Cooking with a Whole Duck

Cooking with whole poultry is a great first step in getting into saving money, learning basic butchery, and improving your cooking skills. A whole bird is typically much cheaper than buying isolated parts like just breasts or legs. Plus there are tons of great bonuses. With duck, it’s a little different than chicken because ducks are much fattier and are also almost a red meat, so you don’t want to overcook it. Also, we will be working with a pastured bird, which has much more muscle, so parts of it will need to be braised. Because of the massive amount of fat and the fact that the different parts need vastly different types of cooking, breaking the duck down is recommended. This also allows me to stretch the duck into many different and interesting meals.

Our Duck

Is from Paulie’s Pasture, a farm in central Illinois. You can order your own from him

It was $18, but it makes quite a lot of different meals!

It lived its life on pasture. As this is autumn, the duck is more fatty than usual, as in the wild this is the time a bird is laying down fat for the winter.

Flavor Profiles

I used my normal flavor builder scheme, mindful of the fatty flavorful nature of duck and of the season. The formula is : sweet/savory/acidic. Each dish I made contained all three elements.

Maple: sweet

Hard cider (I used the totally roasted Vandermill cider, which is soaked with pecans for an extra awesome nutty flavor): sweet and a bit acidic

Maitake/Hen of the Woods mushrooms: savory

Sour cherry mustard:

Pine/bog myrtle/alder/juniper: savory notes

Maple/birch syrups: sweet

Stock I had made from a goat (but you can use any stock you have on hand): savory

Cranberry/lingonberry: sweet/acidic

I also used my favorite East Asian flavor profile for one dish, which is

A few drops fish sauce (I used Red Boat, which is really probably the best) + a dash of rice vinegar + garlic/chili paste (Sambal Oelek) to taste + lots of soy sauce + a dash of sesame oil

The other main flavor profile I used is something called mirepoix, which is simple but adds a great deal of flavor when you add it to a braise or stock. It’s simple and easy- just peeled carrots, celery, and halved onion.

Break Down

This part intimidates many people, but it shouldn’t. If you do something wrong in this step, nothing bad is going to happen. It’s not like baking where if you miss a step you end up with hockey-puck bread. If this were rocket science, humanity wouldn’t exist. That said, it’s worth learning some basics. I break down my poultry into these main parts

But actually there are many ways to do it. You can break down the wings further or do bone-in breasts for example. Here are some great videos that can give you some ideas.

With the magic of google, you can easily find a great variety of poultry breakdown methods. With this type of duck, it’s very useful to have good knives and poultry shears to get through the tough muscles and trim off the fat.

Trimming off fat is something I do not recommend for chicken, but with duck there is A LOT of fat, more than you need to cook the actual duck, and it has many culinary uses. So trim off the stuff that’s not covering the actual thighs/wings/breasts, chop off, and we’ll render that.

Rendering Fat

You guys saw me use the dry render method. This just consists of chopping up the fat and

There is another method called wet rendering that is recommended if you want a more pure fat

I always render the fat, it’s a crime not to, as duck fat is one of the most prized culinary ingredients in the world and costs a pretty penny in the store.

At the end of rendering, you should have a nice yellowish liquid + some brown globs. Those globs are cracklings and I usually save them for cornbread or other culinary uses. Fry them until crispy and use like bacon in recipes. We filtered them out and poured the duck fat into jars. It can be used to cook anything where you would normally use olive oil, butter, or lard. Or you can use it for confit.


WIth the breasts you want to keep the skin on , trimming some of the fat globules off the sides and scoring the skin by cross-hatching. The duck breasts, unlike chicken breasts, are perfect when cooked rare to medium-rare, with a bit of dark pink in the middle.

I used a cast iron pan and did not add any fat to the pan. The breasts have enough of their own fat and the scoring helps release it. After scoring I patted the breasts dry, added a little salt and pepper, and put it skin down on a med-hot pan. I kept it on medium high for 7 minutes, then turned to low for 3 minutes, then flipped and cooked on low for an additional 4 minutes.

Then I let the meat “rest” for 3 minutes, then removed from the pan. I poured off about half the fat, leaving some in to cook vegetables with. The vegetable I cooked was the hen of the woods mushrooms, deglazing the pan (adding liquid and using spatula to scrape bottom of the pan) with the cider. I spiced them slightly with wild bog myrtle though you can use any nice savory spice like pepper or juniper berries.

I also used the duck fat to cook some frozen unsweetened lingonberries with a bit of cider until soft. I was planning on using local cranberries, but they took more time to break down than I expected, but if you make the sauce in advance it’s really easy, just simmering the cranberries in water until they break down and sweetening with maple to taste. I mixed some birch syrup with the sour cherry mustard to make the sauce. I sliced the duck breast thin and plated with the mushrooms on the side and sauce on the top with lingonberries as garnish.

Fried Rice/Stock

This is a great quick leftover meal plus an important culinary ingredient to have on hand- homemade stock. I inspected the carcass for bits of meat, which are often left over when you don’t butcher it perfectly. I cut them off and browned them in duck fat, adding my East Asian flavor profile as I cooked. I had some leftover haiga rice on hand and I added this to the pan, browning it a little, then added a pastured egg yolk.

The carcass was then broken apart by a somewhat strong man (you can use a cleaver if you do not have one on hand) to fit in my crock pot, where I covered it with water and left it on low for the remainder of the night and following day. Then I filtered it and reduced it by half through simmering and stored in ice cube trays to add to dishes for that prized savory “umami” flavor. You can just store it in the fridge though and if a nice fat “cap” forms in the jar, it will keep for weeks until you break that. Otherwise, use within a week.


Any pastured bird will have spent much of its life running around, resulting in strong legs that should be braised so the meat is not tough.I usually braise in the crock pot on low for 6-8 hours, but this time we used a dutch oven. However, an hour was not long enough to really get the legs broken down, so if you are pressed for time, a pressure cooker works well.

For the dutch oven I preheated up to 400 F. Then browned the duck in some of the reserved fat from the breasts. Then I covered halfway with a random amount of stock (savory), some cranberry liquid (acid/sweet), and cider (acid/sweet). You can’t go wrong with the liquid. I also added mirepoix and a mixture of chopped local autumn vegetables: sweet potatoes, celeriac, and purple potatoes. I put in the oven for half an hour, turned down the heat to 350, and cooked it for half an hour more. The legs were still a little though so it needed more braised, but we ate it anyway. Some of the liquid can be reduced to make a good sauce or you can eat it a bit like a soup.

Bonus items if you have time

Pate: if your duck comes with bonus giblets, particularly the liver, make this easy pate

I sauteed it until cooked through in a tablespoon of duck fat with a clove of garlic and a bit of shallot I had leftover from another recipe, plus the leftover stems of some hen of the woods mushrooms. Then I de-glazed the pan with drysack sherry and Nordic Creamery harvest butter. I put the de-glaze and duck liver mix + 1/4 teaspoon salt + 1/4 teaspoon black pepper + 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika + some fresh mint leaves and processed. Fantastic.

Confit: if you have a ton of fat, confit the wings or legs

Total possible yield:


Fried rice

Duck fat (use to cook eggs, vegetables, anything really)

Stock (make soup/risotto/sauces/braise)


Legs with vegetables