11 Mistakes You're Making When Cooking Duck

Every year, Americans consume less and less duck, and that might just be a massive mistake. According to the USDA, the average American ate just 1/3 pound of duck meat in 2019, a significant decrease from the 1/2 pound per person consumed in 1986. Unfortunately, however, this isn't necessarily a good thing. As noted by the Canadian government's Health and Social Services website, duck is full of nutrition. Not only does it contain high levels of protein, but a serving also provides about 50% of the iron you need in a single day. 

Because duck meat is so healthy, it might be a good idea to work this nutritional food into your diet. However, if you don't have a lot of experience cooking duck, you might need to learn how to prepare it properly. After all, plenty of home chefs make mistakes when attempting to prepare this meat for the first time. By following a few cooking tips — like brining the bird or using a meat thermometer — you can be sure to make the most delicious duck possible. 

1. You cook duck like it's chicken

In some ways, duck and chicken are very similar types of meat. They are, after all, both poultry, and you can roast either of them in the oven. And as per Calgary Coop, you can butcher duck and chicken using the exact same cutting techniques. Unfortunately, however, this doesn't mean that you can cook duck exactly the same way that you prepare its smaller counterpart. The reason for this is that the two birds have very different compositions. According to Sweetish Hill, duck meat is both darker and fattier than chicken meat. And, as Healthline notes, duck is even considered a "red meat" for culinary purposes — in sharp contrast to the white meat of chicken or turkey. 

In practice, these differences between duck and chicken mean that you can't cook the two types of meat for the same amount of time. Chicken's relatively low-fat content, for one, means that the bird has a higher chance of drying out in the oven. On the other hand, duck meat is so fatty that it would be much harder to overcook it (via Vincent's Meat Market). As a result, you can make sure that your whole duck is soft and succulent by cooking it for several hours over low heat.

2. You forget to brine your duck before cooking it

Fat content isn't the only factor that differentiates duck meat from other types of poultry. As Vincent's Meat Market notes, duck is considered "game meat," or a type of meat that isn't typically farm-raised. As a result, the bird can take on a deeper, wilder taste that isn't always to everyone's liking. In order to remove this flavor from the bird, you can soak it in a flavorful brine with ingredients like vinegar and garlic. 

The reason that this brining process works so well is that it pushes leftover blood out of the duck meat and replaces it with the infusion of the brine (via Ducks Unlimited Magazine). Unfortunately, though, this does mean that you will have to deal with the duck's vital fluids. To know if your brine is working properly, check in on your soaking meat periodically. If the liquid surrounding the duck turns brown or reddish, that means the blood is starting to exit your bird. To ensure that these fluids stay where they belong, don't be afraid to change out the brine every couple of hours.  While not everyone agrees exactly how long to brine your bird, the general rule is that the longer you brine it the less gamey it will taste. If you want to emulate Michelin-starred chef Jimmy Ophorst, you can brine your duck for full twenty-four hours (per Michelin Guide).

3. You soak the duck in an overpowering marinade

Because duck meat can have such a gamey taste, you might feel tempted to marinate it in the most flavorful ingredients that you can find. Unfortunately, however, soaking your bird in something as overwhelming as hot sauce or even barbecue sauce would be a massive mistake. The reason for this, according to Ducks Unlimited Magazine, is that a good marinade doesn't overpower the naturally rich flavor of your meat. Instead, you should aim for a marinade that leaves your dark meat softer and juicier than before. 

Some of the marinades with the best results are actually the sweetest ones. For the Michelin-star earner, Chef James Sommerin, this means soaking the bird in a mixture of maple syrup and oranges. As the award-winner told Great British Chefs, the best thing you can do is leave your duck in this marinade for somewhere between 24 and 48 hours. 

If you're a fan of more complex flavors, however, you might be more inclined to try a sweet and salty marinade. To achieve this, Chef Graham Campbell of the Number One Bar and Grill suggests marinating your duck in a combination of honey and soy sauce. Campbell suggests blending equal parts of the two then adding your duck to the mixture and letting it soak in the fridge for a little less than an hour. 

