Grill, Baby, Grill!

Check out these time-tested tips before you put another duck or goose on the barbecue this summer

By Scott Leysath 

Summer is barbecue season, and few cooking methods are as simple as outdoor grilling. It's one of the best ways to prepare waterfowl while preserving its true flavor. The key to grilling ducks and geese is to not overcook them. You can go hog wild on the fun and fixings, but don't leave the birds on too long. While there's no right or wrong way to barbecue, following these basic guidelines will help you grill your waterfowl to perfection.

Skin On or Off?

It seems that most duck hunters breast out rather than pluck their birds. But taking the time to remove the feathers can be worth the extra effort, especially when it comes to puddle ducks. I make exceptions for darker-fleshed divers and sea ducks, which often have off-tasting skin. For them, I replace the skin with another fat, like bacon. When grilling ducks with the skin intact, take your time, especially with larger birds like mallards, black ducks, and pintails. Place the duck breast fillets, skin side down, over medium to medium-low heat until the skin is crispy but not burnt. Crank up the heat, flip the fillets over, and grill them to desired doneness. This should take just a few additional minutes for medium-rare.

Brining, Dry-Aging, Marinating, and Seasoning

Both brining and dry-aging will result in meat that's milder tasting and moister than duck prepared by other methods. Soaking in a marinade adds flavor, but be careful not to overpower the meat with strong-tasting potions aimed at masking the taste. After brining or marinating, place the duck breasts in the refrigerator for an hour or two to help them air-dry. Dry ducks will brown better. As the meat crisps up on the grill, baste it with marinade for more flavor. I give my ducks a good rub before grilling. Apply more than you think you'll need; most of it will fall off while cooking. Here's a good rub recipe that combines salty, sweet, aromatic, and spicy flavors.

Duck Rub

  • 1/4 cup each brown sugar and ground coffee 
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

How long?

People often ask me how many minutes it takes to grill a duck. That depends. Your grill may be hotter than mine, and the type of duck—or duck parts—you're grilling will make a difference as well. In general, use less heat for larger birds so that the outside doesn't burn before the middle is done. Until you get a feel for how well your duck is cooked, use a meat thermometer to determine the internal temperature. This isn't science; it's art. 

Wood, Gas, Charcoal, or Pellets?

Cavemen probably argued about which type of wood worked best for grilling a mammoth. Today, we discuss the merits of fruit woods versus hickory, charcoal versus gas—plus any other grilling topics that can be debated over the campfire or backyard barbecue. Anything that produces heat will cook a duck. If what you're doing now works for you, don't stop. There's more than one way to grill waterfowl.