To kick off 2013 last week I roasted a duck. It was a festive way to celebrate New Year but also an excuse to practice my whole duck cooking and use the new stove’s oven. I’ve experimented with deep-fried Sichuan duck and roast Peking duck. Vietnamese people often roast duck with red fermented tofu (vit nuong chao) so I decided to combine various methods and best-practices into one. It was a delicious duck that we ate over the course of two dinners.
Instead of a normal recipe format, I’m going to do walk you through the process so you can apply them later on. Hey, Lunar New Year isn’t far away. A roast duck could be part of your menu for launching the Year of the Snake!
Caveats: Start 2 or 3 days in advance for this recipe. Ideally, it air-chills for 48 hours in the fridge. You’ll need a vertical poultry roaster, which can be ordered online or found at cookware shopes and places like Bed Bath & Beyond.
And if you’re interested in seasoning and coloring the duck with red fermented tofu, head to a Chinese market. Red fermented tofu is a stealth ingredient in lots of Chinese classics and Chinese-influenced dishes in Southeast Asia. (See Asian Tofu for more recipes). This is an excellent brand that's sold at Chinese markets:
Here we go...
1. Buy a whole duck: I normally go to Chinese or Vietnamese market where whole ducks – with their head and feet intact are sold. Last week, I was lazy so bought a duck from my local butcher shop. It was headless and feetless, raised and processed by Mary’s ducks in California. It weighed 5 1/2 pounds (2.475 kg). The ducks from Asian markets tend to be smaller but the trade off is that with the head intact, I could prep it a little easier. Mary’s duck was free-range and had been trimmed so that the breast was partially exposed, meaning that it may dry out during roasting. Would any of this matter? I was not sure but I was too lazy to drive an hour to buy a duck last week.
For 4 people, buy: 1 duck, about 5 pounds (head and feet optional)
2. Trim the wing tips and fat: Who needs this extra stuff? Use a pair of scissors to cut off the wing tips, which get in the way of the skin evenly browning. There’s also excess fat in the lower part of the bird so reach into its stomach cavity and remove the fat. Or, cut it off with a knife. Save the fat for cooking.
3. Wash and massage the duck: To loosen the skin and rid the duck of any foul smell, rub it inside and out with lots of salt, then rinse well.
For rubbing: 2 to 3 tablespoon uniodized table salt or kosher salt
4. Blow up the duck: If you want the fat to drain out and the skin to crisp, blow up the duck. That is, force air in between the flesh and fat – on the breast and back sides. During roasting, the fat melts away and the skin crisps.
I did this for Peking duck recipe way back with an exercise ball pump. For details, see this post. The Mary’s duck didn’t show 6-pack abs like the Chinese-market duck but you understand the idea. Poke holes into the skin then force air in.
5. Skewer and scald the duck. Sorta sew up the cavity with a bamboo skewer to prevent hot water from going inside the duck. Put the duck on a roasting rack and set in the sink. Bring a kettle of hot water to a boil. Turn it off and then pour the super hot water over the duck. Turn the duck to scald the other side.
6. Rub seasonings all over the skin: I wanted to feature red fermented tofu for its umami goodness (think sweet-salt blue cheese) and deep color. Here’s what I blended together for last week’s roast duck seasoning:
- 1 tablespoon mashed fermented red tofu
- 2 tablespoons fermented red tofu brine
- 2 cloves garlic, put through a press or minced and mashed with a knife
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tablespoons honey
You can opt for hoisin, five spice powder, honey and rice wine. The honey produces a bit of a sheen as well as a sweetness. Whatever you do, aim for a heady, salty-sweet flavor. When you’re satisfied, rub the seasonings all over the duck, including its armpits. Keep the duck on the roasting rack.
7. Air-chill the duck. Transfer the duck and rack to a roasting pan or baking pan. Then slide it into the fridge, uncovered. Leave the duck alone for at least 1 night, better yet 2 nights. You want to dry out the skin. It should feel dryish to the touch. Removing excess moisture helps to crisp the skin in the oven. Last week, I air-chilled the duck for only one night and regretted not starting the duck 2 days in advance.
8. Roast the duck using a vertical roaster. The vertical roaster, one of my favorite cheap kitchen tools, is deployed for the purpose of roasting whole ducks. (Note that with this approach, you can theoretically roast 2 or 3 ducks standing up in a home oven. Just an idea.)
That said, position a rack on the lowest rung of the oven and preheat to 450F. Return the duck to room temp, put it on the vertical roaster, then in a roasting pan. Add 1/4 inch of water to the pan to avoid smoking fat in the oven. Then roast the duck for 10 to 15 minutes, until the skin is dark brown.
Lower the heat to 350F, then roast for about 15 minutes per pound. The fat should drip off into the water in the pan. Rotate the pan to encourage even browning. Let the duck cool for 15 minutes or so before carving or hacking into bite-size pieces.
Serve with a little hoisin sauce mixed with sesame oil and water. Tuck the duck with a lick of sauce into steamed Chinese rolls with some green onion shreds. (Pancakes, the same ones used for mushu, are for northern style, Peking duck.)
Mary’s Ducks vs. Chinese market ducks? The Mary’s duck had delicious flesh but the upper part of the breast dried out a tad because of the way that the duck is trimmed for shipping. On the other hand, it had a lot more heft on its bones. I’m on the fence. I suppose that if you’re squeamish about looking your food in the eye the Mary’s duck is for you. The ducks from Asian markets take a little more gumption to deal with but most of the time, they’ve not been frozen. What’s important here is this: you can make amazing Chinese-style roast duck with a specimen from a mainstream market.
Once that you’ve roasted a duck Chinese-style, you’ll understand that it’s not that hard. You do all the prep work in advance and at the end, you slide it into the oven for roasting. It’s genius cooking.