Saturday, December 26, 2020

Fanny Cradock Cooks our Duck

Happy Boxing Day! It's my favorite day of the holiday season because it means we can put all the duties of Christmas away. Boxing Day gives us the wonderful traditions of sleeping in, microwaving leftovers, and eating all the candy we bought at a much faster rate than we intended. Here at A Book of Cookrye, we love to go around to the grocery store on Boxing Day and see what meats they're trying to unload.

We have been holding out for discount turkeys ever since Thanksgiving. Everyone we know is saying how their grocery stores have turkeys for 25 cents per pound... or even less. Our Mom of Cookrye reports that she got not one but two-- because they were only 18 cents per pound. However, the store by our house is resolutely refusing to mark them down.  Their freezers are still full of frozen turkeys because no one pays full price for them right after Thanksgiving. 

But... you know what bird they did have on discount? Do you know what bird we could get for a 75% off? A duck!

Baked Duck
1 duck
Thin honey (1 or 2 tablespoons)

Heat the oven to 375°. Line your roasting pan with foil.
Pierce the skin of the duck all over with a fork. Place the duck on its back on a rack that holds it high above the pan. Rub the duck with a thin layer of the honey, using just enough to coat it.
Bake it for 26 minutes per pound. Around halfway through the baking time, empty the pan of the fat that has dripped out of the duck.
To check for doneness, see if the legs move freely and the juices run clear. Put a thermometer in the thigh joint- it should read 180°.

Source: Your Christmas Bird, Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas, BBC 1975

I've never seen ducks sold outside of very upscale grocery stores. Perhaps the store we go to had to discount them because no one wanted to buy something they've never cooked or eaten before.

This is why you don't just plonk your bird on the refrigerator shelf to defrost.

I've never eaten duck before. I've certainly never cooked one. But as we were perusing the meats while getting groceries, the price was too good to resist. "I'm sure it'll be fine!" I said. "I saw a Fanny Cradock video about how to cook them!" Fanny Cradock's advice on chicken is absolutely delicious. Surely the duck she cooks in the same episode is just as good. While on the subject of Fanny Cradock, I'd like to mention how much I love bluntly calling it a "Christmas bird." It's not poultry, it's not a main dish, it's a bird.

I told a few of my friends what we were about to cook, and noted a uniformity in their replies.

All we know about ducks is that they are usually much more expensive than other birds. I'm not sure if this is because fewer people want them, or if this means they're a rare treat when you can get them. The only places I've seen serving duck are Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, though I've heard from a lot of people that a Christmas duck is a popular choice in Britain. Well, let's get this thing open!

The juices coming out this thing were an unnerving, almost artificial-looking red. And there was a lot. Also, why does the duck have this long tail of skin?

Every now and then, while reading cookbooks old enough that the writers told you how to care for your meat while it was still walking on its own feet, I will read the directions for how to carve up whole birds. I will then speculatively eye the more spiteful geese whenever I'm at a park and think about how they couldn't attack me anymore if they were dead and spit-roasted. But then I realize that I still get the squicks when pulling the giblets out of a bird, and those have already been conveniently cut and loosened. Also, the juice coming out with them was an alarmingly artificial-looking bright red.

I don't even know why I'm making giblet stock. I just know I'd feel guilty if I threw them away.

Because I'm not a complete idiot, I did some more looking around the internet to find out how to cook ducks before attempting it myself. Delia Smith informs us that duck is cooked the opposite of how you'd cook a chicken. Don't coat it with butter and oil, perforate it so that the fat under the skin melts and drains out. Don't put the duck in the pan, but put it high and dry on a rack above the pan. Don't baste it, but let the heat dry the skin to make it crisp. Fanny Cradock , in one of those rare moments where a television cook discusses the affairs of the smallest room in the house, talks about how your elderly relatives will say "I can't eat duck because you see it does repeat so!" before assuring us that the duck won't repeat on anybody when you get all the fat out of it. 

