Herbed Roast Duck is the perfect holiday meal for a small crowd, or a great dinner for two with tasty leftovers for soups and more.
It is snowing heavily right now and it’s stunningly beautiful outside. This—combined with the facts that I am 1) sitting with a cat in my lap in front of the fireplace, 2) looking at the Christmas tree, and 3) drinking peppermint schnapps-spiked hot cocoa—has put me in an especially festive mood. I figured that this would be the perfect time to post a special recipe for Christmas Dinner: Herbed Roast Duck. This would also be a fantastic special-occasion dinner for Easter, Valentine’s Day, or even a tasty spin on Thanksgiving.
Herbed Roast Duck and my favorite cookbook
I first made Herbed Roast Duck for Phil on Valentine’s Day last year. It made a repeat appearance at Christmas. I found the original version this recipe in The Silver Spoon: a cookbook that was originally written in Italian back in 1950, and was finally translated into English in the 1990s. This is in my top 5 favorite cookbooks of all time. The Silver Spoon is astonishingly thorough: even for unusual ingredients, you can almost always find a recipe (if not four or five! For example, see my adventure with squash blossoms here).
So when I decided to make herbed roast duck for our romantic dinner, I went straight to The Silver Spoon. There are a lot of fresh herbs involved in the original recipe: some are hard to find in fresh form—for example, tarragon and chervil—but don’t sweat it. There are plenty of herbs to go around. The tangy, aromatics-infused sauce, which reminds me of a Hollandaise, is the perfect foil to the rich, succulent meat.
Herbed Roast Duck: the recipe
I’ve overhauled the herbed roast duck recipe from the book somewhat, beginning with a super-hot oven for lovely, golden-brown skin, and adding chicken broth to the roasting pan to keep the bird from drying out. I start out with the bird breast-side down for the first 45 minutes and then rotate it and dot the breast with butter. The bird continues cooking for about an hour longer: at the 30-minute mark, I rotate the pan and baste the bird with the pan juices.
When the legs wiggle easily in their sockets and the temperature of the thickest part of the leg reads 165°F, the bird is done. I rest it for at least 15 minutes before carving.
Please note that the breast meat will be done at this point, but, unlike the case with turkey breast meat, it will still be somewhat pink. To explain why this is the case, we need a tiny lesson in muscle physiology. This was my area of study during grad school: Yay! It DID come in handy after all!
Disclaimer: if you’re science-averse/easily bored, please skip this part and scroll down to the gigantic “PHEW” below.
Herbed Roast Duck, Roast Turkey: White meat, dark meat: fast-twitch, slow-twitch
[I strongly suggest reading the following discussion out loud using a mashup of Monty Python and Julia Childs’ delivery. I promise that it will be more funny than boring that way.]
We all know from the Thanksgiving Dinner extravaganza that cuts of turkey come in 2 flavors: white and dark meat. This is not the case with duck, which is all dark meat. Why? The obvious reason is that ducks, unlike turkeys, fly long distances. Turkeys, especially the farm-raised ones that are bred to have brontosaurus-sized breasts, rarely ever fly. If they do, they only fly short distances.
Because of the very different flying behavior of ducks and turkeys, their breast muscles are made up of very different stuff. Turkeys have lots of fast-twitch muscle fibers: these are built for short bursts of vigorous activity, after which they quickly become fatigued. This is obviously not ideal for long-distance flying ducks, but just fine for turkeys.
Slow-twitch fibers, on the other hand, are built for stamina: unlike the fast-twitch variety, these fibers contain a high concentration of myoglobin. This protein reversibly binds oxygen, releasing it under conditions of oxygen deprivation: for example, during maintained exercise (like flying!). Myoglobin is a reddish color when it’s bound to oxygen in the same way that blood is red when oxygenated—though in the case of blood, hemoglobin—myoglobin’s cousin—plays the oxygen-delivery role.
So there you have it. It all boils down to this: turkeys and ducks are very different birds.
DUCKS = long distance fliers = lots of slow-twitch muscle = lots of myoglobin = lots of dark meat.
