Friday, April 1, 2011

Guilty as charged: I love whole ducks, and there's a really good reason for that

I was accused the other day of being a snob because I am a proponent of using as much of the animals we kill as possible. This means, most importantly, that I don't breast out ducks.

Not only does this position risk offending established hunters who grew up breasting out their ducks, I was told, but it risks alienating hunting newbies by holding them up to a standard that, basically, only the stupendous and amazing Hank could meet.

Well, Hank is a freak, and he'd be the first to admit that. He makes wild boar liver creme caramel, goose gizzard carpaccio and duck liver ravioli. And it's all good. I know, because I eat everything he cooks.

But, seriously, duck hunters, I don't expect you to cook like he does (though it would be nice if you ordered his upcoming book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, which comes out in late May).

And I'm not going to start telling Yo' Mama jokes if your mama raised you to breast out your ducks.

I will, however, strongly encourage you to use more than just the breasts of the ducks you kill, because 1) there's a ton of tasty meat on the rest of the duck, and 2) you don't have to be a great chef to make it taste good.

Let's address Point 2 first. I do very little cooking in our house, because Hank is just way better at it. But I do roast my own whole ducks, because it's super easy.

The short version is that you salt the duck, brown it all over in a cast iron pan, pop it in a 450-degree oven, cook it until the breast meat hits 135 degrees, let it rest under a tent of foil for five minutes, then serve. (Here are the detailed duck roasting instructions.)

Though teal and ruddy ducks are single-serving critters, I can usually get at least two meals out of a medium-sized duck (wigeon, gadwall) and three out of a large duck (mallard, pintail).

This is where we get to Point 1.

The first meal is slicing off the breasts. I did this for lunch just this Thursday with a fat little wigeon I killed in December, and here's how much meat I got from the breasts:

So, that's what you would've gotten off this bird if you'd breasted him out. That scale reads 4 3/8 ounces. And yes, these were like crack cocaine - after I finished eating the breasts, I wanted to go eat the rest of the bird, bones and all.

But I was saving it for this blog post, so I threw the rest of the carcass into the fridge to chill overnight. Then this morning, I picked off all the meat, fat and skin that I could get - this would be a lunch I could take to take to work.

Now, this wigeon was particularly obese, so I got a lot of fat. But apparently Hank really wrecked his wings when he shot him, because this pato gordito came out of the package looking like Venus de Milo - no wing meat for me!

(I know duck wings seem pretty insubstantial and are a total pain in the ass to eat on the bone. But when you're picking the carcass, there's definitely enough meat on the wings to make them worth the effort.)

When it was all picked, I diced up the meat so I could throw it into a quick fried-rice concoction: Duck bits (no added fat needed), chili flakes, garlic, salt, rice.

Here's what I got:

Yep, that's 5 1/4 ounces.

Now, if you're concerned about all that Fatty McFat Wigeon's fat clogging my arteries, don't be - I saved the fat from the frying pan, and it was still liquid at room temperature this morning - a sign it's good-for-you fat. (And if you'd like to read my smug blog post on my latest cholesterol test, click here.)

Now, people like my buddy Charlie would need two of those wigeons to make a satisfying meal (though he'd really prefer if they were two pintails). That's not the point here. The point is that if you think there's not enough meat on a duck to make it worth eating more than the breasts, you might want to reconsider.

What if you hate plucking whole ducks? I sure understand that - plucking is a pain in the butt, and it's the last thing I want to do with my stupid arthritic hands after a day in a wet and windy marsh (I prefer wrapping them around a glass of bourbon).

There is an easier alternative: pluck the breasts and legs and take them out together, each breast attached to a leg. My friend Brent, who hunts up at Lower Klamath, processes his ducks like this, then marinates and grills them. They taste outstanding every time.

The upshot? You worked hard to bring those ducks home. You might as well get all the meat out of them that you can. It sure can't hurt to try, right?

UPDATE: Since writing this blog post, I've produced three videos on how to handle whole ducks:

How to Skin a Duck: For sea ducks or other ducks with off flavors. Removing the skin and fat removes the bad flavors.

How to Pluck a Duck: For all ducks that always taste good (where we live, that's generally pintail, greenwing teal, mallard and wigeon; spoonies and gadwalls can be iffy).

How to Gut a Duck: Part two of the process you begin with plucking.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Erik Jensen said...

I haven't duck or goose hunted in years, I mostly hunt members of the deer family and then some upland birds on occasion, although I hope to spend some time in a marsh again soon. I have to say that one reason to not breast out ducks not mentioned here is it dries out the meat horribly in my experience. I've had breasts of various species given to me, and I may have made errors like overcooking, but they turned out tough and dry. The ducks I used to shoot, usually teal early in the season and mallards later, we would pluck, and having the skin on kept them good and moist. It was definitely worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

Plucking isn't so much of a "chore" to me as long ago I splurged and bought my own plucking machine.