Seems straightforward enough. Like Delia, we don't have a rack, but one of these turned up in the back of a cabinet:

I think it's a steamer basket, though I've never used one. All I know is that its legs elevate it a good height above the pan so the duck won't be sitting in the fat that drips out of it. And when we open it, it is about the right size to bear up a bird.

After removing the handle (all we had to do was squeeze it and it popped right out), we have a perfect rack for our dripping duck! We can even put the handle back in afterward since we didn't have to break anything to remove it.

And now we get to the fun part: According to Her Highness Fanny Cradock, we are to take a fork in each hand and "Think of somebody you've never really liked but you're too well-bred to say what you think of them so you take it out on the goose and stab it all over." This allows the fat to just run right out of the skin as it bakes. Then we take thin honey and slather it on.

If you watch the video, Fanny Cradock shoves her unwashed hand right into a jar of honey and scoops it out. We at A Book of Cookrye hate cross-contamination, so we used a squeeze bottle instead (and washed hands before touching it). Maybe they didn't put absolutely everything in squeeze bottles in 1970s Britain, but Fanny could have at least spooned honey over the duck rather than getting her raw-bird-germs hand right into it. Apparently the fat "erupts" (that's Fanny Cradock's word choice) from the fork holes and interacts with the honey, making a marvelous crispy skin that "is part of the eating pleasure" of a duck.

I have to give Fanny Cradock credit for a very fast recipe. We had this thing in the oven only a few minutes after unwrapping it. To put it in British terms, you could set a pot of tea steeping before you cut open the bird wrapping, and have the bird in the oven and your hands washed before it's ready to pour. Furthermore, we only needed two forks to get this ready to bake. This recipe requires literally no other utensils.

Fanny didn't give any baking times on television, saying they were "in the booklet." We're not going to try to track down old TV recipe booklets and have them shipped over the sea. Fortunately, the poultry people had thoughtfully put instructions and a baking time chart right on the wrapper. This is the first time I've ever had to check the directions on the package for cooking raw meat. It's not that I always know how to cook it, but I've always used recipes that tell you how hot and how long.

In theory, the honey glaze makes the bird extra crispy, and the honey certainly caramelized very quickly. Our bird had only baked for 10 minutes and was already very brown on top. The kitchen smelled like hot honey almost immediately after we started baking. This quickly devolved into the smell of burnt. Furthermore, all this talk about fat dripping out of the duck is no exaggeration. The oven was already emitting very loud sizzles and spatter noises before I had even finished wiping the countertop.

Keep in mind that the duck is still refrigerator-cold in the middle.

Now, we are told that we "must empty the tin of its fat a bit at half time because it gets over-full and can be dangerous." That's Fanny Cradock's word choice: dangerous. I don't know if that means we could have a grease fire in the oven, or if she only means we risk sloshing hot fat on our hands if we let it all pool up. We set a timer for half of the cooking time so that we could be sure to come back and empty it. But before it was anywhere near time to empty the pan, the bird already looked like this.

Note how if you look beyond that browned skin, you can still see raw pink meat underneath.

We put a foil tent on top and hoped for the best, but we were also considering which nearby drive-thru would be our backup for dinner tonight. With reluctance and shame, we had to do what so many people do when cooking for the holidays:

It's never a good sign when you have to take the smoke detector down while cooking and bear with fortitude . We also had to thank all the fates watching over us that this kitchen has not just a window but an entire door that we can open:

The fan is the hero of this recipe.

While we had the kitchen door open to release the smoke, a friend decided to wander in. We didn't notice his presence until an hour after we'd all eaten and the kitchen was cleaned for the night.

You never know when you'll be glad the house has welding gloves.


But that's getting ahead of ourselves. 

Apparently duck is very greasy, which is why so many people don't like it. But, for all I was worried that we had a bird-shaped cinder awaiting the carving knife, I wasn't worried about grease. This is how much we spooned off when the timer helpfully informed us that the halfway time had arrived:

I think we stabbed enough draining holes in it.

Apparently duck fat is very fervently beloved among many fancy chefs. A lot of upperclass restaurants will advertise that they make their gravy and saute their vegetables with duck fat, like that automatically makes everything better. I don't know if it's actually better, or if people all do it because French cooks do, and French is always finer. 

