The Proof of the Duck is in the Eating

I was intrigued by Conor’s Canard à l’Orange post. He cooks the duck breast on the skin side over low heat for 30-40 minutes to render the fat out of it, while I always do this as quickly as possible over high heat. My theory behind this was that this would lead to less overcooking of the duck meat, but since Conor knows his business I thought I needed to give his method a try. Empirical evidence is better than theoretical speculations. Or in other words, the proof of the pudding duck is in the eating.

I started with a pair of regular duck breasts. I trimmed the fat a bit, which I realised later is not such a great idea with the low & slow method, as the skin will shrink quite a bit. I scored the skin of both breasts with a sharp knife to ease the rendering, making sure not to pierce the meat underneath.

The first one was cooked over low heat for 40 minutes.

I spooned off the rendered fat as per Conor’s instruction (I says to pour it off actually, but this seemed easier).

After 40 minutes most of the fat had rendered out and I seared the other side quickly in some remaining duck fat. The middle of the duck skin was not crisped up as well as the outside; I’m not sure how to prevent that other than pushing down on the duck while it’s cooking.

I rendered the second duck over high heat in 5 minutes. The result is on the left-hand side. Less of the fat has rendered, but the skin hasn’t shrunk as much and it’s quite a bit browner.

I finished cooking the duck breasts sous-vide, sealed together in a single pouch. I cooked them for 3 hours at 55C/131F for medium rare.

High & fast sear on the left, low & slow on the right. Both were good, but there was a clear difference. Not only the skin was very different, but also the doneness. The high & fast was medium rare, but the low & slow turned out medium rather than medium rare. The duck meat had been cooked to medium during the fat rendering process. Kees preferred the medium duck breast with the low & slow skin, where I always prefer medium rare and that was also true in this case. The low & slow has a thinner skin that is more crispy. The latter advantage is only maintained when you finish cooking the duck breast in the oven (unlike I did).

So the conclusion is that if you like your duck breast medium and you have the time, low & slow rendering is better, especially if you finish cooking in the oven. For medium rare, you have to render high & fast to prevent cooking the meat to medium while rendering.


24 thoughts on “The Proof of the Duck is in the Eating

  1. I did duck the same way you did until I saw something on a cooking show stating the slow and low method. I’ve tried it and end up doing a hybrid as I like the medium rare to medium. I do slow and low to render some fat then up the temp a bit. I had to play around with it though.


  2. I love it! I am flattered that you would take my approach so seriously. I suspect that you went slow enough but not low enough. Also, perhaps the trimming also led to the centre of the breast rising in the cooking, though I do a bit of trimming myself. I prefer the medium rare too. Great experiment and for me, an enjoyable read. Thanks Stefan.


    1. This depends on whether you’d like to have wine with it and what wine.

      Canard à l’Orange is a classic. I still have to do a post on that. It goes best with a sweet late-harvest gewurztraminer.

      Plum sauce is also good. I did a post on that with smoked duck, but it works also well with sous-vide duck. A red dessert wine such as reciotto della valpolicella is outstanding with this.

      If you’d prefer a red wine, I’d recommend a red wine sauce. Pour off most of the fat after rendering and browning the duck. Sauté a chopped shallot and minced garlic clove along with thyme and bay leaf in the duck fat remaining in the frying pan. Deglaze with red wine and chicken stock (or duck stock). Reduce, sieve, and mount with butter. Great with many full-bodied reds.


  3. I’ve seen and heard both methods of cooking duck breast — and the chefs involved believed their method the only way to do it. Thanks for taking the time to do a side by side comparison, Stefan.


  4. I now cook the breast and skin separately (skin wedged between greaseproof paper and baking trays in the oven, breast sous-vide), which I find gives both the crispy skin (it kind of resembles a large ‘duck scratching’) and the perfectly cooked breast, but back when I cooked everything in a pan, Conor’s low and slow method would have got my vote. I found the trick was to start with a cold pan, and keep the heat a little lower than you think you need.


    1. Looks like I have to repeat the experiment with even lower heat.

      I tried cooking the skin separately once, but I didn’t enjoy eating the duck skin separately. I prefer to eat it with the meat in a single bite. The skin was deformed too much to attach it back to the meat.


    1. I’ve heard and read about cooking the skin and meat seperately, but I tried that once and didn’t care for it much as the skin shrunk a lot and was not very good to eat separately.


  5. Great comparison! I’ve tried lots of different ways, and allways end up where I began, searing the breast skin-side down on high temperature for a medium (not short) time. Then I turn it and sear it for a few seconds on the “red” side, just to get the nice maillard reaction. Then I let it rest in the stove on low temperature (70 celcius) while I fry the mushrooms in the duck fat and finish the sauce. Medium-rare meat, crispy skin.


    1. Hi Justin,
      The duck skin will only become crisp after a lot of the fat has rendered from it. This will not happen during the sous-vide cooking at 55C/131F, as that temperature is too low for the fat to render. When it’s done afterwards over high heat, the same trade-off between crisp skin and medium rare meat is still there. If the duck is seared straight from sous-vide, it will be cooked to medium as the meat is already at medium rare and it will be warmed up to medium. Of course that could be avoided by allowing it to cool first.


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