and thus the head). Then cut off the wing so that all that remains attached to the body is the duck drummette. Save these parts for soup stock.
2. Toast the salt, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, and cloves until fragrant and beginning to smoke. Let cool, then transfer to a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Add the Chinese 5-spice and process to a powder. You should have 1/4 cup.
Rub about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the seasonings on the inside of the duck. Then rub the remaining amount of the seasonings on the outside. Massage it into the duck, even in the armpits! Put in a pan, cover loosely with parchment paper and refrigerate for 2 days, turning the duck midway. If it’s winter and cool, let the duck marinate at room temperature for 6 hours or overnight, turning midway.
Steam and Dry
3. Remove the duck from the refrigerator, if necessary, and return it to room temperature. Prepare a large pot of water for steaming. Find a bowl to fit into the steamer tray; make sure there’s about a 1-inch space between the edge of the bowl and the steamer tray wall.
Drain any liquid that’s accumulated in the pan. Then rub the duck inside and out with the rice wine. Put 3 slices of the ginger and about 2/3 of the scallion inside the duck. Put the duck, breast side up, in the bowl you selected for steaming. Then put the remaining ginger and scallion atop the duck. Put the bowl inside the steamer tray.
4. Steam the duck for about 2 hours, until tender. You should be able to wiggle the leg easily. At the 1 hour mark, lower the heat and detach the steamer tray, setting it aside to cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile replenish the water in the pot, if you haven’t had to already. Carefully lift the bowl from the steamer tray and pour out the liquid into another bowl. This stuff is fabulously rich and there’s valuable duck fat. Do not discard it. Let it cool and refrigerate to separate the fat from the stock. Save it for other uses.
Put the bowl and duck back into the steamer tray and steam for another hour. There should be very little liquid that accumulates now. Once cooked and tender, let the duck cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
Air Dry and Deep-Fry
5. Careful slide the duck out of the bowl onto a roasting or cake rack placed on a baking sheet. Let the duck dry to the touch, 2 to 3 hours; put a fan on the duck to speed up the process. You can leave it out up to 8 hours.
6. Fifteen minutes before you’re ready to fry the duck, cut it in half. Put the duck, breast side up, and use heavy knife or cleaver to bisect the duck. Remove the backbone, saving it for stock or discarding it.
7. Mix together the ingredients for the slurry of your choice to form a smooth mixture. Pour or spoon over each half of the duck – making sure to coat both the outside and inside. Use your fingers to rub it in. Replace the duck on the rack to dry out, about 10 minutes.
8. To fry the duck, have a skimmer and ladle ready, and a baking sheet with a double thickness of paper towel. Pour 3 inches of oil into a wok or large deep skillet. Heat the oil to between 325 and 350F on an oil thermometer.
8. Meanwhile, simmer the diluted hoisin sauce in a small saucepan for 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a small serving bowl and set at the table. Warm the steamed buns and have them ready for the tables.
9. When the oil is sufficiently hot, dip the skimmer into the oil to prevent sticking, then put one of the duck halves on the skimmer, skin side up. Carefully lower the duck into the oil, which will gush up with bubbles to surround the duck. Immediately ladle oil on top to evenly cook. Keep ladling on the oil and fry for about 2 minutes, then carefully turn the duck over (have a friend steady the wok, if necessary). Fry for 3 to 5 more minutes, until crispy and brown. Remove the duck from the oil and drain on paper towel. Repeat with the other duck half.
11. To serve, cut up the duck with the bones intact, or cut the flesh and skin off the bones. Serve with the warm buns and hoisin sauce. Invite guests to make duck sandwiches by stuffing some duck and skin into the buns and slathering on a bit of hoisin sauce.
You can boil the leftover bones, carcass and skin bits for a light broth. Leftovers are terrific and you can reheat the duck in a toaster oven. Or make terrific fried rice or stir-fries with shredded duck meat and strips of skin.