This Honey Roast Duck recipe makes a beautiful holiday main dish but is easy enough for any special occasion or Sunday dinner. With crispy skin and tender, juicy meat, this post will show you how to cook duck to get that beautiful roasted look and amazing flavor!
It’s time for another installment in the Historically Hungry series I do with my friend Jenni from The Gingered Whisk. And since it’s November and Thanksgiving is right around the corner, this time it’s the Pilgrim Edition!
What was eaten at the first Thanksgiving?
Everybody knows that basically none of what we currently eat as “traditional” Thanksgiving favorites were served at the first Thanksgiving, right? We aren’t even sure if turkey was on the menu for that first Thanksgiving.
What we do know about that first Thanksgiving meal is available from just a couple snippets from surviving documents from that time and historical research. Like this snippet of a letter from Edward Winslow, one of the original Plymouth colonists, who wrote home to a friend about the feast that later became the basis for our Thanksgiving celebration:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” – cited from an article on Smithsonian.com.
That whole article is really interesting reading if you want to learn more about what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag really ate on the first Thanksgiving. My Historically Hungry cohort and I decided to each contribute a recipe that is a closer nod to the original offerings than the sweet potato casserole or cranberry sauce that we eat today. Jenni has a recipe for Nasaump (sort of a cornmeal porridge with berries and nuts) for the Wampanoag side of the meal and I’m sharing this Honey Roast Duck recipe for the Pilgrim side of things.
Now, in all honesty, I have never made duck prior to this one! I’ve eaten it, but never thought to roast one myself at home. But it was so easy and delicious! If you can make a whole roast chicken, you can easily make a whole roast duck. So basically, you can do this.
A typical duck will serve 3-4 adults, and our family of four was easily able to finish off this entire bird in one sitting. Roast duck is perfect for any special occasion, and is a great idea for a smaller Thanksgiving or for a Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinner.
And even though there is honey brushed over the duck during the last part of the roasting process, it does not make a sweet duck and isn’t heavy or overpowering like the orange sauce that is so often served with duck. The honey just helps crisp up the skin and give that beautiful dark color to the finished bird, but the overall flavor was very savory from the garlic and onion that I stuffed inside the duck cavity before roasting.
I’m including detailed instructions with step-by-step photos below to show how to prepare and cook a duck, since I know many people (like me) have never cooked duck before.
How to Cook Duck
It’s likely that the duck prepared by the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving were spit-roasted or boiled, which were typically methods of preparation back then. But these days it’s just much easier to grill, smoke, or roast a duck instead. I opted to roast our duck in the oven so I could easily save the duck fat for use in other cooking.
One big consideration when roasting a whole duck is how to deal with the layer of fat under the skin that adds tons of flavor but can be tricky to cook with properly given it’s thickness. They key is to score the skin with a sharp knife so that the fat can escape (a process called “rendering”) while the duck slow roasts in the oven.
There is no need to rub a duck with butter or oil before roasting like you do with chicken or turkey because the duck is going to naturally have plenty of fat to keep it juicy and moist on it’s own.
This way of preparing and slow roasting ducks (and geese, for that matter, which are also likely to have been served at the first Thanksgiving) is how waterfowl has been prepared for centuries.
Then only downside to the slow roasted method to cooking duck is that the breast meat will be fully cooked. Some people, myself included, prefer medium-rare breast meat when it comes to duck, and that’s just not really achievable when roasting an entire duck. That said, even the breast meat is still moist and the legs and thighs are perfect when prepared this way. I just wanted to clear up any expectations that this preparation isn’t the same as sauteeing duck breasts in a pan for that perfect medium-rare.
Step-by-Step Photos for How to Roast Duck
Be sure to completely defrost your duck in the refrigerator for 2-3 days if using a frozen duck, then remove giblets and neck from inside the duck. Rinse well, inside and out, with cold water and pat completely dry using paper towels. Let the duck sit out on the counter for 30 minutes before roasting to allow it to come up in temperature a bit rather than putting a completely cold bird in the oven.
Using a very sharp knife, score the skin on the duck’s breast in a diamond pattern, trying to only cut the skin without actually reaching the breast meat below. This is going to allow the fat to render from the duck and baste the bird for you while it roasts.
If there are other fatty areas like where the duck legs connect to the body, give those a poke or slash as well.
Stuff the cavity of the duck with garlic cloves, a quartered onion, and a couple sprigs of rosemary. You could also use lemon slices or a quartered apple. The stuffing should be discarded after cooking, but the aromatics add flavor to the meat.
Fold in the loose skin on both ends of the duck to hold everything inside and tie the duck legs with butcher’s twine or string to truss it. This is done by tying a loop around one duck leg, then crossing it over the other leg and wrapping the twine around both legs a time or two, then tying it off. I don’t actually know if it affects how the duck cooks, but it makes for a prettier presentation.