Back in the pan, our bird looked like we had fatally ruined it in our attempt to cook it. The skin was burnt, but it was still full of raw pink juices:

I don't find raw juices in a partially-cooked bird unnerving. It's just a sign that while everything is progressing as it should, the bird is not yet ready to eat. But usually, when you still have pink fluids coming out of the bird, the bird doesn't look so burnt that even a foil tent can't save it.

Eventually, the timer informed us that the bird was done and the thermometer confirmed that we had fully cooked it. I have to credit whoever wrote the instructions on the back of the wrapper. I baked it for precisely the time they told me to, and it was exactly 180° like they said it should be. It wasn't under temperature and therefore in need of some more oven time, nor was it even one degree overcooked. Also, the bird looked like this.

Someone coming into the kitchen just as I was lifting the bird out of the oven simply said "Keep the fan turned on."


This duck doesn't look baked, it looks arsoned. I tried to euphemistically say it looked barbecued. After all, a lot of grilling snobs (the sort of people who would rush in to tell me that grilling and barbecuing are totally not the same) obsess over "getting a good bark" on their meats when cooking. Which is a fancy way of saying they like a solid layer of cinders on the outside.  

But, in case the blackened birdskin led us to prematurely remove the duck, we gave it one final check for doneness. The instructions on the bag also say that "the legs move freely and the juices run clear when the duck is done." We gave one of the legs a test wiggle, and it moved so freely the bone just slid right out.

At this point, I think it's worth noting that in the show she did about cooking Christmas birds from whence we get today's technique, Fanny Cradock does not show us a baked goose or duck. You might think she simply didn't have time in her very brief timeslot to bring one out on camera, but she does get out a baked chicken to show everyone watching at home that the subcutaneous mushrooms have shrunk and the chicken looks normal instead of bulbous and deformed. 

At first I thought I had overdone the honey, but upon rewatching I saw that Fanny Cradock slathers it on like she's making extra-syrupy waffles. So it's not my fault the bird is blackened. But I very sincerely wish I had used foil in the pan.

I had to hand-scrub every flap coming off the edge of that rack.

But with that said, once you got past the greasy skin, duck is absolutely delicious. It's wonderfully flavorful instead of bland. Even the honey that remained on the duck added a marvelous taste, especially after it caramelized to such a dark brown. It tasted a lot like we had put sauce on it and grilled. While we were carving the duck up, everyone kept picking off pieces of skin because they were just that good. 

The first detraction worth noting is that you will be picking out a lot of fat from the meat compared to a chicken or a turkey. Second, because so much fat will drip out of the duck, you will have a lot less bird than you think after it's baked. 

But baking a duck is a lot easier than you'd think. You can basically ignore a duck the entire time it cooks, and it somehow ends up tasting like you were constantly basting and fussing over it. The leftovers make wonderful sandwiches. So use foil in your pan, and get yourself a duck if you ever see them on sale!


  1. My sister-in-law also roasted a duck for the first time this Christmas. What an odd little thing!

    I've never tried it yet, myself. My dad did once and said the taste reminded him too much of a pond to really like it. But maybe the bird itself just wasn't raised well?

    1. This ended up tasting like a well-basted turkey. If they hit the clearance bin often enough, we will be trying this again.

  2. I make duck at least once a year for Friendsgiving, and even my most picky friend likes it (so picky, my house is usually the first place she tries anything non-nugget shaped). Duck can be super greasy,

    To make it less greasy, I thaw the duck, remove the neck skin (that's the extra long bit), the extra fat, etc. then make shallow slices in the skin across the breast (just through the skin to the fat). Thoroughly salt the whole thing, and leave it in the fridge uncovered for 3 days. Every day I wipe any moisture off and if necessary, salt it again. After 3 days, I'll start it cooking in the oven at high heat for about a half hour, then reduce the heat until done. I make up a orange, honey, clove glaze and baste the bird with that towards the end of cooking. The rendered fat makes excellent Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes!

    1. You know, we may have to try getting a higher rack and putting spuds beneath it if we get one again.