Duck has a reputation for being fussy, and I blame the French. I am sick of the French (way of preparing and cooking duck). All that talk of separating the breast from the legs, and cooking each one separately, the breast carefully cooked to a perfect medium rare, while the legs are buried and confit’d in even more duck fat that often has to be sourced in addition to the duck. It’s enough to put one off cooking the bird, but it doesn’t have to be this (French) way. You can toss a whole duck directly on the grill, and there’s very little you can do to stop it from being delicious.
I am not the only one who is sick of the French (way of preparing and cooking duck). In her article for the New Yorker, food writer Helen Rosner also questions our Francophilic, two-temps-one-bird obsession:
The rare breast with well-done legs is a very French way of thinking about duck. Like so much in the culinary world, the French way of thinking is not bad, but it looms so large that it tends to leave little oxygen for anything else. Does Peking-style duck have a rare breast? Does the duck in a Portuguese arroz de pato? The crispy morsels in a Thai salad? The delicate mauve interior of a breast prepared in the French style is certainly lovely, but too many cooks’ evident terror of crossing the line to medium or (God forbid) medium-well means that the skin fails to fully crisp, and the bird’s magnificent subcutaneous lipid layer remains unpleasantly globby instead of rendering to silk. Why, besides tradition and Francophilia, do we bother with this at all?
Rosner makes a good point. Why bother with something fussy and French when you can be cool and chill and unbothered (and anything but French)? Rosner then goes on to supply a slow-roasted duck recipe, meant for casual but luxurious dinner parties, and that got me to thinking: Could I not do the same on my Weber Kettle?
Of course I could. A charcoal grill is essentially an oven that gets its heat from coals, and I have had great success slowly roasting birds with it in the past. But unlike most of my endeavors, I did not feel like making my beloved charcoal snake. I wanted this to be as lazy and easy as possible, partially to “stick it to” my French ancestors (well, Acadian ancestors), but mostly to push the limits of just how lax duck preparation could be.
My first attempt was wildly sloppy, but not unsuccessful. I piled a bunch of hot coals on one side of the grill, set the (dry-brined) duck on the other side, closed the lid, and watched as the grill got entirely too hot, even though I had restricted the air flow by closing the vents to mere slivers. I wish I could say I got the temp under control, but it was a chaotic day filled with foibles, so the temperature fluctuated wildly throughout the course of the cook, never stabilizing around 200℉, which is what I was aiming for. The meat itself got up to 200℉ in one spot, and guess what? It all turned out fine!
In the end, I had a very edible, fairly succulent duck. Some of the breast meat was a little dry in spots, but 80% of the breast meat was incredibly juicy, and even those drier pieces were tender and delicious, especially when eaten with a silky layer of melty fat and crispy skin.
But beyond a bird that tasted quite good—a bird I would have been proud to serve had there been anyone else around—the real prize was knowing that I can be a complete duck up and still end up with an impressive and delicious main course. This is because of the extremely fatty nature of the bird—its curse (a thick layer of subcutaneous fat that takes forever to render) is also its blessing (the thing that allows you to “overcook” the bird and still have it turn out delicious).
I was all set to have another go at it, and perfect my imperfect method, when my fridge broke. Getting it fixed under my protection plan was infinitely frustrating. The needed part never arrived and Home Depot ended up giving me cash, but that was after two months of working out of a mini fridge, and you cannot dry brine a whole duck in a mini fridge.
That didn’t matter all that much. Having a long break in between ducks did not mess up my process in anyway, because the recipe was not that involved to begin with, and breaking whatever small amount of concentration I had had no effect on the outcome. This was great news because, again, I wanted a duck recipe that could be executed by the most absentminded and easily distracted among us (me).
That is the recipe I wanted, and that is the recipe I got. It calls for exactly two ingredients—duck and salt—and can be cooked on a charcoal grill without any fancy equipment, save for a dual-probed thermometer for checking the temperature of the grill and the meat (and you should have one of those anyway). It is juicy and succulent and fatty and just greasy enough. It is decadent and visceral, and best consumed as it is prepared, with very little pomp and circumstance, preferably with one’s hands. That is how my boyfriend and I ate it (while watching a Fulci film), straight off the cutting board, with plenty of napkins and several cans of Diet Coke. (My boyfriend has since been referring to it as “hand duck,” and has requested it be part of our regular rotation.)
Easy Charcoal Roasted Duck (aka Hand Duck)
- 1 whole duck, head and tail removed
- Kosher salt
Trim any excess fat and skin—the flappy floppy bits—off the duck. Save the fat for rendering and the skin for crisping. Salt the duck inside and out. I used five three-finger pinches of kosher salt to create a sparkly, but not crusted salt layer on the bird. Set the duck on a wire rack set inside a baking sheet and let it dry brine in the fridge for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 if you have the time.
Once the duck is brined, prick it all over with something very pointy and sharp, or make diagonal slits into the the skin over the breast, taking care not to slice into the meat.
Set a probe thermometer up on the duck side of the grill. Get a big charcoal chimney lit with lots of coal. Once the coals at the top start to ash on the edges, dump them on the non-duck side of the grill, close the lid, and adjust the vents so there is very little air flow. On my Weber Kettle, this translates to the bottom vents open about a quarter of the way and the top vents open just a sliver. Let the temperature stabilize and drop. When it hits 350℉, put the duck on. Let the temp continue to drop, until it stabilizes somewhere between 200℉ and 300℉, and keep it in that range by adjusting the vents if needed (more open means more air flow means a hotter grill). Don’t try to be overly precise. It truly doesn’t matter.
Let the duck cook for an hour, then flip it so it’s breast side down. Cook for another hour and flip it again. Cook for half an hour then flip once more, then continue cooking and flipping ever half an hour until the breast reaches an internal temperature of 180℉. Remove from the grill and let rest until it is cool enough to touch, then devour, preferably with your hands.