It really is all about the temperature. Grilling is the wanton application of heat, generated by gas or charcoal, to unsuspecting food products. But that’s not the same thing as barbecuing.
Let’s take a moment and savor that word, “barbecue” — it’s at once a noun, an adjective and a verb. It implies a more refined application of heat. Many of us backyard spatula wielders have mistakenly applied the rules of grilling to less forgiving meats, and wound up with charred chicken or raw ribs.
We can do better.
Duck is an undervalued delicacy in America today. It’s a more complex and compelling flavor than its barnyard cousin — when someone says of frog legs or rattlesnake, “it tastes like chicken,” they’re not being complimentary. Duck is a more exotic dish, but surprisingly easy to prepare.
It just takes a little more temperature control.
Most of us have cooked the old barbecue standby, the beer can chicken — or drunken chicken, as it’s known more colorfully. The principle is simple: Stand a whole chicken up on an open beer can, and let the beer steam the bird from the inside while it cooks.
This method works for duck, as well, with a few modifications.
You’ll find young ducks in the freezer section, usually weighing in at four to five pounds. It’s a good idea to thaw your duck in the refrigerator (securely wrapped and in a washable container) for a few days.
When you’re ready to cook, you’ll find that the duck is packaged with a neck and some giblets; take them out, but don’t discard them. They’re valuable for making delicious duck stock to use in other recipes and with side dishes.
Rinse the duck and pat it dry. Set it aside for now. Ready a stand for the bird. While a short, stocky chicken may do fine on just an actual beer can, a longer duck needs a little more support. Racks made for beer can chicken, such as the Bayou Classic holder, work nicely.
I like to use pear or apple cider instead of beer. It usually comes bottled. This presents a real problem: you’ll have to somehow empty a beer can, and then dispose of about half a bottle of cider. How you choose to deal with this dilemma is up to you.
Once this task is accomplished, you’ll want to use an old-fashioned can opener (the sharp kind) to open up the top of the beer can, then pour in the remaining cider (about six ounces).
With the duck on a cutting board (dishwasher-safe), score the skin on the breast, back and thighs a few times. Don’t go too deep; you want to give the fat a way to escape, without exposing the meat.
Finish with a light coat of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Put the beer can in its designated place on the rack, and put the duck on top. You’ll want to place the rack in a small pan, to collect the drippings.
Most beer can chicken recipes say to use a potato to stop up the open neck of the chicken; for duck, I like to use a small pear. If you score the pear, its juices will combine with the cider to add flavor to the meat.
That’s the easy part.
The key of barbecuing is temperature control. Whether you’re using a barrel smoker or a round grill, the principle is the same: don’t light all the charcoal at once. You don’t have to. Lit coals will slowly light their neighbors, and the result can be a longer, more even cooking process.
For beer can duck, I start with about half a chimney’s worth of charcoal, lit and then placed alongside about twice as much unlit. Toss some wood chips or chunks on top for the smoke. Lower the cover, and let it preheat your grill for a good 30 minutes.
When your grill has reached a temperature of 300 to 350 degrees, you’re ready.
But don’t rely on the thermometer in the cover of the grill; that thing isn’t reliable. I’ve taken a probe thermometer — the kind with a long wire that plugs into a unit that also has a timer — and simply dangled it through the smokestack (on a round grill, you can hang it through the ventilation holes on top).
You’ll get a much more precise reading of the ambient temperature. It’s not like your oven, the temperature will vary some.
That’s why you’ll need a second probe thermometer. It goes into the breast of your duck as you put it on. The wire, whether covered in steel mesh or high-grade plastic, can stand the heat. Just snake it under the grill cover and put the unit on the side shelf.
With the two thermometers, you’re in control of your cooking. Need more heat? Open your vents more to get more air flow, or add some coals. Need less? Close it up, or move your bird to a cooler side of the grill.
The real point is that you’re in control of the main variable that defines cooking. If you know the temperature of the apparatus and the food being cooked, you can adjust to ensure deliciousness.
Duck is done when the breast reaches an internal temperature of about 150 degrees. On my grill, that means about two hours of cooking time.
It’s really no more complicated than beer can chicken. When you learn just how precise the dual-thermometer method allows you to be, you’ll find yourself skewering all kinds of other meats when you cook out.
ROY’S BEER CAN DUCK
1 duck, 4-5 pounds (thawed)
Can (an empty beer can works best)
Pear or apple cider
1 small pear
Preheat grill or smoker to 300-350 degrees. Rinse duck and score skin lightly. Lightly coat with olive oil, sprinkle skin with salt. Empty a beer can and open up the top with an old-fashioned can opener. Fill can halfway with hard cider. Put the can in a “beer can chicken” rack. Place duck upright on the rack, and place rack inside a foil pan. Score a small pear, place in the duck’s neck cavity on top. Insert probe thermometer into the breast. Be sure not to hit bone.
Cook, with or without smoke, until the internal temperature of the duck breast reaches 150 degrees. Take off grill, cover with foil and let it rest (on the rack) for about 15 minutes.
Recipe by Roy Maynard