The other weekend, my parents and in-laws visited for a cookout. My wife’s parents immigrated from Taiwan and love food of every kind. I’m too self-conscious to cook Chinese for them, yet I like twists on typical American specialties. I had the idea to barbecue duck, because why not? It seemed like a natural thing to do. They love duck and so do we. It also seemed like something for which it would be easy to find a recipe. After all, we live in the “sort-of” South, surrounded by prolific hunters.
Surprise. I could hardly find any recipes for barbecued duck at all and almost all that I could find were slow-cooker recipes. Clearly this is not as popular as I’d thought it would be. That’s a shame. Here’s why duck barbecue belongs in every backyard barbecuer’s repertoire:
1. Duck is ideally-suited for barbecue. Barbecuing tends to dry out most meat. Duck’s subcutaneous fat enshrouds and bastes its meat as it renders. For ribs, pork shoulder, or chicken, I prefer to foil-wrap the meat part-way through and/or place a water tray in the smoker to help prevent those meats from drying out. None of that was necessary here. My two ducks were turned half-way through and done in about six hours at a relatively hot 250 to 275 degrees F. They were the juiciest things I’ve ever barbecued. Also, duck meat is very forgiving. It’s hard to overcook or undercook. I found the meat pull-apart tender at about 170 degrees F. A little more cooking might have rendered off a little more of the subcutaneous fat, but I don’t mind it.
2. Duck tastes awesome smoked. Not only does the dry heat of a barbecue grill crisp the skin, duck’s dark meat stands up remarkably well to smoke. I brined the duck for about 24 hours in the following solution:
1 gallon water
1/2 cup salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon juniper berries
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise pods
I like to use this concentration with poultry as it seems to help it retain moisture more than a saltier brine. After brining, I allowed the ducks to rest on a rack, uncovered in the refrigerator overnight to dry out the skin.
Come early morning, I put the ducks near the fresh fire and added soaked cherrywood chips to the coals every 45 minutes for the first three hours. The cherrywood made the meat sing, but duck could probably stand up to stronger smokes like pecan or hickory better than other poultry.
3. Duck is surprisingly versatile. My in-laws pointed out that smoked duck is a classic Chinese dish, which I hadn’t even considered. They ate it straight-up and thought the duck would have been great served shredded or sliced on a Chinese pancake. I gave it the North Carolina BBQ treatment and served it on buns with cole slaw, and a simple pepper vinegar, which cut the fat one would expect of BBQ nicely. Speaking of fat, I trimmed the excess skin before cooking and rendered, because duck fat is culinary liquid gold and healthier than butter or lard. My in-laws pilfered the smoked carcasses for soup, but they would have made a great base for Cajun beans and rice.
In summary, why aren’t more people doing this? I’m of the opinion duck is the best meat most Americans never eat. Please help spread the word. It doesn’t have to be that way.