A few weeks ago, we were having dinner with some friends and it was uncovered that they had never tried duck before, something I consider a travesty. How can you live twenty some odd years without ever trying the juicy, succulence encased in a golden, cracking that is a perfectly cooked duck breast? Needless to say, this needed to be remedied.
Duck can be a tricky thing to cook; t’s challenging to render out enough fat while still maintaining a perfectly pink breast and crisp skin. Thinking about this brought me to my copy of Modernist Cuisine and arose the idea of cooking it sous vide.
For anyone unfamiliar with the sous vide cooking technique, it’s kind of a 21st century slow cooker. If you have the luxury of cooking with a sous vide machine, it’s a large water bath that holds a constant temperature to cook your food at a low heat over a long period of time. Food is vacuum-sealed and immersed in the water for a specified period of time. If not, no fear – you can create an at home version quite simply.
Take a large stockpot and fill it about three fourths of the way with water. Fit a calibrated candy thermometer to the side of the pan. It may take a bit of trial and error to achieve the right temperature, it’s pretty easy to maintain once you get it right. Use a simmer burner if your stove offers the option. In lieu of a vacuum sealer, you can simply put your ingredients, seasonings and marinades into a Ziploc bag and press out as much air as possible. Tie a string around the top of the bag (gather it just below the zipper) and suspend it in the pan with a wooden spoon across the top. Voila! You just created your very own, at home sous vide contraption. The only major downfall is that it doesn’t quite come with the same ‘set it and forget it’ mentality of a commercial machine.
When preparing my duck breasts, I added smoked sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, one tablespoon of soy sauce, three sprigs of fresh thyme and about two tablespoons of Morello cherry juice. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, fresh cherries are obviously the best option. Unfortunately, the ones that make it to New England in January don’t bring quite the same piquancy and floral sweetness. Trader Joe’s makes a jarred version that makes a pretty strong substitute in a pinch. If you’re using fresh fruit, juice about twelve cherries or so to yield two tablespoons. Seal up your bag and you’re ready to go. For two duck breasts, it should take about three hours in a 120-degree water bath. I would add about 8-10 minutes for each additional breast.
About 20 minutes before the sous vide process is complete, place a cast iron skillet in a 400-degree oven to preheat it. Also, in a small saucepan, begin heating about 20 or so cherries with 3 tablespoons of raw cane sugar, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (if using fresh cherries, add about ¼ cup of water, if using jarred, add ¼ cup of the packing juice). Let this simmer down while you finish off the duck.
Now, remove the duck breast from the bag and gently rinse them off to remove any residual fat that may have leached out. It may look a little sketchy but I promise, this is completely normal. Place your skillet on the stovetop and crack the burner to full power. Skin-side down, sear off the breast to render the fat and crisp the skin for about 12-15 minutes. Turn the duck skin side up for about 2 minutes, just to reheat the opposite side of the meat. Allow the breast to rest for at least three minutes prior to cutting or you’ll leach out all of the wonderful, glorious juices you’ve worked so hard to seal in.
Toss thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes into your skillet for about 8 minutes to crisp them up in the rendered duck fat and simply blanche a few spears of asparagus in boiling water for about two minutes. Slice your duck breast on a diagonal into ½ inch wide slices, top with your cherry reduction and you’ve just prepared a meal worthy of a world class chef.
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