While there are a number of great recipes for duck breast out there, I find myself going to back to the grill more often than not. There’s something about a hot fire (and a good rub) that turns this simple cut of meat into high culinary art. It’s easy, too, and when done right will convince even the most ardent hater of all things waterfowl into someone who will beg their way onto your duck boat next fall.
Pluck It: While a skinned duck breast grills up just fine, one that has a protective layer of skin still on, along with a little fat, will be infinitely better. So, all my duck breasts during the season get plucked, which in reality, takes only a minute or two longer to do than skinning. As I’ve mentioned before, a propane torch works wonders in getting rid of pin feathers.
Two-Zone Fire: Set up your grill so you have a hot side and a cool side. With charcoal, that means piling all your coals to one side. For a multi-burner gas grill, turn on one burner and leave the rest off or on low. Anytime you’re grilling, this type of fire provides the flexibility to move meat and vegetables around to prevent overcooking and control flare-ups.
Render the Fat: Generally, a wild duck will not have as much fat as domestic fowl, though certain species—a grain-fed, mid-migration mallard, for example—may have enough that you’re going to want to render it. This results in a crisper skin that’s not chewy or rubbery. To do this, place the breast skin-side down over the cooler side of the fire and cover the grill. This will allow the fat to drip without flaring up and turning your duck into charcoal. This could take up to 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the heat of the grill and the size of the duck breast. Once the fat is rendered, move the breast to the hot side of the grill and crisp the skin.
Sear the Flesh: Once the skin is crisp, turn the breast over to the meaty side. The heat will drive the blood back to the center of the breast and sear the outside. You don’t need to cook it long on this side, so monitor the breast closely and pull it when a thermometer slipped into the meat reads 135 to 140 degrees, which will be medium rare. If you’re squeamish about eating it at that stage, cook it to medium (150 degrees), but realize for every degree higher, you’re losing both taste and tenderness until you end up with that piece of shoe leather many hunters so often complain about.
Rest (Or Don’t), Then Slice: I’m generally not a very patient person, so resting meat before slicing is difficult for me. Add to that the growing opinion that it’s not necessary, and my meat rarely sits more than five minutes before I cut into it. That said, when grilling duck breasts, I tend to let them rest a bit before serving. This allows them to cook just a bit more and let any remaining fat set before I slice it.