Still we do skin a lot of our Ducks and we take the breast meat and (always) the legs (my Fav is grilled Teriyaki Mallard drummies, NOTHING better!)

While I still have a number of whole plucked Mallard & Pintail carcasses out in the freezer to cook up Hank's way/s, this year we took in 46# of Mallard breasts to this wonderful place, Otto's Sausage Kitchen in Portland and they made two kinds of Summer Sausages for us. LOTS of sausage!

Now I'm discovering all kinds of different ways to enjoy this delicious sausage. We're eating it straight, on crackers with various different cheeses with wines or beers, and even in various sandwichs. Miss Lil just loves this sausage and wants to do this again next season.

The Duck fat might be o.k. for our arteries, but what about when everything else you eat has "Tillamook Cheese" or "Dubliner" stamped on it?!!

Bill C.-Orygun

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Chap said this to me about twenty years ago, it's proven to be true many many times.

'That's the annoying thing about snobs, they usually know what they are talking about.'

Ho hum

Phillip said...

Holly, you damned snob.

Nothing wrong with promoting full use of game meat. I've never felt like promoting an idea was equal to discriminating against folks who don't share it. But the thing is, if you set a good example, some folks who don't live up to that example tend to get a little defensive.

Just something you'll have to live with I guess. I bet you can.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Good points and pointers, Holly. I'll keep them in mind if I ever end up with a duck or two in hand.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Erik: Skin is fat, fat is flavor - and moisture. To me, throwing away skin is like throwing away filet mignon.

I used to assiduously remove all fat from meat on my plates back when I gave a rat's ass about looking anorexic, but now I recognize that animal fat is a gift that should be enjoyed, not tossed.

Sometimes we have people over for dinner who are still trimming fat, and I have to stop myself from taking it off their plates and shoving it down my throat.

Bill C: We've thought about the plucker, but we worry about it tearing the skin. Do you have much problem with that?

And Dubliner? Never heard of it. ;-)

SBW: I truly believe that most people who breast out all their ducks have either never tried eating the rest of the duck or have but haven't had a good recipe or instructions to work with. I can't imagine tasting good duck leg and continuing to toss it. That'd be like buying 5 pounds of pork and tossing 3 pounds of it.

Phillip: I'm recovering nicely, thanks!

Tovar: Be careful - once you eat wild duck, you might get obsessed with it. That was probably the biggest factor in convincing me it was time to start hunting myself - if I liked duck that much, I might as well help bring it home.

Jamie said...

Using a hand-held butane torch reduces the pain of plucking I used to experience...pluck all you can, then torch and rinse/wipe off the pin feathers/etc.

Finally, roast the carcasses, toss in a pot for broth with a carrot/onion/celery (go all the way to consume, if you're a "Hank") freeze and then re-heat with a shot of sherry for your next outing when it's cold!

Use everything, except the "quack"'ll feel great about your hunting such beautiful birds of all feathers

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

I can (sort of) understand the people who breast pheasants, that whole tendon yanking thing has a bit of a knack to it and not everyone has more than one set of grips handy. But ducks? for ducks sake! the skin is the best bit, just like most birds the legs are where the flavour is, the breasts are basically a connivence food that come free with the legs.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Jamie: The method we use is waxing. I hope to put up a video about this before the next duck season, but in short, we rough-pluck the exterior feathers, then dip the bird in a pot of hot water and paraffin, then drop the bird in a basin of cold water to cool. Then we peel of the wax - same principle as waxing leg hair.

The part that bothers me, oddly enough, is handling the wet waxed duck after the rough-plucking - really bothers my fingers for some reason.

And you're right about roasting the carcasses for broth - nothing finer than the smell of roasting duck bones filling your house. Hank also tosses the duck feet in the broth - adds lots of yummy collagen. Then, because he is insane, he turns it into demiglace, which is a fancy word for duck broth jello. (Seriously, check it out.) I don't think I'd go quite that far if I had to live on a desert island without Hank, but it's pretty cool what you can do with this stuff.

SBW: Funny thing is I really don't understand breasting with upland birds because I think the breast meat is the worst part - dries easily, not a lot of flavor. I'm a leg girl :-). But I realize I'm in them minority on this one. Hell, I pluck tiny doves whole and enjoy the one nibble I get from each leg. I am insane. I know.

Anonymous said...


No, the plucker doesn't tear the skin at all unless there's some area that's already badly torn; then it will if you let it. (I usually pull out the feathers near/around a tear and that prevents further tearing from happening)

Dubliner is a white cheddar from Ireland that's so delish it's addictive. The best version we've found so far is "Dubliner w/Stout"...yum!