Then rub the duck all over with a mix of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.
Place the duck with the scored breast side up on a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet if you are like me and don’t have a large roasting pan with a rack. If you do have a roasting pan, even better! You just don’t want the duck sitting on the bottom of the pan because really, you will be surprised how much fat will cook out of the duck and you don’t want it sitting in that while it cooks. Lots of people like to put potatoes under their duck to roast in the duck fat at the same time, but I didn’t try that this time around.
How long does it take to roast a duck?
It will take around 2 hours to roast a whole duck in the oven, including resting time after removing the duck from the oven. You can tell the duck is done when the juices from the fattest part of the thigh or drumstick are still just barely rosy pink when the duck is pricked.
At the risk of stating the obvious, duck is poultry, so the USDA recommends cooking it to 165 degrees F, but since duck is not a common salmonella carrier like other poultry, many people prefer duck breasts to be more around 135 degrees F. Although I typically prefer using a meat thermometer, this is one situation where I find sticking to a roasting time and using the prick test to be the better choice since we are going to go higher than the 135 degrees F that I would want if I was cooking only the duck breasts in a saute pan.
Start making this honey roast duck recipe by roasting it at a higher temperature of 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then decrease the oven temp to 350 degrees and roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the juices are still running pink, let it roast another 15 minutes before pulling it out of the oven and tenting with foil for 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute before carving.
Depending on the size of your duck and the temperature it was at when you put it in the oven, this might take a little less time or maybe even a little longer. Start checking around the 60 minute mark when you brush on half of the honey onto the duck, and again ten minutes later when you do the final brushing of honey to finish it off and get this beautiful dark roasted skin.
How do you make duck skin crispy?
The real tips for getting crispy duck skin have been mentioned but they are worth repeating so you know why you are doing them. Start by patting the duck dry with paper towels. Then score to help release some of the fat during the cooking process. Season the duck well with a rub that includes salt which helps dry out the skin too and get it crispy. Start the duck at a higher oven temperature, decreasing it partway through. And finally brush the duck with a little honey a couple of times towards the end of roasting. This will sort of caramelize with the rub and the fat coming off the duck, which you can use to baste it a couple of times if you like.
Tips for Roasting a Whole Duck
- Present the whole honey roast duck at the table by putting it on a large platter with brightly colored greens or fruit under or around it. I used fresh spinach leaves and a segmented pomegranate for color. But you could surround a roast duck with roasted potatoes or root vegetables or use rosemary sprigs as well for a pretty presentation.
- If you have more than 3 adults you are feeding or want to have any leftovers, you will need to roast more than one whole duck.
- Don’t just discard the duck fat. Save it in the refrigerator to use just like you would with leftover bacon grease.
What to Serve with Honey Roast Duck
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Apples
- Cranberry Jello Salad with Cream Cheese Topping
- Winter Pear, Pomegranate & Swiss Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing
- Garlic Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes
- Green Beans with Bacon and Pine Nuts
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 (5 pound) whole duck
- Completely defrost the duck in the refrigerator for 2-3 days if using a frozen duck, then remove giblets and neck. Rinse well, inside and out, with cold water and pat completely dry using paper towels. Let the duck sit out on the counter for 30 minutes to come up in temperature a bit.
- Use a sharp knife to score the skin on the duck's breast in a diamond pattern, trying to cut only the skin without reaching the breast meat below. If there are other fatty areas like where the duck legs connect to the body, give those a poke or slash as well.
- Stuff the cavity of the duck with garlic cloves, a quartered onion, and a couple sprigs of rosemary. You could also use lemon slices or a quartered apple.
- Fold the loose skin on both ends of the duck to hold everything inside and tie the duck legs with butcher's twine or string to truss it by tying a loop around one duck leg, then crossing it over the other leg and wrapping the twine around both legs a time or two, then tying it off.
- In a small bowl, combine the salt, paprika, garlic powder, and pepper, then rub over all over the duck.
- Place the duck with the scored breast side up on a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet or on the rack of a large roasting pan.
- Start the duck by roasting it at a higher temperature of 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then decrease the oven temp to 350 degrees and roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes. At the 60 minute mark, brush half of the honey over the duck, then cook for 10 minutes before brushing the duck with the remaining honey.
- If the juices are still running pink after a total of 1 1/2 hours, let it roast another 15 minutes before pulling it out of the oven and tenting with foil for 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute before carving. The duck will be done with the juice running from the thigh after poking it are just barely a rosy pink color.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1026 Sodium: 1164mg Carbohydrates: 18g Sugar: 17g
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