TURKEYS = lazy loafers = lots of fast-twitch muscle = not much myoglobin = lots of white meat.
PHEW. Lecture over.
Any time I have to do something completely mystifying like folding a fitted bedsheet, or, in this case, carving a duck, I look up relevant videos on YouTube. I had a whole paragraph explaining how to do it in text form, then promptly deleted it because it had words like “keel bone”. Here’s a selection of YouTube videos to help you out.
Herbed Roast Duck: the Sauce
This sauce involves a delicious reduction of herb-infused balsamic vinegar. If you have ever made Hollandaise sauce, you’ll recognize the technique for assembling the rest of the sauce: egg yolks, butter, and a double boiler are key players—but there are also non-Hollandaise components like tomato paste and cream.
Herbed Roast Duck: servings and leftovers
Herbed Roast Duck is a perfect special-occasion dinner for a smallish group. If you serve the duck with plenty of side dishes, it will feed 6. I have served it with salad and a wild rice pilaf, for example.
I love to use leftover roasted duck for pho, a delicious Vietnamese soup. Even if there’s no leftover meat, I simmer the carcass with some aromatics and ginger, then strain it to get duck broth. The delicious, rich broth is well worth the effort.
Herbed Roast Duck is impressive enough for a holiday dinner party, but is also perfect for a romantic dinner à deux for Valentine's Day. I should know: I've done both! The bird is perfumed with herbs from the inside and garnished with an aromatics-infused, tangy sauce.
- 1 4-6 lb. duck
- 1 small onion, peeled
- 2 fresh sage leaves
- 1 bay leaf (dried or fresh)
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
- 1 sprig of fresh marjoram
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup butter, cubed and divided
- 2 cups hot chicken broth
- 1 sprig of fresh chervil (or use 1/2 tsp. dried)
- 1 sprig of fresh tarragon (or use 1/2 tsp. dried)
- 5 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 3 black peppercorns, crushed
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 tbsp. heavy cream
- Salt & pepper to taste
Remove neck, giblets, and any glaze/sauce packets from the cavity of the duck, reserving giblets and neck for another use—like making duck stock. If the duck has a pop-up timer, remove it and discard. Carefully rinse duck (avoid splashing!), inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Remove any excess fat or fat pads that you can easily get to without damaging the skin. Cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Position your oven rack in the lower third of your oven; preheat oven to 500°F. While the oven preheats, sprinkle 1 tsp. each of salt and pepper around the cavity of the duck. Place the onion and the fresh herbs through the thyme sprigs into the cavity. Truss the legs to the tail with kitchen twine. Pin the neck flap to the back with toothpicks and tuck the wing tips under the back (I sometimes break the joint in the wings so that they tuck under more easily).
Place the duck, breast side down, onto a rack set in a shallow roasting pan. Add the hot broth to the pan; place the roasting pan in the oven. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F and roast for 45 minutes.
Carefully take the roasting pan out of the oven. Turn the duck breast-side up and replace onto rack. Dot the breast with half of the butter cubes and return to the oven. Roast for an additional 45 minutes to an hour (basting with the pan juices once and turning the roasting pan), or until you can until you can easily wiggle the legs in their sockets and the internal temperature of the thickest part of the drumstick reads 165°F. Remove the duck from the oven and place onto a cutting board; allow to rest for at least 15 minutes.
While the duck rests, prepare the sauce. Pour the vinegar into a saucepan over low heat with the peppercorns, chervil, and tarragon. Simmer until the vinegar has reduced by half. Strain into a bowl and allow to cool. Mix together the egg yolks, tomato paste, and cream to a heatproof bowl or double boiler. Season with 1/8 tsp. each salt and pepper. Set over barely simmering water; gradually whisk in the remaining butter. Remove sauce from heat and check for seasoning.
Carve the duck and set onto a serving platter: make it pretty, garnishing with any remaining herb sprigs. Serve with sauce spooned over the slices of duck. Enjoy!
Countdown to Thanksgiving: a complete work-ahead guide to the perfect Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with turkey and all the fixings.