A perfectly cooked duck breast should have crispy, savory skin—a reward so good that it makes the tedious job of plucking worthwhile. Developing that crust and getting a juicy, medium-rare center is easy to do in theory, but can be tricky in practice.
I’ve cooked a lot of waterfowl in my life, using birds from different regions with diverse diets. These variables make wild ducks and geese beautifully unique and delicious, but it also makes them challenging in the kitchen. Waterfowl always require some intuitive cooking.
This guide can be used as a baseline for achieving properly seared duck and goose breasts every time. The method works best with plucked dabblers such as mallards, pintails, wood ducks, and wigeon. It’s also excellent for small, tender geese like specklebellies, snows, and lesser Canadas.
If you’re working with divers, I recommend checking out Cal’s tips on cooking diver ducks. If you have Canada goose breasts, this steakhouse goose recipe is one of my all-time favorite wild game meals.
Know What You’re Working With
When preparing to cook a duck or goose breast, I check the amount of fat first. I’ve seen birds with a thick layer of fat that resembles a domestic Muscovy, and I’ve seen some with so little insulation that the skin is nearly transparent. Fat matters when cooking because it acts as a barrier to heat transfer. A duck with little to no fat will cook very fast. A duck with lots of fat will take a little longer.
Dry Skin is Crispy Skin
The skin has to be dry in order to get crispy. If the meat is fresh, it shouldn’t take more than a good blot of paper towels. Frozen meat will release a lot of liquid while thawing. In that case, pat it dry and let it chill uncovered in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
Score the Skin
The secret to crispy skin is rendering the fat. The best way to do that is to score the skin by making cross-hatch marks with a sharp knife. While cutting, pull the skin taught with your fingers to be sure you’re only slicing the skin and fat, not the meat underneath. If there are holes from pellets, be gentle and work around those areas. If you have a duck or goose breast with little to no fat, I wouldn’t score the delicate skin to avoid the risk of puncturing through to the meat.
Remove from Fridge and Season
Pull the meat out of the fridge about an hour before cooking. This is important for two reasons. The first is that the meat cooks more evenly. The second is because cold skin hitting a hot pan will produce condensation. That extra moisture will inhibit the ability to create a crispy crust.
After pulling the bird from the fridge you can season with sea salt and cracked pepper. The longer the salt rests on the skin, the more moisture it will draw out. Just be aware of this and pat dry again before cooking if necessary.
The Perfect Pan-Sear
I like to use either a cast iron or stainless steel skillet. Cast iron is especially nice for well-fed birds because it takes longer to heat up, which leaves more time for the fat to render.
Once you’ve chosen your vessel, lay the breast skin-side down in the cold pan. You won’t need to use any cooking oil (more on that later). If cooking more than one breast, be sure not to crowd the pan. Now, turn the burner on between medium and medium-high. As it heats up, you should hear the breast softly sputter and gurgle. If it’s frying loudly, reduce the heat.
As the breast cooks, it will contract and dome up in the center. Use a spatula and gently press down on the center so that the skin gets full contact with the pan. Flip it when the crust is brown and crispy. This will take about 2 minutes for a duck and about 4 minutes for a goose.
Continue to sear on the opposite side to finish. The total cook time should be about 5 minutes for a small duck, 6 minutes for a large duck, and 8 minutes for a goose breast. You’re aiming for medium-rare doneness, which is 130 degrees. I prefer to pull the meat around 128 degrees and let it come to temp as it rests. You can press on the meat to feel for doneness like you do with steaks.
Hot or Cold?
Now, back to the cold pan and cooking oil debate. I start most of my plucked waterfowl in a cold plan, but there’s an exception to this rule. Remember that point about fat being a barrier to heat transfer? Fatty birds should start in a cold pan to allow time for the fat to render out without burning the skin or getting a chewy texture.
If you prepare a duck with very little fat without oil it will cook the meat directly. You’ll either get overcooked meat with crispy skin or perfectly cooked meat with rubbery skin. To remedy this situation, I sear the breast in a skillet pre-heated between medium and medium-high heat with a drizzle of cooking oil. Sear it for about 3 minutes on each side or until it hits 128 degrees. This method is also how I treat skinless duck or goose breasts.
Rest and Serve
The final step is to let the meat rest so that the juices flow back into the meat. Absolutely do not cover it—this steams the breast and removes that crispy skin you worked so hard to get. While resting, you can quickly stir fry mushrooms or veggies in the same pan using the rendered fat, or try making an easy pan sauce to serve with the meat.
With one bite you’ll realize what’s possible when you take the time to prepare waterfowl right. A perfectly cooked wild duck or goose breast is my favorite meal on Earth. I hope this guide helps you appreciate waterfowl as much as I do.