Dressed Duck Working with Ducks
There are significant structural differences between ducks and land birds like chickens and turkeys. There is also the matter of fat, which is very important to the duck, serving as insulation, flotation, energy supply and oil to waterproof its feathers. Fortunately it's a prized cooking fat so it need not be resented.



Facts & Comparison to Chicken
  • Size:   While chickens come in a wide range of sizes for different purposes, ducks are nearly all sold between 4 and 5-1/2 pounds. This is, however, a convenient size for most recipes.
  • Fat:   Ducks carry a very large amount of fat compared to chickens, but unlike chicken nearly all the fat is firmly attached to the skin and comes off with it. On the plus side, duck fat is considered one of the finest cooking fats, so render it all out for cooking.
    Caution: duck fat will turn rancid fairly quickly even if frozen, so do not keep frozen duck or duck fat more than a couple months.
  • Meat:   It's all dark meat - there's no pale dry cardboard-like breast meat like on chicken. The meat is also relatively tough, making for longer cooking times, and it's relatively oily, so you don't have to worry about it drying out - but you may have to skim fat out of recipes.
  • Breast:   Duck breasts are wide and flat, and not nearly as thick as chicken. The breastbone is very wide and has only a low keel. The skin over the breasts has a very thick layer of fat. Breasts are almost always used skin-on, the fat becoming part of the recipe. Breasts are very scarce in markets because almost all are sold to the restaurant trade. You'll usually have to buy a whole duck and have a plan to use the rest of the bird.
  • Legs & Thighs:   Duck legs are shorter than chicken legs and the thighs aren't large enough to sell as a separate product, so they're packaged together. They are harder to skin than chicken because the skin doesn't just peel off, you have to carefully cut it off, and they're harder to disjoint.
  • Wings:   These are similar to chicken wings but larger and with a deeper flavor. The tip joint is longer and without meat so it's used for making stock.
  • Skin:   It's relatively tough compared to chicken skin and remains a bit chewy if fried or roasted. It has a relatively thick layer of fat under it, particularly at the breasts, but almost none on wings and legs. It adheres much more strongly than chicken skin so has to be carefully cut away with a sharp knife rather than just being pulled it off.
  • Giblets:   Neck, gizzard, heart and liver should be included in any whole duck, but don't count on it - what you actually get can be pretty random - and there may be some unexpected parts in there too. Duck gizzards differ in both flavor and texture from chicken gizzards and are highly prized in France and Asia. They can be purchased in trays in Asian markets - see my Duck Gizzard page for details. Duck livers are prized by food processors for making pâtés so are very scarce in the markets. Necks are also sold separately in trays and are excellent for making duck soup stock.
  • Bones & Cartilage:   Duck bones are very hard, they practically ring if you drop them on a hard surface. There is very little cartilage even in the joints.
  • Oil Gland:   Ducks have an oil gland at the top of the tail which has a bad flavor. Commercial ducks have this removed but if you're doing your own duck be sure to cut it off thoroughly.
  • Cooking Time:   Duck meat takes a much longer cooking time than chicken - for thin slices of meat an hour. For whole wing joints, about 2 hours at a slow simmer, 2-1/2 hours for legs.
  • Stock:   Duck bones and offcuts make an excellent flavorful stock, but it won't be as clear as chicken stock. You need to simmer duck a whole lot longer - use beef timing rather than chicken timing. In Asian markets you can often find trays of duck necks which make excellent stock.

Weights given are for raw meat. After simmering to tenderness meat will be about 58% of the raw weight, which is a little lower than for chicken. The lost weight becomes part of, and flavors, the cooking liquid.

Whole Duck

Breast MeatLeg/Thigh Meat Total MeatSkin & FatRendered Fat
Duck 4.5#9.2 oz - 15%7.2 oz - 11% 18.3 oz - 29%23.8 oz - 37%13.3 oz - 21%

BreastLeg/Thigh WingsLiverGizzardNeck
Duck 4.7#13.6 oz15.9 oz 7.3 oz1.5 oz2.1 oz4.5 oz

Leg & Thigh - as sold in trays

WholeSkinlessMeat Only Skin & FatRendered Fat
Leg/Thigh8.5 oz6.3 oz - 74% 4.5 - 53%2.3 oz - 27%1.1 oz - 13%

Breast - as cut from 4-1/2 # duck

WholeSkinlessMeat Only Skin & FatRendered Fat
Breast13.6 oz9.1 oz - 67% 9.1 oz - 67%4.5 oz - 33%2.52 oz - 18%
Notes & Safety
  • Thawing: Yes, all the books, recipes, cooking articles and "experts" scream "Never Do This!" but even the rabid bacteriophobes at the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) say it's OK. Actual research has proven a cool countertop or cold running water thaw is less risky (on multiple counts) than thawing in the refrigerator, and far easier to time. The "Never Do This" recommendation is based on an FDA decree that has no research whatever to support it. If you find you just won't be ready by time it's thawed, put it back in the fridge before it is completely thawed.
  • Final Temperature: Yes your thermometers and many of your books and recipes say fowl must go to 180°F/82°C - based on a USDA recommendation. That recommendation was reviewed in 2006 and the USDA could find no supporting data whatever, not even scribbled notes, to support the 180°F recommendation and now says 165°F/74°C is perfectly safe.
  • Be prepared to handle dangerous quantities of very hot oil. The roasting pan must always be handled with great care lest it spill. Safe and proper basting tools should be used.
  • Observe cooking temperatures given above and take them seriously. Harmful bacteria multiply very rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, a range your duck will be in for most of the cooking time.
  • Do not let an uncooked duck come in contact with or drip on any other food.
  • When handling an uncooked duck, do not handle any other food until you have cleaned up all surfaces, tools and your hands, preferably using a little bleach or a mildly disinfecting cleanser.
  • The USDA recommends that leftovers should be in the refrigerator within 2 hours of coming out of the oven. In general that's just not going to happen, but try to keep close. If there are large amounts store in multiple smaller batches so the temperature will drop quickly.
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