Cooking duck at home is a classic example of when my quest for perfection undermines the “tasty enough.” For years, I strove to create the idealized vision of roast duck that I held in my head. It had to have crackling, burnished skin as crisp as a potato chip, and ruby-hued breast meat as rare as steak and dripping with schmaltz-glossed juices.
The best way to come close to this was through a technique I learned from Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan, a gourmet food purveyor specializing in duck. First, I’d roast the duck until the breast was a rosy 130 degrees. Then, I’d pull the steaming bird out of the pan and hold it by the drumsticks to lop off its legs, which returned to the oven to finish cooking while the breast rested.
The technique is brilliant. But it’s not the kind of greasy maneuver I necessarily want to undertake when company is over. After a cocktail, wrestling a hot, slippery 5-pound waterfowl in a silk blouse does not make for low-stress entertaining.
Roasting a duck like a chicken, however, is a straightforward affair. And by incorporating a few tweaks, it can result in a bird that is easy to cook and thoroughly delicious — without any unctuous threats lurking.
One thing that differentiates roasting a duck from roasting a chicken is the duck’s prodigious layer of fat. This fat needs to render in the oven so it can baste the duck flesh and crisp the skin. There are two classic ways to help this along: pricking the skin or scoring it.
I’ve found that combining the two works extremely well, giving the fat even more opportunities to escape.
Daguin advises scoring the skin in a tight, crosshatch pattern so you get 1/4-inch squares.
“The little squares get very crisp,” she says, “and the smaller they are, the nicer they taste.”
Another tip, Daguin says, is to take a cue from the Chinese method of making Peking duck and douse the skin with boiling water. This tightens the pores, making the skin easier to cut.
Once roasted, the bird emerges with the skin golden, the meat tender and the fat melted and just waiting to meet any potatoes — a holiday meal both cook and company can rejoice in.
Crisp Roast DucK
• 1 (5to 6-pound) whole duck
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
• 2 large garlic cloves, finely grated, passed through a garlic press or finely minced
• 1 tablespoon chopped thyme or rosemary leaves, or a combination, plus more sprigs for the cavity
• 1 tablespoon lemon or orange zest, or a combination, finely grated
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander or a spice mix, such as garam masala or baharat (optional)
Bring a full kettle or medium pot of water to a boil (at least 2 quarts). Meanwhile, remove giblets and neck from the duck cavity and reserve for another use. Trim any excess fat from around the duck cavity and the neck. Place duck, breast side up, on a rack in the sink. Pour half of the boiling water all over the top of the duck to tighten the skin. Flip the bird and pour remaining boiling water over the back.
Once the duck is cool enough to handle, using the tip of a very sharp paring knife, prick duck skin all over to help release the fat, especially where the skin is thickest, and be careful not to pierce the meat. It can be helpful to hold the knife nearly parallel to the bird. After piercing the skin, use the knife blade to score the duck breast in a crosshatch pattern (making deep cuts into the skin only, and not into the breast meat). Flip the bird and score the back as well (you don’t need to prick the back). You may need to sharpen your knife along the way, as it’s much easier to make clean cuts into the skin with a sharp knife. Using a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, thoroughly pat duck dry, including inside the cavity.
Season the duck all over, including cavity, with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine garlic, chopped herbs, citrus zest and coriander, if using, and make a paste. Rub garlic paste all over duck, inside and out. Place duck, breast side up, on rack in a roasting pan, stuff cavity with herb sprigs and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
When it’s time to cook the bird, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Roast for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully prick duck skin all over the top of the bird using a sharp paring knife. (You don’t need to prick the back of the duck.) Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting until skin is golden brown and crispy, and the internal temperature at thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour to 1 hour, 45 minutes longer. Using tongs, gently tip duck to drain any liquid from the cavity. Transfer bird to cutting board to rest for at least 10 minutes. Carve and serve.
Total time: 2 1/2 hours, plus at least 4 hours resting; serves 4.