Lapsang Souchong Duck Breast
Duck is commonly eaten around the world, though it has been slow to show up in American kitchens. It is classified as a white meat by the USDA, even though the meat is noticeably darker than chicken or turkey breast. This is because there’s a higher concentration of hemoglobin in the breasts, which ducks use when they fly; commercial chicken and turkeys are flightless. Duck has a reputation for being oily, and if it’s not prepared correctly then yes, that’s true. But the fat is fairly easy to manage if you’re cooking duck breasts, and in the end you’re rewarded with a succulent dinner that’s loaded with rich flavor and is unparalleled in its tenderness.
Because ducks are waterfowl that overwinter in cold locations, they put on a thick layer of fat all over their bodies. This is ideal as insulation and to help them keep afloat, but it’s less desirable on your dinner plate. Thus the first step to prepare duck breast is to cut shallow cross hatches through the skin. This will allow the fat to render, or seep out from the score marks, by directly exposing it to heat and giving it a pathway out from behind the skin. If you want most of the fat to render out, cut deeper into the fat without hitting the meat. If you want to leave a crescent of fat, keep the slices shallow, just at the surface. How will you know if you’re making contact with the meat? Texture. Fat is soft and pillowy and falls away from the knife as you slice. If you hit any resistance, you’re at the meat and need to raise the knife a little.
We were inspired by traditional Sichuan cooking as we thought about how to season savory duck breast. A specialty in the Sichuan province is tea-smoked duck, a dish that’s served at events like weddings and can take up to 7 days to prepare. A whole duck is marinated and then smoked over black tea and kindling, giving it a flavor that’s woodsy and smoky, with the herbaceousness of fresh tea behind it. Since we didn’t want to take seven days to wait for our meal, we chose to work with smoky, vanilla-y Lapsang Souchong. Dried over a fire made of pine branches, this tea is complex and deeply aromatic, with a bit of pine weaving its way through the smoke and the tea’s natural citrus and vanilla profile. Sichuan Pepper is sharp and woody with lemon undertones. They deliver a bit of heat and a numbing quality that doesn’t linger so much as it does tickle the mouth. To balance the depth and smoke we added the puckery tartness of Amchur, a dried sour mango powder that brightens up the end notes of this dish. We applied this DIY blend to the entire duck breast, even gently pressing the cross-hatching apart to season every available inch of duck.
To render the fat out most effectively, cook your duck skin-side down. To render it slowly, start the cooking in a cold pan. This gentle-heat approach will give the fat the longest time to soften and prevent the skin from crisping up too quickly. Turn the duck breasts skin-side up in the pan when the skin is beautifully crisp and mahogany brown. Put them in the oven for just five more minutes, to finish cooking. Once they’re done, move them to a plate to rest for ten minutes, and leave them alone. It’s important to move the duck breasts out of the cooking pan once they’re out of the oven, so residual heat doesn’t cook them more than you want and so the breasts don’t reabsorb the fat that’s been rendered.
If the duck is cooked to your preferred doneness and you decide there’s still more fat on top of the duck than you’d like, you can always trim the fat as you slice, returning the crispy skin to the duck. Save any fat that you’ve trimmed, either before or after cooking, as well as rendered fat in the pan, in a container and store it in your fridge. This is a great, buttery soft cooking fat; potatoes cooked in duck fat have attained legendary status in food circles, with good reason. Serve this with a cherry-wine or cranberry maple sauce, or nestle it on top of Ginger Wild Rice for a meal that’s rustic, elegant, and surprisingly easy to make.
1. Preheat oven to 450°F
2. Trim excess fat from the sides of the duck breast and score the skin in a shallow cross hatch pattern, being careful not to cut into the meat.
3. Toast the Sichuan Peppercorns in a medium-hot pan until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Combine with the other spices in a spice/coffee grinder and pulse to create a rough powder.
4. Season the duck breast generously on both sides, gently pressing the cross hatching open to fully season everything.
5. Put an oven-proof pan over medium heat. Place breast in the pan with the skin side down. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and dark brown.
6. Flip the duck breast and finish cooking in a 450°F oven for 5 minutes, until it is medium rare.
7. Remove duck breast from hot pan and place on a plate or cutting board. Allow duck to rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve.