Essential Waterfowl Recipes: Rendered Breasts

By author of The Duck Blog

Our series cranks up with the most basic, and maybe the best

Late this summer, we took a look at a fool-proof way to use up left-over ducks in the freezer, by creating a great summer sausage to take to the blind. Now that the waterfowl season is in full-swing in many parts of North America, and just around the corner in others, it's time to investigate further the best ways to easily prepare waterfowl.

Each week, we’ll bring forward a new recipe or cooking method that’s a proven winner. Rather than give exact details for a specific dish, complete with pre-measured ingredients and the like, the inner-principles will be discussed, so you can make each your own.

In the real world of mallard-grilling and honker-baking, it makes no sense to get overly in-depth using techniques foreign to the duck-camp kitchen. And what good is a recipe if we have only a small portion of the ingredients?

For that reason, we’ll keep it simple, but uncover a bunch of secrets that can be used in your kitchen, tonight.

Installment Two: Rendered Duck Breasts

Many of you are likely well-versed in this method already. If you’re not, I guarantee you will be soon. I must admit, I had never tried the method until I watched Anthony Bourdain turn a bunch of duck hunters onto the technique on his TV show. They were flabbergasted by rendering’s ease and effectiveness. Once I tired it, I was too. 

In this sense, the term “rendered” simply means the duck breast is cooked in it’s own fat. For our sake, the fat is often not saved for use elsewhere, it’s simply used to cook the meat it came from.

Chefs around the world use the term more specifically, to describe actually cooking fat out of meat, and using it later in a variety of methods. You may recognize the dish Duck Confit, served at some of the snootiest places around, as a dish prepared this way.

It’s important to remember, however, that the majority of the restaurant-style cooking is done with domesticate ducks and “game birds”, not those flying down the pipe into your decoy spread. Those domesticated birds contain far more fat than wild birds - over twice as much. For that reason, cooking wild birds differs slightly from what you may gather after a quick Google search.

Rendered duck breast on cutting board

Our method of a rendered duck breast contains very few steps, but each is uniquely important.

Step one is to obtain cleaned duck breasts with the skin intact. I’m sorry to say that, if you’ve already cleaned your birds and did so at lightning speed by completing skinning the breasts, you’re simply out of luck for this recipe. You’ll have to wait until next week; there’s no way around it. However, if you took the time to pluck and save the skin on the breast, you’re in luck.

Next, most recipes will call for you to score the skin with a sharp knife in a cross-hatch pattern. Really, I’ve found this to be unnecessary due to the low level of fat in wild mallards. If you have particularly fatty birds, go ahead and give the skin a few slices. In any case, sprinkle a liberal amount of salt and pepper on each side of the breasts, and allow them to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes or so.

Moving forward, heat a skillet with a little butter or oil - just enough to lubricate - and get the pan warm; not searing hot, just warm. Place the ducks, skin-side-down, in the pan. Go watch TV.

I mean it. For the next six to eight minutes, do nothing other than wiggle the duck breasts a bit in the pan, keeping them searing on a medium heat. There will be a little smoke, but nothing excessive, and the duck breasts will shrink, but fatten up. You will begin to see blood come through the meat. Let them cook.

When the breasts seem to firm up a bit and the bleeding-through lessens, give them a quick flip. The now-exposed skin should look just short of burnt: thin, crispy and cooked. After the meat-side cooks for one minute, remove the birds from the heat.

Now comes one of the most important part of waterfowl cooking: let the birds stand at room temperature for a minimum of five minutes. If you can stand to give it 10, do so. Allowing meat to “breathe” allows the juice to flow back into the flesh, rather than out on the cutting board.

For the sake of us hunters, you have now “rendered” your duck breasts. There’s little fat left in the pan from wild birds, but there could be enough for the base of a sauce. Red wine will make a good starter there. But the meat will be tender, juicy and delicious. Most recipes call for the birds to be placed in the oven following the pan sear. Again, I have found this to be a matter or preference and really unneccasary, as long as the breasts are cooked to a nice medium-rare already.

This is truly one of the best, basic methods for cooking wild birds. It can be done with all wild duck species and even geese, although cooking times will have to be varied depending on the size of the breast.

The rendered waterfowl breast is our first for the season for a reason: it’s basic, and can lead to a lifetime of variations. So stop and pluck a few: you’ll be glad you did.