Learning to Love Duck


I’ve written before about my tenuous relationship with duck. I’ve always enjoyed hunting them and never really minded cleaning them, but no matter how I cook them, they always ended up tasting like liver. PS – I don’t like liver. I tried dozens of different recipes over the years, but nothing could get me past that obnoxious taste.

As a result, I usually gave away any ducks I happened to shoot. I just assumed that there were two types of people in the world, those who liked duck and those who didn’t. I was decidedly in the second camp.

A couple of things happened to make me change my mind. The first was at a company Christmas party a couple of years ago. As I was walking around filling my plate, one of the servers held out a piece of meat on a fork.

“Duck?” he asked.

I looked at the carved bird carcass on the cutting board and said, “Yep, that would be my guess.”

He didn’t laugh.

One of my coworkers said, “You ought to try that. I never liked duck, but that’s really good.”

I did and it was so good I had seconds. It tasted nothing like duck I’d ever had before, so I went back to the carving station, this time to get the recipe (and to make sure it was really duck.)

Fortunately, the guy carving the bird was the same one who had cooked it. He assured me that it was in fact duck, but he said it was just oven roasted. No special recipes. No secret sauce. Just duck.

“Of course, we brine it first,” he said as an afterthought. “Pulls the blood out. Keeps it from tasting liver.”

Whoa. What?

He said it like it was something everybody knew, but I had never heard or thought of that. So the next ducks I shot came home with me. I soaked the breasts (bone-in) overnight in salt water and baked them in the oven.

Liver again. Mostly.

This time, though, the liver-y taste was mainly on the outside. As I cut down toward the bone, the meat was less well done and tasted a lot better. In fact, the rarest part was the best. It reminded me a lot of venison backstrap, but for some reason I thought duck was supposed to be cooked thoroughly.

Brined. Pan-seared in butter. Delicious.

Brined. Pan-seared in butter. Delicious.

In talking with Bill, I realized that reason was our mother. Bill reminded me that Mama believed wild game needed to be cooked until there was no possibility of any life form surviving the experience. To her, there was no such thing as overcooking something that came from the woods.

So, armed with this experience, I spoke with my sister-in-law/chef, Lisa Donovan, who put all the pieces together for me. (I’m still not sure why I didn’t ask her about this years ago.) Lisa recommended I cut the breast meat off the bone and then brine the fillets. She also suggested pan-searing the meat in a hot skillet with a little butter or olive oil until it was brown on the outside and rare in the middle.

I tried it and struck gold.

The breast meat came out tender and juicy with plenty of flavor. The best news is that flavor wasn’t liver. It tastes a lot like backstrap, except more tender. The only bad part is that there’s not a lot of meat on a wild duck and you can only shoot three wood ducks (or risk making it the most expensive meal you’ve ever eaten.)

As I write this, it occurs to me that many of you probably knew all this already, and that’s okay. I’m sharing just in case there’s anyone else like me who might want to give ducks another try.

What I won’t share any more are the ducks.

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