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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Cooking: Dry-Aging Versus Brining

By Scott Leysath
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  • photo by John Hoffman, DU
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By Scott Leysath

For many years, I've preached the importance of getting harvested waterfowl cooled, cleaned, and processed for the fridge or freezer as quickly as possible. I've also recommended soaking dark-fleshed birds for several hours in a brine solution, which leaches out the gamey taste while adding flavor and moisture to the cooked meat. This brining method has changed the minds of many people who had previously believed that ducks weren't the finest table fare.

An alternative way to improve the flavor of waterfowl is through dry-aging, which has its advocates as well. Chef John McGannon is, in my opinion, the nation's leading authority on dry-aging meats. According to McGannon, "Once you experience eating dry-aged waterfowl, you will never go back. Fresh waterfowl are earthy and tough due to high levels of oxygen-rich blood, which is great for long-distance flights, but not always good for their culinary value." 

Recently, I decided to heed McGannon's advice and give dry-aging another try. After thawing out a few fat mallards, I split them along the breastbone, patted them dry, and set the split birds on a rack with a drip pan underneath them. Dry-aging needs to be done in a controlled environment like a refrigerator. Temperatures above 40 degrees invite bacteria, and anything below 34 degrees is too close to freezing. 

Keep the temperature between 35 and 39 degrees. John recommends aging large ducks for 5 to 7 days. Mine aged for the full week. 

Just to make it interesting, I brined a split duck for 12 hours in a solution of two quarts of cold water and 1/2 cup of kosher salt. I seasoned both the aged and brined ducks with coarse salt and cracked pepper, and seared them on a white-hot grill until the internal temperature was 135 degrees. After letting the birds rest for a few minutes, it was time for the taste test. 

The flavor of the dry-aged duck was exceptional and the meat was slightly more tender than the brined bird. But the flavor of the brined meat was just as tasty. Neither had the gamey aftertaste of a duck that had not been brined or dry-aged. Something tells me that John McGannon is going to want to challenge me to a cook-off. 

Cast-Iron Duck Fillets
This recipe lets the natural flavor of a dry-aged or brined duck speak for itself instead of masking it with potent marinades. The duck's skin should be crisp, not rubbery, and the best pan for the job is a well- seasoned cast-iron skillet. Fire it up over high heat for at least 10 minutes before adding the duck.
Preparation Time: 10 minutes  
Cooking Time: 6–7 minutes
Serves: 4

Ingredients
  • 4 medium to large duck breast fillets, skin intact
  • Fresh seasonal vegetables, roughly chopped
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of 2 lemons
Directions

1. Place the duck fillets and vegetables in a large bowl. Liberally season the duck and veggies with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the ingredients rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

2. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat. Place the duck fillets in the pan, skin side down. Once the skin is crisp, flip the ducks over and add the vegetables. Cook the ducks for another 3 to 4 minutes or until the internal temperature is 135 to 145 degrees for medium-rare. Be careful not to overcook the vegetables. Before removing the pan's contents, add olive oil and lemon juice, and stir.

3. Remove the duck fillets from the pan and allow them to rest for 5 minutes before slicing each one across the grain into 1-inch-thick pieces. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.


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