4. You don't marinate your duck for long enough

The secret ingredient to making duck might just be patience. After all, brining the bird takes several hours, and marinating it can be an even longer process. With all of the waiting involved in duck preparation, some home chefs might even consider cutting the marinating stage short. Unfortunately, however, this could be a huge mistake, especially if you are trying to cook wild duck. 

According to Gun Dog Mag, marinades actually serve a chemical process when it comes to wild game meat. This is because the acidic components in typical marinade ingredients, like wine or citrus, dissolve some of the less delicious parts of the bird. By soaking your duck in some sweet wine, like Port, you can get rid of connective tissues, like cartilage or tendons. 

In order for the process to work well, you have to marinate the meat for the correct amount of time. Sweetish Hill suggests marinating your duck for somewhere between 6 and 24 hours. If you soak it for less time, your duck might come out gamey and chewy. On the flip side, if you marinate the duck for more than 24 hours, the acidic ingredients in your marinate might start to dissolve even the most desirable parts of the meat. It's even possible that the marinade will eliminate some of the duck's natural fibers, leaving you with a squishy mess.

5. You stuff your duck like a Thanksgiving turkey

In the late 1990s, Thanksgiving cooking news was dominated by one dish — the turducken (via Sporting News). Popularized by the NFL's James Madden, this creation stuffed a chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey, only to add even more stuffing inside the chicken. While this combination might sound appetizing, several chefs have spoken out against the practice of cooking even one stuffed bird, not to mention an entire series of them. 

Speaking on the tradition of stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey, Chef Bill Hazel told Yahoo!Life, that stuffed poultry doesn't usually cook evenly in the oven: "It takes longer for the turkey to cook because of the elements on the inside." Because of their shared shape, the same principle is true for ducks.

As if this professional culinary advice weren't warning enough, the USDA also released a statement against the consumption of stuffed poultry. In the statement, the organization said that it does not recommend stuffing poultry, which could include turkey, chicken, or ducks. The reason is that cooking dressing inside a bird can increase your chances of accidentally breeding harmful bacteria. Ultimately, this could lead to serious problems, like food poisoning.

6. You rinse your duck in the sink

Stuffing your duck with dressing isn't the only way that you could accidentally spread food-borne illnesses. You could also cause food poisoning by rinsing your duck in the sink before cooking it. According to the USDA, washing raw poultry doesn't do much to reduce the bacteria on your bird. But it does, in fact, often end up contaminating your sink and the area around it. As explained by Dr. Mindy Brashears, the USDA's Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, "Even when consumers think they are effectively cleaning after washing poultry, this study shows that bacteria can easily spread to other surfaces and foods." As a result, Dr. Brashears concluded, "The best practice is not to wash poultry."

While rinsing a raw duck could be a recipe for disaster, there are plenty of other ways that bacteria gets spread in the kitchen. To prevent food poisoning, the CDC recommends thoroughly washing your hands with anti-bacterial soap every single time that you touch your raw poultry. They also recommend immediately cleaning anything that came into contact with your raw duck meat, using a generous amount of hot, soapy water. The USDA even suggests scrubbing down your countertops and then sanitizing them a second time, just to be safe. While this could all seem rather intense, these precautions can prevent the spread of serious illnesses, and, in turn, keep your dinner party from turning into a dinner debacle.

7. You cook your duck using high heat

Because of raw duck's high bacteria content, you might want to cook your meat on super-high heat. After all, high temperatures famously kill bacteria, and duck is only safe to eat once the inside reaches 165 degrees (via CDC). However, just because your duck eventually needs to reach a certain temperature, doesn't mean you need to blister it. And, if you choose to cook your duck over too hot a fire, you probably won't get the best results. 

The reason for this is that ducks have a unique anatomy, which requires you to cook them on relatively low heat. According to Sweetish Hill, ducks are born with an extra layer of fat under their skin. In the natural world, this composition is what allows them to stay buoyant in chilly water. In the kitchen, however, this fat can give you a more tender dish.

