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Your ultimate goal when cooking duck breast is to have a juicy, succulent middle with crispy-rendered skin. The problem is that you can’t achieve this result if you cook a duck breast to the USDA-recommended temperature for poultry of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. So, what exactly is the temperature of duck breast when done?
If you cooked a duck breast to 165 degrees Fahrenheit the meat will be tough and stringy. Can you cook it to a lower temperature and have better results? How can we achieve better results and remain safe at the same time?
Cooking a duck breast for the first time can be intimidating. It looks similar to a chicken breast but they cook up completely different. For starters, the duck breast is considered red meat.
Why is this?
Ducks can fly. Chickens cannot. Because ducks need to use their breasts for flying, this activity requires lots of oxygen for the muscles inside a duck’s breast. This oxygen is stored inside a protein called myoglobin and that is what makes duck breasts the color red.
Because a duck breast is considered red meat it is often prepared as such, being cooked to medium to medium-rare doneness. But why is that? Don’t duck breasts fall under the category of poultry?
And isn’t poultry safe to consume after it reaches a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit/85 degrees Celsius? Yes and yes.
So, are duck breasts still safe to consume at temperatures lower than 165 degrees Fahrenheit? It depends on who you talk to and your own risk tolerance level. There are plenty of chefs and cookbooks who recommend a medium-rare temperature between 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Are they being reckless recommending this temperature? Not necessarily. However, for those of you who don’t feel comfortable in this grey safety area, there is a solution. Cooking the duck breasts sous-vide style.
In this article, I am going to discuss the internal temperature of a duck breast when done and why this temperature can be lower than 165 degrees Fahrenheit and still be safe using sous-vide cooking methods.
The Internal Temperature of Duck Breast at Its Best
Duck breast is best when served between 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are concerned about consuming food that is under the USDA recommended safe temperatures there is a way around this temperature discrepancy. You can sous vide a duck breast above 131 degrees Fahrenheit depending on its thickness until all possible pathogens are destroyed. Generally, a duck breast will achieve this pasteurization after 30 to 40 minutes.
How to Cook Duck Breast
Pan-Seared Duck Breast
One of the best ways to cook duck breast is by searing it in a pan to render the fat. Then you can either flip it over and cook the other side or gently finish it in a 300 degree Fahrenheit oven.
When you hear the word sear you automatically think of high heat. This is not the case with duck breast. You want to start it in a cold, metal pan set to medium-low heat. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
First, you will want to score the skin (the fat-side) of the duck breast making sure not to cut through the meat. You want to do it like the picture above, tic-tac-toe style, creating little squares.
A great tip that will help you not mangle the skin is to firm up the duck breast by placing it in the freezer for 30 minutes. This will make it much easier to make intricate little squares.
This scoring of the fat will help it render and help the heat penetrate into the duck breast. After the fat is scored let the duck breast rest for 15 minutes to come up in temperature. Then place the breast with the scored-fat side own in a cold pan set to medium-low heat.
Here is the same duck breast after a few minutes. Notice that the meat is starting to constrict and the fat is beginning to render.
After 8 to 10 minutes you will notice quite a bit of fat in the pan and the duck breast noticeably smaller and the meat-side starting to cook. It is at this point you can flip it over and finish it on the meat-side.
You will then check the temperature periodically and in multiple spots until it reaches your desired doneness. I like my duck breast in the 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit range.
Sous Vide Duck Breast Temperature
There is technically only one way to safely serve duck breasts under 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That is by pasteurizing them in a sous vide water bath over 131 degrees Fahrenheit for a time determined by their thickness. Now, you can also opt for the pan-frying method above, it all comes down to your own level of comfort with the lower internal temperature.
Remember, you never want to serve undercooked food to immune-compromised people, children, or the elderly.
Depending on its size, a typical duck breast should take around 30 minutes to come up to the 131 degrees Fahrenheit mark. If you then hold the duck breasts above that temperature for 1.5 hours you will kill any dangerous pathogens.
Again, the time spent in the sous vide bath depends on the thickness of the meat. I know two hours sounds like a long time but sous vide is a hands-off cooking method so you really don’t need to watch it till it’s ready.
The process goes as follows:
- Prepare sous vide water bath with the machine set to 131 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Score the fat-side of the duck breast just as in the pan-seared duck breast method.
- Place the duck breast in a sous vide-safe bag and submerge it in the water bath.
- Take the duck breast out of the water bath after two hours and pat dry thoroughly.
- You can then sear the fat side of the duck breast. Place the breast fat-side down in a cold skillet over medium-low heat until the fat is nicely-rendered and crispy.
- Let it rest 5 minutes, slice and serve!
Where Do You Buy Duck Breast Anyway?
That’s a great question. I’m sure some higher-end grocery stores and butcher shops carry duck breasts in their meat cases. But for the rest of us with normal grocery stores, we are left with frozen duck, usually the whole version.
Not to worry. We can work around this. All you need to do is thaw it and then break it down into pieces. It sounds like a daunting task but with a little practice, you can add duck butchering to your tool kit of cooking skills.
And, along with your duck breasts, you’ll have some pretty tasty leg sections as well.
Full disclosure, I’m still working on my duck butchering skills, but I was able to not completely mangle the legs and the breasts.
Here’s a video from the fine people at Maple Leaf Farms to show you how to cut up a whole duck:
Ok, now that you’ve got your duck segmented into pieces you can then cook them separately at their best temperatures.
You’ve already seen the best way to cook duck breasts, the best way to cook duck legs is to slowly roast them and let their fat render and get crispy.
Duck legs have a lot of fat and collagen, and a higher internal temperature of 185°F is preferable.
This is similar to the internal temperature guidance for chicken thighs.
An easy recipe is to put the duck legs in a heavy roasting pan and then roast them in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Roast them until they are crispy and nicely browned. This should take 1 1/2 hours or so.
For more tips and information on preparing and serving meat at their best temperatures check out the meat thermometer temperature guidance page from the menu above.
Thanks for reading, go make some duck!