How to Pan-Sear Duck Breasts and Properly Render Their Fat

Pan-seared duck breast with herbed honey and mushrooms
Sometimes I really get the urge to cook. When I do, I often make duck breasts. Duck breasts are very hands on. You really feel like you are cooking. Especially when you choose to pan-sear them. Because properly rendering the fat from duck takes a bit of time.

Searing a duck breast is a bit counter-intuitive however. Most pan searing is done hot and fast. Think chops or steak– even fish. They go in a hot pan, often with additional fat added, where you quickly char up a nice crust. Give them the old fliperoo and finish them in a hot oven. Bing. Bang. Boom.

However, try that with a duck breast and you’ll end up with a fatty, rubbery crust that’s not too pleasant to chew upon. That’s because the fat needs to be slowly rendered out of the skin so that it can properly crisp up. Do it well and not only will you get that crisp (highly edible) skin, you get the added bonus of a nice clear, clean helping of duck fat. Useful in so many ways. Because all cooks adore duck fat. That’s a hard and fast rule. Those that claim otherwise have an entirely different agenda. Valid in their world I am sure, but not in mine!

Domaine Bernard Baudry Wine PairingMy brother Grant calls this style of cooking duck breasts the “Bacon Method”, because the process is similar. You start with a cold pan (preferably cast iron). You score the skin and put the breasts (skin side down) in the cold pan. You cook over medium or even medium-low heat. Then move those breasts around in the pan often to assure very even browning. You could even weight them down as they cook with something like a bacon press, but I don’t usually. The key to rendering the fat cleanly is to keep pouring it off as the breasts cook, keeping only about 1/8-inch in the pan at all times. I strain mine into a jar because as I said I will be saving that fat.

A word of caution however, move the pan away from the flame as your pour off the rendered fat. Even a few drops on the burner could cause a dangerous flare-up. By the same token, you might want to wipe the lip of the pan after you pour. I have also seen the fat catch fire there too. But it’s a quick little light show and not enough to concern me usually.

Cook the duck on the skin side until an interior temperature of 115 degrees F is achieved. Then flip the breasts for a quick ‘kiss’  (Thomas Keller’s word) of heat. Turn them back to the skin side and into the hot oven they go. This is when the pan juices will develop, mixing with the small amount of fat in the pan, making for the base of your sauce. The goal for medium-rare– sweet and rosy, is 125 degrees F. Which only takes about 5 minutes in the oven.

Today I am searing my breasts with an herbed honey glaze. It adds a touch of complex sweetness (which duck loves!) and it also helps to caramelize the skin into sweet cracklins. They will look quite dark– burnt even. But never fear, just wait until you taste that skin! There are some rich, buttery wild mushrooms on the plate as well. They have a hint of heat and a hit of sweet that comes from a sliced Serrano chili and a bit more of the thyme infused honey. And since I had so much help from my brother developing this recipe I let him choose the wine! As long as he’s pouring  generously, I am happy to let his expert palate be our guide.

  • scored duck breasts1 c honey
  • 10 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in a bundle
  • 4 boneless duck breasts with skin
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 t red wine vinegar
  • 1⁄2 t kosher salt
  • 2 clv garlic, minced
  • 2 T thyme, leaves only
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 c wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 serrano chili, thinly sliced
  • 1⁄2 c white wine
  • 2 T flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 2 T chives, minced
  • 1⁄2 c vegetable stock
  • baby lettuce, as garnish (optional)

Make the herbed honey: Combine the honey and thyme sprigs in a small saucepan set over low heat. Warm the honey, stirring often for 15 to 20 minutes, making sure the honey does not boil or scorch.

Remove from the heat and allow the honey to cool. Strain out the herbs, then bottle the honey and label it as the recipe makes more than you will need for the duck.

Prep the duck for cooking: Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/3-inch crosshatch pattern in the skin of each breast, being careful not to pierce the meat. Do this while the duck is cold, since it’s difficult to do at room temperature.

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the 1-tablespoon olive oil, 1-teaspoon red wine vinegar, 1/2-teaspoon salt, garlic, and 1-tablespoon thyme leaves into a paste. Smear the breasts all over with the paste. Wrap each breast tightly and individually in plastic wrap and return the the refrigerator at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.

Prepare the mushrooms: Melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet set over medium-low heat; add the mushrooms and serrano chili. Cook stirring often about 5 minutes, until the mushrooms begin to weep out their moisture. Add the white wine, remaining thyme leaves, parsley and chives, and continue to cook stirring often about 6 more minutes, stir in 1-tablespoon of herbed honey. Remove from heat.

Sear the duck breasts: Remove the duck from the plastic and wipe away most of the paste. Drizzle a bit of herbed honey on each breast and rub it into the flesh.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

seared duck breasts with honey glazeSet two large cast-iron frying pans over medium heat. Add 2 duck breasts, skin-side-down, to each cold pan. Cook, moving the duck breasts every few minutes to help the skin brown evenly. (If you have only one large pan, cook 2 or 3 breasts at a time in 2 batches). The idea is to slowly render the fat. As the fat is rendered, carefully pour the excess (leaving about 1/8-inch) from each frying pan; move the pan away from the heat when you remove the fat, since it could cause a flare-up were it to hit the flame.

Cook the duck for a total of 15 to 20 minutes, until the skin is dark brown from the caramelized honey and very crisp. The internal temperature of the breasts should be about 115 F. Flip each breast letting it cook a mere 30 seconds. Remove most of the duck fat from the pan, leaving about 1/8-inch.

Then flip the breasts back over, skin-side-down, and move them to the pre-heated oven and cook for about 5 minutes. The internal temperature should be 125 F for a pink to rose medium-rare.

Put the cooked duck breasts skin-side-down on a cooling rack set over a baking pan (to catch the juices) and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing while you make the sauce and finish the mushrooms.

Add the vegetable stock and any accumulated juices from the baking pan to the hot skillets. Scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Consolidate the liquids into one skillet and reduce the mixture down to about 1/2-cup. About 10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain into a small bowl.

Finish the mushrooms. Add about half of the sauce you just made to the mushrooms and gently re-heat them.

Cut each piece of duck diagonally against the grain into 3 or 4 slices. Mix any accumulated juices into the remaining sauce, mix well and puddle 1 or 2 tablespoons onto the centers of 4 warmed dinner plates. Lay the duck slices onto the sauce. Serve some of the mushrooms on the side. Garnish with the baby lettuce and drizzle some of the herbed honey attractively around the plate. Serve warm.



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