That title though! Haha! After arriving in the United States as a 4-year old, I spent most of my childhood and young adult years living in Mississippi and Tennessee, so please pardon my Southern phrases every now and then. You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the good Southern food out of the girl, I like to say! And as most people know, we Southerners are very proud of our cuisine! With the 2019 holidays now behind us, the new year is here. And for many Asians, the Lunar New Year is the next major holiday to be celebrated, so what a perfect time to make some delicious roasted duck!
Speaking of living in the South for much of my life, back in the 70’s and up until the early 90’s, it was a bit challenging finding certain ethnic foods from the motherland, especially if one grew up in a small Southern town like I did. Many of my family’s vacations were centered around visiting ethnically diverse meccas like Houston, TX or Orange County, CA. One of my favorite dishes for special occasions is Chinese roasted duck, and back then, even finding a duck in the freezer section of the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly grocery store was like trying to find the Holy Grail. Therefore, it was on these family road trips that my mom would load up the car with Asian ingredients, such as spices, pantry staples, meats, and seafood. We would even buy roasted whole ducks and drive them home frozen in a big cooler.
When the hankering for roast duck was really strong, there were special weekends that my mom would take me to the county outdoor trade fair (an outdoor farmers’ market/ flea market) and buy a live duck there. When I was in 2nd grade, my mom bought 2 live ducks, which I made the mistake of naming Presley and Priscilla (very fitting for growing up outside of Memphis). One day upon returning home from school, there was the aroma of duck and ginger rice soup bubbling atop the stove and no ducks to be found. Needless to say, I cried all through supper and didn’t speak to my mom for days. She said she had to make soup out of the ducks because they were annoying the neighbors and pooping all over the yard. If an HOA existed back then, I’m sure we would have been blacklisted from our neighborhood.
Anyhow, the point of this story is that sometimes you may not have the resources to go to a restaurant to buy Peking duck. Or you may live on a farm and have too many ducks pooping everywhere. Or you just want to spend 2 days making your own roasted duck. Whatever the reason, here I am to share with you how to make your very own Chinese-style roasted duck!
I’m not gonna lie. Making roasted duck from start to finish is not a walk in the park. A walk in the park at midnight in the hood, maybe, but you get my drift. Just kidding. It’s not that bad, just requires a couple days of preparation. First, you need to find a decent whole duck. When I say ‘decent’, I mean a fresh duck is best. In Houston where I now live, there are several Vietnamese-owned poultry farms scattered throughout the suburbs where you can buy a freshly slaughtered and cleaned duck. But if you are in the majority, you can always opt to buy a duck from the freezer section of the larger grocery store chains. The only issue with most frozen ducks is that they contain more fat and also carry more water weight. A better option for store-bought ducks would be to by an air-chilled duck if available. The traditional roasted ducks of Asia use free-range ducks, so they are leaner and will produce a crispier skin. If you can see the duck before buying it, try to choose the one with the least amount of fat under its skin if you desire a crispy duck. If you want a juicy duck, then you can use one with more fat. A few words about farm-bought or Asian store-bought ducks– they will more than likely come with their heads and feet still intact. I know the duck head might freak some of you out, but it’s actually reserved for the most important guest at the table or the elders in Asia. So sometimes being V.I.P. isn’t all that appealing, right? You can of course, ask the head to be chopped off or do it yourself with a heavy butcher knife.
Most Chinese restaurants prepare their crispy roast duck by first using a bicycle pump to pump air into the cavity between the skin and the flesh. This is so the skin will separate from the flesh, allowing the fat to render and drain away. The key to obtaining crispy skin is to get rid of as much moisture as possible. It is desirable for the duck fat to melt and drain out of the duck because any pockets of melted fat will make the overlying skin soggy. I once walked into the cold room of a Chinese restaurant and saw dozens of ducks hanging by their necks with bicycle pumps lying nearby. I have mental issues with sticking a bicycle pump nozzle into a dead duck — perhaps it is the thought of getting duck germs on my bicycle tires, or the crud from the asphalt lodged into my duck. Either way, in this recipe, you need only use your fingers to separate the skin from the meat with comparable crispy results. No bicycle pump required.
If you have ever prepared crispy oven-fried chicken wings using a mixture of baking powder and salt, then this method also works to crispen up duck. The basic pH of the baking powder weakens peptide bonds within the duck skin, allowing it to brown efficiently and become extra crispy. The added salt, as well as the overnight uncovered drying in the refrigerator help dehydrate the duck further for a crispy lacquered skin. Be sure to use an aluminum-free baking powder. Otherwise, the aluminum will give off a bitter taste to the duck, and we don’t want that. Please also use baking powder, NOT baking soda.
Honey gives the duck a beautiful mahogany color when roasted, and the distinctly Asian spices impart a delicious flavor and fragrance to the meat. For maximum flavor, the duck should be marinated overnight or 12 hours while it is also drying in the fridge. Don’t worry about the cloves and other spices sticking to the duck because these will fall off when the duck is immersed into boiling water. This step is essential to get rid of the wrinkles caused by pulling the skin away from the flesh and drying overnight in the fridge. After rapidly dipping in boiling water, the duck skin will tighten back up and look smooth and taut.