To perfectly prep your bird, try to cook it on low heat for longer. If you want to give your bird that delightfully crispy skin that duck is famous for, just a tip or two from Michelin-starred chef, Alvin Leung. As he told the Michelin Guide, you can increase the oven temperature for the last 30 minutes to brown your duck.

8. You forget to use a meat thermometer

The USDA may have made its guidelines clear, but not every cookbook seems to have noticed. Despite warnings that duck meat that hasn't been cooked to 165 degrees could cause food-borne illness, some recipes call for serving it rare. Food & Wine, for example, recommends pan-searing your duck until the breast reaches a mere 120 degrees. Eat Pallet also suggests serving your duck medium rare. Unfortunately, however, the experts say that ignoring food preparation recommendations is risky. As Steve Wearne, the director of policy at the British Food Agency, told Vice, "We recognize that many people choose not to take that advice, but that does lay them open to risks."

To minimize your chances of getting a horrible stomach sickness, you should purchase a meat thermometer. Before cooking your duck, insert the device into the thickest part of the meat. If you are roasting a whole duck, stick the thermometer into the bird's inner thigh, making certain that the metal device doesn't touch the bone (per Almanac). When the device reads 165 degrees, you can finally remove the bird from the heat. Then, let your duck rest for 10 to 20 minutes after cooking and before serving.

9. You cook your duck without the skin

It's no secret that high-fat foods have something of a bad reputation, and duck is no exception. Given that a cup of roasted duck contains about 5.5 grams of saturated fats, home cooks might consider forgoing this treat (via Livestrong). Some might also decide to cook the bird without any skin on it to eliminate some of this fat.

This, however, would be a huge mistake. For one thing, duck skin is considered a delicacy. Michelin-starred chef Saritwat Wanvichitkun even is said to serve it as a garnish with vegetables (per Michelin Guide). For another, forgoing the skin isn't even the best way to decrease a duck's fat content. Per culinary consultant, Noelle Carter, getting rid of duck fat is as simple as using your knife. Many recipes for duck suggest that you pierce the skin to allow the fat to drain effectively. As the fat heats, it will be liquified and released during the cooking process, leaving you with tender meat and crisp outer skin. 

10. You don't prepare a side sauce

Duck meat is delicious, so there is no problem with serving it au naturel. However, one of the most traditional ways to serve duck is with a side of sauce. According to Pepe's Ducks, there are several delicious side sauces that can enhance the flavor of your bird. Hoisin sauce and apple sauce are two of the biggest classics, although anything fruity can pair quite well with your cooked meat. One thing to keep in mind while selecting a sauce is that it should follow more or less the same basic rules as your marinade. It should be sweet enough to offset the duck's natural gaminess, but not so overpowering as to drown out the taste of the bird.

One of our favorite duck sauces is this citrus honey drizzle. To make it, combine orange juice, honey, brown sugar, and cornstarch. Then, heat the mixture up on the stove until it reaches a rapid simmer. Once your ingredients reduce into a thicker sauce, you can cut the heat. Be sure to stir your sauce a few times before pouring it on top of your duck. This recipe pairs nicely with duck breast, thigh, or even a whole roasted bird. 

11. You don't know how to use the leftovers

Once you've finally served your duck, you may notice that you have a few leftovers. This is especially common after preparing a whole roasted duck since it's not exactly easy to lick the bones clean. Luckily, there are plenty of delightful and creative ways for you to put these meat scraps to good use. For example, you can make the famous Portuguese dish, "Arroz de pato," or "duck rice." This satisfying dish combines rice, slices of chorizo, and duck to make a rich blend.

Alternatively, you can use your leftovers to make a fancy instant ramen dish. Just make a pack of instant ramen, and add your duck scraps to the soup along with scallions, garlic, and some mushrooms. If you're feeling particularly chic, you can even throw a ginger garnish on top. For flavor, add a generous dollop of hoisin sauce to your plate and eat up!