Suzi's Blog

On Cooking Duck Breasts Perfectly: Techniques from James Peterson


Recently Suzen offered a class with an intriguing complexity of flavors: slices of duck breast served atop a red cabbage salad with almonds.

Lots of flavor and lots texture. For us carnivores, the cabbage is nice, almonds are nice, but that duck has to be perfect. How to achieve perfection? I could paraphrase, but I would prefer to quote the entire section on duck breasts from James Peterson in his treasure Glorious French Food:

“When you sauté a duck breast you get rid of most of the fat in the skin and have perfect control over how much to cook the meat. French cooks roast whole duck to a red-pink medium rare and wild ducks even rarer. Don’t think of duck as you would chicken or turkey, which is cooked completely through, to the equivalent of medium for red meet. When you cook duck breasts, you can peel off the fatty skin and sauté the breasts as you would a little steak, leave the mat rare to medium rare and providing a piece of meat leaner that a boneless chicken breast and quite a bit tastier.

“But because much of the duck’s flavor is that lay of at on the beast, you’ll want to capture the best of both possible words, — crispy flavorful skin with much of the excess fat cooked out and juice rare-to-medium-rare meat. To do this, make a series of thin slashes diagonally across the skin of each breast, cutting as deep into the skin as you can without cutting all the way down to the meat, so you end up with about 20 slashes. Give the breast a 90-degree turn and make a new series of about 20 slashes that cross over the other ones. The slashes l expose much of the fat contained in the skin to it will render quickly in the sauté pan.

“Season the breasts with salt and pepper and sauté them skin-side down over medium to high heat in a pan just large enough to fit them — there’s no need to put oil in the pan — 8 to 10 minutes for Long Island duckling breasts [12 to 14 for mulard], or until the breasts just begin to feel firm to the touch and skin looks brown and crispy. Turn the breasts over and cook them for 2 minutes [2 minutes for mulard] over high heat, just long enough to brown the flesh side”.


Source: Glorious French Food by James Peterson


Prepping a Wood Oven


That’s shot of our pizza oven upstate. It’s a wood oven that we fire up a few times a month. For pizza[ but we do other thing, too]. The facts about pizza are pretty hot. That cooking surface has to be at least 800 degrees. If you visit the home of pizza, Naples, the great pizza places there have gigantic wood ovens that have surface temperatures up to 1200 degrees. A pizza in that heat is done in 90 seconds.

Now, we’ve been experimenting, and in our smaller oven I can get our surface temperature up to 1000 degrees. How do I know? I have this infrared thermometer that belongs in a James Bond film. It even has a laser pointer. I was checking that out and telling Suzen that she seemed a bit cold. Somehow she saw the reflection of her forehead in the window and noticed the red laser spot bulleted there. Words were exchanged. The laser was moved. I did not mean it as a hostile act.

Anyway, at 1000 degrees, we can knock off a pizza every 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. The cooking time necessarily varies with dough thickness, the dough moisture content, and how much cheese and other goodies are on top.

It’s what is underneath the pizza that has concerned us. Before putting a pizza on those very hot tiles, we want them cleaned. We have a copper brush on a long handle that I can poke in to do a basic clearing. At 1000 degrees, your arm is not going inside that oven. But we found that no matter how much we brushed, there was still some residue left on the surface. Residue that we did not want. And it tends to integrate into the wet pizza dough placed on it.

It has been recommended that you wet a dish towel, put it on the end of the brush, and swab the area down before cooking. That accomplishes two things. First, it does clean the area, but a lot of heat is absorbed by that dish towel. You can drop that surface temperature by 100 degrees if you are not careful, and we need it kept hot for 15-20 minutes as we knock out 8-12 pizzas. Second, that dish towel is toast after doing this. Literally.

I found the perfect solution. One paper towel, modestly wet, is draped over the brush. I stick in in and sweep away the ash. It’s much lighter than a wet dish towel. The water in the towel is quickly converted to steam which tries to rise and actually pushes up on the towel and the brush. There’s a little lifting motion there that is actually kinda fun to play with.

And, there is now no destroyed dish towel. When I’m done, I just flick the paper towel off to the side. The water continues to evaporate and in a few second the towel ignites and disappears.

If you have your own wood oven, give this technique a try. Pizza is definitely better with no bottom ash. You can ask them about it in Naples.