This winter, we’re demystifying classic, intimidating-sounding French dishes by breaking down the essential techniques, which you can apply to any recipe you have, be it Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which our Cookbook Club is all over), or one you’ve inherited.
Duck à l'orange is one of those dishes that harkens us back to another time, back when a duck press was a thing in France, a time of cliched 60s Americana, when we made dips from instant Lipton soup packets and suspended fruits in pastel gelatin (and called that “ambrosia”). Before you have the opportunity to roll your eyes, I’d like to divert you instead to a whole roasted duck’s (well-deserved) place as a centerpiece: the glistening brown, crispy skin, adorned with brightly colored orange segments and candied zest, the aroma of Madeira or Grand Marnier, a sweet and sour sauce made from brown duck stock and caramel, and, perhaps nearby, a fluffy pile of shoestring fries. (Stick with me, my story gets better.)
I’ve been encouraging chefs and home cooks alike to seize the opportunity of being a hermit during these cold winter months to perfect classic French dishes like boeuf bourguignon. Rather than trudging through ankle-deep piles of off-colored snow, you could be basking in the heat of the kitchen, searing and braising while pink-cheeked and triumphant. I love the idea of us all emerging from our winter cocoons victorious and armed with better technique, ready to face the warmer months.
Instead of throwing measurements at you and pushing you out of the nest, let’s talk about the techniques we employ. For starters, you’re going to need a whole duck, giblets and all, since you’ll need every scrap to make a brown duck stock, one of the building blocks of our sauce. This stock must be dark and deep, which is why just about every recipe you’ll stumble across will tell you to brown your trimmings well with some aromatics and simmer it for a couple of hours. Now if you’re really clever, you’ll render any fat you have trimmed from the duck, because let’s face it: Duck fat is liquid gold, and you can sear the wing tips, giblets, and all the scraps in it to make the duck, as Julia Child would say, “duckier.”
Now, if you’ve read my article on boeuf bourguignon, you will recall I brought up a couple of French cooking terms, including deglacer, which just means to deglaze the pan with liquid—typically wine—to help scrape up any nice bits of caramelization on the bottom of the pot, since they contain big bursts of flavor. We will use the same technique here, using white wine, and cook off any alcohol before adding water.
A lot of recipes call for making the stock the day prior to roasting the duck, but so many of us are short on time these days that I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s not necessary. As long as you slot in a couple of hours for the stock to simmer and concentrate, you can do the entire process in the same day. You will want it to boil down to just a few cups of stock, and when you strain it, make sure you really press on the solids to extract every bit of flavor.
There are quite a few species of ducks these days, including Muscovy, Moulard, and Pekin. Pekin ducks are popular in China, and are typically used to make the ever-ubiquitous Peking duck that originated in Beijing and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Peking duck also shares some common traits with duck à l'orange, down to the crispy glazed skin and the way the duck itself is roasted. They are also both similarly anointed with sweet and tart dark sauces, specifically hoisin, and, well, orange. In both France and the US, any domesticated duck that is specially fattened is referred to as magret, and remains a highly controversial topic. For most duck dishes, regardless of preparation, I like to use breeds local to me, like Long Island Pekin or Moulard.
To prepare your duck for roasting, as mentioned earlier, trim off excess fat, render it, and sear the various giblets and bones for your stock. The duck itself will be slow-roasted, which is helpful since it is a waterfowl and has quite a bit of insulation. Anyone who has patiently babysat a duck breast to render that fat down knows exactly what I’m talking about. To assist in this process, whether you are cooking the steaky breast, or roasting it whole, it helps to score the exterior fat with the tip of a sharp knife. You want to be careful to not cut into the actual meat, but a beautifully scored, crisp and golden skin adds a serious wow-factor to your dish. The legs might prove difficult to score, in which case, you can just prick it all over with a small knife.
Just like roasting a chicken, instead of fussing over trying to sear it on all sides, you can start by cranking up your oven and letting it do the heavy lifting for you, before turning it down and letting it roast gently. You’re cooking it all the way through; this is not a medium-rare situation. It’s done when, after the meat is pricked, the juices run clear to yellowish. I strongly recommend flipping the duck over from time to time to ensure an even roast. This will take over an hour, and does not even require basting. Be sure to collect the liquid gold that has gathered at the bottom of your roasting dish, you can use that for many many other tasty applications including one of my personal all time favorites: duck fat fried potatoes. You’re welcome.
The Sauce, aka Orange Caramel Time
Instead of painstakingly checking your duck every ten minutes—don’t freak out if you hear bubbling, by the way, there is a lot of fat on that duck and it is going to make some noise—you can use this time to gather your mise en place and prepare to make the sauce. First, you want to peel the skin off the oranges you are using, and give them a quick dip in some hot water to soften them. The french call this blanchir which just means your zest is going in and out of hot water quickly and shocked in some cold water. You can cut the zest into spaghetti-thin strips (a julienne), and save it for a pretty garnish. Cut the segments out of the same oranges by slowly going around and separating the flesh from the pith and peel. This will be garnish as well, for what is duck with orange sauce without the oranges? A classical french tradition of garnishing dishes with the ingredients they contain go back to before even Julia’s time.
Perhaps you have heard the term agrodolce or even gastrique? Regardless of the romance language it derives from, those terms both really just mean sweet and sour sauce. When it comes to a gastrique, it specifically means a caramel made from equal parts sugar and vinegar. For duck à l’orange, you start with a gastrique of red wine vinegar and sugar, and use this tart caramel to enrich your already luxurious duck stock. In my boeuf bourguignon piece, I discussed the many techniques the French employ to thicken stews and sauces to the consistencies they desire. For our orange caramel sauce, traditionally it is given a boost of arrowroot starch, made into a slurry with Madeira, and whisked into our sauce. The final flourish is to add some of our julienned orange peel, saving some to garnish the actual duck.
When the duck is cooked through, and you have recovered all of that beautiful duck fat from the bottom of the roasting dish, you can extract the last gift the duck has given us—the lovely sucs of browned bits of meat from the bottom of the pan to add to our sauce. Doing this is simplicity itself, since the pan will be warm from the oven and you can simply whisk some Madeira into it and the alcohol will assist in dislodging them. This should leave you with a few tablespoons of enriched Madeira, which you can add to your sauce. You may also use a monter au beurre technique (in other words, mount it with butter), to smooth it out and make it glossy.
All that remains for the final presentation is to either cut up, or present your duck whole, garnished with the oranges, and your sauce—including some orange peel—spooned over the duck. When we retrospectively look back at this process, you’ll realize that there is truly nothing to be intimidated by. You made a nice stock, the oven cooked the duck for you, and you learned a few ways to drop some flavor bombs into an already delicious stock. Turns out, French cooking is not so difficult, and the results will impress even the pickiest of dinner guests.
What are some French dishes you've wanted to cook, but have been too intimidated by? Let us know in the comments!