08 December 2006

Peking Duck: Attempt #1

One of the joys of cooking is that, in our modern age with access to all sorts of varied ingredients, as well as the ability to grow just about anything in this rich Delta soil of southeast Tennessee, if you've got the knowledge, time, and inclination, you can try dishes from all over the world without spending a lot on a plane ticket.

Now, I'm not going to admit that I can in any way replicate the sheer pleasure found in eating baby octopus freshly caught off the Ligurian coast of Italy and either flash-fried or cooked in a sort of bouillabaisse. There are certain local, fresh ingredients that don't travel well. But there are plenty of others that do, and more importantly, techniques can be learned and applied worldwide.

For instance: Peking Duck. Never had it in a restaurant. I've had duck in various Chinese joints, but not that particular dish. And with fresh ducks cheap and plentiful these days, I decided to try it out... Though I didn't quite succeed. For those of my readers who think that I do everything perfect on the first try, this is an example to the contrary.

The bizarre photo to the right is of my humble stove in la cucina di Benito. I trimmed the duck (saving all of the scraps for stock), boiled it for a while, dried it, rubbed the interior with salt and sugar and the exterior with molasses, and then hung it to dry with the roasting pan to catch anything that fell. Yes, that's a trussed duck hanging from the partition between two cabinets above my stove.

Normally you hang a duck like this for hours or days in a cool room (preferably with the head and feet on, and you need to be working a busy stall in Kowloon smoking a cigarette and wondering if you're going to sell enough dried jellyfish to make the evening worthwhile). I was impatient and had a dinner guest on the way. So I cheated and used a blow dryer. Yes, for half an hour I worked over the bird, discovering that if it's hanging like this, you can make it spin just with the force of air from the hair dryer. From here the duck went on the roasting rack and then baked at 375° for just shy of an hour.

The final product, certainly not the crisp and lovely mahogany bird of legend. However... The skin around the thighs and legs was perfect, nicely dry, crispy, and caramelized. And the meat throughout was wonderful, if a little more on the medium-well side. At home, I generally eat the breast in a genteel manner with fork and knife, and then consume the leg and thigh by hand. I served it with some couscous, freshly steamed broccoli, and the 2004 Francis Coppola Claret, a wonderful wine that isn't being made anymore.

What have I learned from this experiment? Apparently part of the secret of crispy duck skin is to remove as much fat as possible beforehand, and the thighs definitely had less fat than the breasts. Once it gets nice and cold and bugs aren't an issue, I might try this again and hang the duck in a mesh bag in a dark corner outside for a day or so and see how it dries out.


Edward said...


You are a brave man to try this.
I love Peking duck, but reading the instructions is very off putting.
From what I can recall the secret to crunchy skin is to inflate the duck! You can use a bicycle pump - place it under the skin and pump away - this lifts the skin from the meat. I think you do this after the boiling stage.
There is a chef in Australia - Cheong Liew - who is well regarded and he has written a book which mentions this.

Good luck, I assume the #1 means you will be back for more punishment!

Anonymous said...

WOW, Ben you never cease to amaze me. What an under taking. Edward is correct about the blowing up, so to speak, of the Duck. However it is before the boiling stage. The boiling, not only renders the fat since it is now seperated from the skin but also tightens the skin and prepares it for the drying out which is the main thing in Peking Duck. It will be hard to do since all of the ducks you get will, more than likely, not have a head!! But keep up the efforts I am sure you will get it done.

Allen said...

I have been lucky to travel to China for the last 5 years. My visits to Beijing always include Peking Duck. Keep working on it and I will be happy to support tasting trials.