They probably have it at your local Cosco, that's where I buy it.

(I'll e-mail you some pics of the plucker & plucked birds)

Bill C.-Orygun

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I saw this:

"NorCal Cazadora said...
Jamie: The method we use is waxing. I hope to put up a video about this before the next duck season, but in short"

I'm here to let you know that the machine plucker plucks the birds "smooth as a baby's a**"

You don't even need to singe 'em.

The only time there's difficulty with the plucker is: 1-Pinfeathers, it doesn't pull out pinfeathers. 2-wet feathers, like ducks that have been sitting somewhere that's wet/muddy, or in the bottom of a small boat in the rain (it ALWAYS rains here!) or 3-Bloody feathers.

For the wet feathers, I'll fluff 'em up and even sometimes use a hair dryer and that dries them and away we go.

Pinfeathers and bloody feathers (they're both "greasey" to the plucker fingers and it doesn't "grab" them) they just have to be plucked by hand.

But that's usually just a small percentage of the total Duck's area so it just slows things down a little.

A big Mallard can be 100% plucked (smooth!) in ~2-3 min. FWIW.

Bill C.-Orygun

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL, I love Dubliner - I was being a tad facetious :-).

Bloody and wet feathers and shot portions, it seems, will be the difficult spots no matter how you pluck, because they're not easy with our method either.

So, here's the most relevant question: How much did the plucker COST? I'm a big fan of investing in things that make life better, but that philosophy does have limits, usually connected to my paycheck or credit limit.

Peebs said...

Yes I do eat a whole mallard/pin or usually 3 teal. I bbqed a pin/mal pair last night (OMG) first bbqed I have had in a while. They were like candy I cut them in half before cooking and eat the mal half first if you eat the pin first you won't want the mal. I will heat up the other two halfs tonight for dinner. I found myself actually sucking the small amount of meat off the ribcage they were so good. You really have to be careful not to overcook when you bbq, I cook them with garlic butter but be carefull the will litterly burst into flame and burn until they use up all the oil in their bodies.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

I know what you mean about Pheasant breast being a little bland i nearly always eat 'em stuffed with the leg meat. It's those tendons that turn to needles when cooked that i think are off putting, still a nail driven into the door frame or a set of mole grips usually cures the problem

Barbara Baird said...

Agree with the principle, Holly. And that includes turkeys, too. We've had some mean delish drumsticks with dumplings and drumsticks with homemade noodles. Use it all. Tie the feathers into flies and catch some trout. Use a wingbone to make a call. Use it, use it, use it and enjoy the process. Oh, and always be thankful.

Ingrid said...

You know I don't eat duckies, but I think you're right, Holly, in that if a hunter wants to use the reasoning that he or she is just part of the natural food chain like any wild predator, bill to tail most closely matches how a predator survives. Ever look closely at coyote scat? Or owl pellets? I have photos of wild poo that definitely document nose to tail dining among non-human hunters. Wild animals don't have the luxury of breasting a duck, even if sometimes there's division of duty over which animal eats what part. To me, your advocating for whole-animal-eating is in line with your personal belief about your role in the food chain. I will say, though, that if you're not swallowing rat phalanges whole, you ain't no real predator. ;)

Ingrid said...

p.s. part of the reason I don't eat ducks or deer or pigs (or others) has to do with a different facet of the same idea. As a kid, I only liked white meat and tasteless meats like burgers. Offal and dark meat like venison and duck made me puke, as did strong-tasting meat like boar and rabbit (grew up in Europe, lots of things in the butcher shop). When I got older, I decided that if I wasn't prepared for the grossness and reality of offal, innards, blood sausage, cow tongue and pigs feet (which my old-country relatives ate), then I probably shouldn't be a carnivore.

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL, our bird- and rat-eating cat Harlequin has the loveliest softest coat. She's been hanging around in the house for the past several weeks because of bad weather (at age 4, she's getting a bit soft) and her coat hasn't been quite the same. But she killed a bird this morning, so she should be looking better soon.

Funny, I have a friend who likes meat, but HATES handling it, so when she cooks, she cooks vegetarian, but when she eats out, she has no problem eating meat. I definitely believe people should follow their preferences, if for no other reason than the fact that our bodies know what we need. I love meat - I eat lots of it.

Ingrid said...

You know, Holly, I miss certain meats, believe it or not, because I grew up with them. (Not game meats or organ meats, mind you.) I was also born allergic to several vegetarian proteins, and to the one animal protein that I don't have too much trouble rationalizing: eggs (like the ones produced by my friend's pampered and not-slaughtered chickens :). In other words, it would be a lot less complex for someone like me, with my physiology, to have no philosophical stance about animals and the production of meat. It's like a cosmic joke that I have these dueling imperatives in my life, maybe never full reconciled.

