The Perfect Duck Breast

A close up shot of sliced duck breast with crispy skin on top of fresh homemade pappardelle pasta in a brown ceramic bowl.

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If y’all caught my post the other day, blog reboot announcement and all, you may have seen mention of the duck breast I cooked (in my head it’s more like “flawlessly conquered,” but I’ll let that go for now). It’s only in the last few months that I’ve really nailed the cooking of said duck, but it’s far less scary than you think it is to correctly cook this pricier cut of meat, and I’m here to explain it all. hums theme tune to a particular Nickelodeon show

If you can get fresh and/or wild duck breast, that’s always ideal, but the large grocery store near my house often has them prepackaged in the freezer which is what I tend to buy when duck is in the budget (only a few times per year sobs). As long as it’s skin-on, it’s fine. Note: If you’re using frozen, make sure you put it in the fridge to defrost the night before or you’re going to have a bad time.

A lowered opacity image of a cast iron pan with a wooden handle on a black background. Black text inside the pan reads "How to Cook: Duck Breast"

The only things you really need for this recipe, if you can even call it that – let’s call it a How To, are:

  • roughly 1lb duck breast, ideally in two similarly shaped and sized cuts (6-8oz each), but unfortunately that’s not always the case if you end up buying prepackaged/frozen.
  • salt – for cooking I use Diamond Crystal pretty exclusively these days
  • a very sharp knife
  • a cutting board
  • some paper towels
  • a large cast iron, wrought iron, or stainless steel pan – seriously y’all should not be cooking this duck in a nonstick pan

Several hours before you plan to cook (4-5 is ideal), remove the duck breasts from the fridge and from their packaging. Place the meat on your cutting board and use paper towels to fully pat it dry. I usually put a paper towel directly on the cutting board to help catch any liquid from the bottom and then pat the top dry myself. Work smarter, not harder. Once the duck is fairly dry, dispose of the towels, and arrange the duck skin-side up on the cutting board.

Using your salt of choice (preferably Diamond Crystal), liberally salt the skin and any exposed meat of the duck breast. I’d say you can comfortably use a full teaspoon for each piece of meat (assuming it is 6-8oz in size).

Now, this is the hard part, so don’t freak out. You’re going to leave the duck uncovered on the cutting board and stick it back in the refrigerator to continue “drying out” for a few hours. This helps keep your meat moist and get that skin super crispy. Remove the duck-laden cutting board from the fridge to take the chill off the meat about 45 minutes to an hour before you plan to cook, leaving it uncovered on the counter.

When you are finally ready to cook, you’re first going to need to score the skin. This process involves taking a very sharp knife and cutting diagonal lines through the skin and fat without cutting into the meat in one direction and then the opposite direction so you essentially end up with a diamond pattern.

Two large, tasty-looking pieces of duck breast skin-side down in a wrought iron pan on a gas stove. In the background you can see a navy blue salt pig with a wooden lid.

Once you’ve scored the skin, you’re ready to cook, but probably in a way you never have before: you’re going to use a cold pan. That’s right, no preheating! I know this goes against everything you think you know about cooking, but just trust me.

Arrange your duck breasts skin-side down, so the skin should be directly touching the cold pan. Season the exposed meat with a big pinch of salt. Ok, now you can turn the pan on, to medium-high heat, and let the duck skin do its thing for at least 5-7 minutes or until the cook comes about halfway up the exposed meat. You should see (and hear!) fat rendering, and duck skin popping and crackling.

Two pieces of duck breast cooking in a wrought iron pan on a gas stove. Some of the fat has already been rendered from the duck so liquid fat is visible in the pan. The piece of duck breast on the left is showing that it is nearly ready to be flipped as it is cooking from the bottom up and it is nearly halfway through the meat.
You can see on the left-most piece of meat, that the heat has risen and the breast meat is starting to cook from the bottom up.

As shown in the above photo and photo description, you will be able to see the meat cooking from the bottom upwards and it will come up the side of each piece. Once you can see that demarcation indicating your duck breast has cooked through about half way, peek underneath and see if you are happy with the crispness of the duck skin. If not, you can continue cooking skin-side down for another 2-3 minutes and slightly increase the heat if you see fit. If you are happy with the skin, it’s time to flip!

A wrought iron pan on a gas stove. In the pan you can see a whole duck breast skin-side up with scored and crispy skin. Part of a second crispy-skin duck breast is visible peeking in from the left side of the photo.
Mmm crispy skin!

Once flipped, you’re nearly there. Lower the temperature to medium and let the duck breast finish cooking – likely 2-4 minutes. If you feel more comfortable using a meat thermometer, insert into the thickest part of the breast and cook to 135-145*F for medium-rare / medium.

When the duck is cooked through, remove to a cutting board and let sit untouched to rest for at least seven minutes. I say seven because five is not enough, but few people will actually wait a full 10.

Once the meat has rested sufficiently, slice with a clean sharp knife and serve immediately. Duck is so good as is that I keep the seasoning pretty simple for the meat itself, but it goes great with a pan sauce, a fruit-based sauce (think like, a thick raspberry balsamic reduction, mmm) and whatever carbs or veggies strike your fancy.

A second photo of sliced duck breast with crispy skin over homemade pappardelle in a brown ceramic bowl.
The Perfect Duck Breast over homemade pappardelle for our anniversary last week.
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