Roasting the duck in a vertical position allows the fat to drain downward and out of the bird. Years ago I owned a Ron Popeil Showtime Rotisserie Oven– yes, the “Set it and forget it” oven — when it was all the rage. It made the best roasted duck due to its ability to rotate in a vertical position and efficiently dumped out the melted fat. Since I no longer own a rotisserie oven, I stuff an empty drink can inside the duck cavity to allow it to stand vertically while roasting. This achieves the same results as a vertical rotisserie oven.
The finished crispy roasted duck is usually sliced up and wrapped in Mandarin pancakes or fluffy bao buns, with scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce. Roasted duck can also be served with rice or cut into generous pieces and placed into steaming bowls of ramen noodle soup. However you opt to enjoy it, you can’t go wrong! Happy New Year! Best wishes for good health, good food, and good times!
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Crispy Succulent 5-Spice Roast Duck
- 1 whole duck, about 3 – 4 pounds
- 1/3 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons rock sugar, crushed into a powder (if you can’t find rock sugar, you can use granulated sugar)
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 9 star anise, set aside 4.
- 1 teaspoon cloves (not ground cloves)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Two 2″ knobs of ginger (peeled, sliced, and slightly smashed)
- Outer peel from 2 oranges
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds (aniseed)
- 1 tsp Five-spice powder
- 1 small bunch of green onions
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a cleaver or mortar and pestle
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder (use aluminum-free only)
- One 16-ounce tall can of any drink, emptied and refilled halfway with water or dried beans (refilling helps weigh down the can so duck won’t topple over)
- large stockpot or lobster pot to boil enough water to cover duck
- meat hook or kitchen twine (used to dunk the duck into the boiling water)
- stainless steel cooling wire rack
- baking tray with rim
- large sturdy chopping board (I use this one)
- meat cleaver
- mortar and pestle for smashing /crushing
1. Rinse duck with water and thoroughly blot dry using paper towels. Place duck on a wire cooling rack (yes, the one used to cool your cookies on). Carefully separate the skin from the meat by inserting your fingers through the bottom of breasts and slowly moving upward and outward until you separate as much skin from the breasts and the joint where the thigh meets the body.
2. To make the marinade: Combine the honey, crushed rock sugar, soy sauce, salt, 5 star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, 1 of the sliced knobs of ginger, orange peels, peppercorns, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and five-spice powder into a medium pot. Add 1.5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly.
3. Take the duck and stuff the cavity with the remaining knob of ginger, 4 anise seeds, small bunch of green onions, and garlic cloves.
4. Add the duck and the marinade to a large container or bowl, turn the duck to coat evenly. Repeat the turning every minute for 10 minutes. Set aside to marinade in the spices for 1 hour or longer in the fridge.
5. Remove the duck from the bowl and set it on top of a wire cooling rack, which has a rimmed cookie sheet beneath it to catch drippings. Combine kosher salt and baking powder in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly all over the duck’s surface.
6. Place the duck and the entire tray, uncovered, and place into the refrigerator to air dry for 14 to 30 hours. You want a completely dry duck with a leathery appearance. Sounds weird, but trust me on this one.
7. When the drying time has ended, fill a large stockpot with enough water to cover your duck for dunking and bring to a rolling boil. Use either a meat hook or kitchen twine to securely attach your duck. I did not have a meat hook, so I used a long piece of twine and wrapped it underneath the duck wings with enough length leftover to safely allow me hold onto it and dunk the duck into the boiling water. Rapidly dip the duck into the boiling water two times, each time for 10 seconds. The duck skin should now look smooth and taut, no more wrinkly leather appearance. Place the duck on a wire rack, blot dry with paper towels, and allow to dry for 10 minutes. If you have a lot of time and patience, you can dry overnight in the fridge again for super crispy skin, but I certainly “ain’t got no time for this”!
8. Heat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, with the rack at the lowest position. Take an emptied drink can, fill it halfway with water or dried beans, and insert it into the duck cavity. Stand the duck upright on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. I had to break a duck leg and its tail to get it to stand. Violence is sometimes required, I guess. Roast the duck for 1 hour, rotating the tray each 30-minute interval for even browning. After 1 hour, the duck should be a beautiful golden brown.
Reduce the heat to 275 degrees and continue to roast the duck for another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the fat stops dripping. (Note: you can save the fat drippings in a glass jar and store in the fridge for frying different foods later. It’s like liquid gold!)
9. Allow duck to cool down for 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer duck to a cutting board and use a heavy butcher knife/ cleaver to cut the duck into pieces. I chop the duck up by first removing the head and appendages. Then I split the duck in half lengthwise, then that half in half again lengthwise, and lastly chop each of those lengths into smaller parts. Repeat the same for the other half.
10. Serve the duck with fluffy steamed buns or Mandarin pancakes, rice, or noodles. You can’t go wrong. Most importantly, savor and enjoy!