I realize there are people who eschew foods simply because they don't like them. But I think many people who choose to eliminate foods (meat or other) for health or philosophical reasons, do so with some measure of sacrifice. After his heart attack, my dad didn't love giving up his fatty meats and sugars. But he embraced the trade-off and became a super athlete at 50 (this was years ago).

I think most of life is a trade-off, whether or not people realize it. You're giving up something else in the process of a choice, even if it's an intangible. I'm not one of those people for whom it's easy to make some of these decisions. Living with my self-punitive conscience, however, seems to be a hell of a lot harder. So, I try to walk my talk where possible. Maybe I'd be a candidate for lab-grown, animal-free, petri meat (ewww).

NorCal Cazadora said...

"Ewww" is right - that stuff is nasty! I think you'd be better off with the faux-meat Taco Bell uses. :-)

SimplyOutdoors said...

I can't even try to say that you're a snob for the way you decide to cook a duck, because I've never even killed one before, nor have I ever gone duck hunting. Plus, I would never call anyone a snob, simply because of the way they choose to process an animal.

But, I think I may be missing out on some meat when it comes turkey hunting. We always breast out our turkey meat - it's the way we were taught - but I'm curious about how much meat we may be missing out on.

I'm going to have to investigate that.

Thanks for the indirect tip.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Well, if Hank or I ever get to go turkey hunting this spring (*#&$*@#&$!!), I could tell you precisely. (Nope, no frustration there!)

But, oddly enough, exactly one year ago today, I posted this photo of Hank breaking down a turkey, and as you can see, those are some meaty legs.

Then there was this turkey I bagged in '08.

The only difference between a wild turkey and a domestic turkey is that the domestic has bigger breasts and less fat. So, if you like drumsticks and thighs with your domestic Thanksgiving turkey, there's a good chance you'll like 'em on the wild ones.

They are a huge pain in the ass to pluck, for sure. But I think that's a lot of meat that, if nothing else, you can have ground into sausage at your local butcher, if you're not inclined to pluck. (And if you want to use it for sausage, there's no need to pluck because you don't put skin in sausage - just skin the bird and be done with it.)

Hunt Like You're Hungry said...

Holly- I'd love to go into all the reasons I agree with you, but I'll keep it simple.
Amen, sister.



ps. YUMMMMM. Thank you for making me salivate for next season..

Peebs said...

I'm not a big fan of wild turkey but the few I have gotten I brest them and fry the brest cut in steaks. I take the legs and back and boil it till the meat falls off use the broth (with a little chicken broth) to make noodles and or make dumplings strip the meat from bones (give bones to my ferral cats) makes two or three good meals.

NorCal Cazadora said...

HLYH: This is why I'm glad I'm getting better at duck hunting...

Peebs: I'm generally not the one cooking the turkey - we get enough ducks that I don't worry about screwing up, but we get a turkey like every other year, so I leave it in Hank's hands.

He did make a really yummy breast dish last year - turkey marsala (great dish, not one of my best photos). The other stuff gets put into other dishes (yeah, that's all I can say).

And can I just say it's AWESOME that Google AdSense is serving up a breast cancer ad below? BREAST BREAST BREAST BREAST BREAST. That sure gets the search engine's attention, LOL.

Anonymous said...


Easy way to pick a turkey is to hang it upside down by its feet. The feathers will fall forward and seperate. Then its easy to pick and you dont rip the thin skin. Picking them in your lap or hand is hard. Try the upside down trick and if the bird is level with your arms straight out its even easier.

As for ducks get a rotissarrie like I said on the other blog. They will come out perfect every time

Anonymous said...


Mmm...not SURE what a comparable Plucker would cost these days?

I bought mine after 3 VERY Successful days with limits of Mallards and Geese. It was near freezing outside so I just hung mine up and they accumulated. I then had this major job of plucking all of them. That's WHEN I decided on the Plucker!

I'd just moved to Orygun from Cali and had ~$300 in "Mad Money" that was up for grabs. I'd thought about the idea of a new (pump) Shotgun for shooting the Steel Shot in that was a new-to-me requirement on some areas up here. could be a Plucker.

The plucker I bought at that time cost about the same...$300.

Unfortunately that company went out of business and I'm not sure there's anything quite comparable today out there? (Haven't looked)

Anyway, for any of your 2-day Possession Limits of big Ducks, if you like them plucked, I'd say having access to a Plucker can cut your "end of the day chores" time by ~2/3rds.

I don't know about you, but for me by that time I'm starting to wind down pretty seriously.

Bill C.-Orygun

NorCal Cazadora said...

Boy, I hear that!

oldfatslow said...

Fat is slickner. The
body needs slickner -
makes the blood flow
better. Think of it
as edible WD40.