Sunday 17 March 2013

Duck Breast with Marsala Sauce and Sautéed Potatoes

First of all, happy St. Patrick's Day! This dish isn't particularly Irish or green, but I thought I'd throw it out there. Today we're going to take a look at duck breast. I can already hear some of you, "Oh, duck is fatty. Waaah!". To that, I have two things to say: number one, duck fat is delicious. Number two, duck meat is actually quite lean. There is a layer of fat between the meat and the skin of the breast, but in this technique I'm going to show you a method that gets the most out of that flavour while removing most of the fat. Not only is this a great application, but it's dead simple. Once you realize how easy this is, duck breast might just show up more in your diet. Duck breast is rich (almost steaky) and a little gamey. Unlike chicken, it does not harbour salmonella so it can be (and is best) eaten medium-rare. I only made this one serving for myself, but you can easily use two breasts for the exact same recipe. This would make a great, romantic dinner cooked at home for two. 

This particular recipe uses Marsala. Marsala is an Italian dessert wine which personally I don't recommend for drinking, but makes a terrific cooking wine. It's a bit like sherry, but dark and more complex. It's rather sweet but when reduced with savoury flavours it is bold and luscious. If you can't find Marsala, don't panic, you can use any red wine you enjoy. I'm not going to bother making a list of ingredients because this is more of a technique than a recipe. You can use any aromatic vegetables or flavourful liquids you like. I used onion and carrots for my sauce with fresh orange juice and Marsala, but feel free to use whatever your heart desires.   

Back to the fat issue, yes, a breast of duck does have a generous fat content. The finished product contains less than half of the fat than before it's cooked. The fat that rendered out, I saved. It has a fantastic flavour which used sparingly in other dishes is exquisite. So why let it go to waste? Also, Passover is right around the corner. You can use duck fat in place of schmaltz for your matzo ball soup this year. Otherwise, you can use duck fat for frying just about anything and it will be scrumptious. So please don't throw it away. If you're an absolute health nut or heretic, you can discard the fat, just don't tell me about it. Moving along...

We are going to sear all sides of the duck breast in a pan and then finish the cooking process in the oven. So first thing's first, preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Take your duck breast and remove any fat or silvery skin from the meat side. Then place it skin side up on a cutting board.

Then, using a sharp knife, score the fat of the duck. Meaning, make diagonal slices across the fat (being sure not to penetrate through the meat) one way and then turning the breast to make slices in the opposite direction, creating or checkerboard or cross hatch pattern. This will allow the skin to crisp up beautifully and the fat will have lots of channels to escape. Then pat all over with paper towel until very dry. Season generously with salt, on all sides.

Warm a pan on low-medium heat. The idea is to render the fat out of the duck slowly for maximum flavour and while removing most of the fat that you really shouldn't eat all in one sitting. Normally when you add things to a pan, you want to hear a sizzling sound. Because the pan is on a low heat, you likely won't. That's okay though, this works every time. Also, you usually add oil or fat to a pan before adding meat. Here, you do not. There is more than enough fat locked in that one side of the breast that you don't need any extra at all.

This side will take about seven minutes to cook because the heat is so low. This will allow the fat to render out slowly and if you follow these steps you will still end up with a lovely, crispy skin. At first, not a whole lot will happen. With just a little patience, you will begin to see the fat render out of the duck.    

To ensure that the skin gets nice and crispy, you will want to remove the rendered fat as required. All you do is tilt the pan until the fat collects on one side and spoon it out. Leave at least a tablespoon in the pan while the duck is cooking. You'll have to do this every so often while it cooks. I say seven minutes approximately, but you want to cook the breast until the skin is golden and crispy and the fat has rendered mostly. If you are saving the fat, just keep in a ramekin or small bowl and reserve until you use it.

When the skin is nice and crispy, flip it over and cook the meat side of the breast. Leave for about three minutes or until well seared. Using a pair of tongs, sear the sides of the breast as well to lock in the juices and create maximum flavour. 

 After the rest of the duck is seared all around, turn the breast back over to skin side down. 

Then place in a preheated oven for about eight minutes or until it's cooked to your liking. Mine came out a perfect medium rare, but it will depend on the size of your breasts (pardon the remark) and your oven. If you want them more well done, simply cook them longer. 

Remove the pan from the oven and set the breast aside to rest. Allowing it to rest for a few minutes will allow the juices to distribute throughout the meat, making it tender and succulent. 5- 10 minutes should do it, or just the amount of time it takes to make a simple, yet elegant pan sauce. Place the pan where you cooked the duck breast on the stove and turn to medium-high heat. **Keeping in mind that it just came out of the oven, so  the handle will be very hot. That may seem obvious but it will be so easy to touch that handle. Use a thick kitchen towel or oven mitt, please. **

If the duck fat in the pan is more than a tablespoon or two, remove the excess. Add a small amount of any aromatic vegetables you like for the base of your sauce. Onion, carrot, celery, chiles, peppers, garlic, dried fruit, etc... are great places to start. I had a bit of onion and a couple of carrots on hand so I just used them. 

Then you want to deglaze the pan. All the crispy pieces of duck and fat in the pan are concentrated with amazing flavour. Adding a liquid and stirring it, scraping any bit off the pan, will distribute that flavour into your sauce. Red wine is great for this. Orange and duck have been a favoured pairing in French cooking for generations. So I removed the zest from one orange and set that aside. I juiced the juice of the orange to deglaze the pan plus a little over the same amount of Marsala. Cook out the alcohol (which will only take about a minute) and reduce the liquid until the desired thickness. I tend to reduce it by about half. Since its a small amount of liquid in an open faced pan over medium-high heat, it will only take a few minutes to reduce. This is totally optional, but I also added about a teaspoon of sugar to help give the sweetness of the sauce a boost. 


When the sauce has reduced, turn off the heat and throw in a small knob of butter. Stir until the butter has melted and the sauce has emulsified. The butter will add a slight thickness and richness to the sauce to make it all come together beautifully. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary before serving.


By now, your sauce is ready and your duck breast has melted. You can serve the breast as is or cut it into slices before serving. I prefer very thick slices (3 - 4 per breast) so you can still get the steakiness of the duck, but it's all up to you. Serve with any side dish you want with a couple spoonfuls of that luxurious sauce over top. I sautéed some parboiled potatoes in oil with a few unpeeled garlic cloves that I pierced. When the sides of the potato got golden brown, I removed the garlic and served the duck over them. Other than potatoes, you can serve with wilted spinach, roasted vegetables, a salad, etc... 

I used the orange zest that I had set aside and some fresh thyme to lighten the flavour, add a little colour and garnish. So there is a basic duck breast and pan sauce tutorial. When you have the cooking of the duck breast part down, you can do anything you want with the sauce. When you get this technique down, you will use it as often as possible. Pan sauces are a great way to deglaze any beautiful meat flavours off of your cookware and onto your palette. Be sure to look for duck breast where you can and give this a try. It's very easy, and you won't believe how much fat you will be able to remove, leaving a delicious and flavourful dinner. You could easily make two duck breasts and use the same method for a home cooked date night meal. As you can see, it really doesn't take long to make at all.

Let me know if you have any questions and do try this one at home. You will be so glad you did.

Thanks for stopping by and looking forward to seeing you again,


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