Crispy Skin Duck — Part I

28 01 2010

What I really want is to be able to make is Peking duck at home — with crispy skin and juicy, richly flavored meat. That turns out to be pretty difficult, and we might have a hard time getting there, but we’re getting to something pretty tasty in the meantime.

There are a lot of theories about how to best get crispy duck skin and getting this badge will mean trying a number of them out. Today, we are going to separate the skin from the flesh with a bicycle pump and slow roast the duck a la the “Five Hour Duck” recipe to see if that helps the skin get crispy.

First up, the duck. We have used frozen ducks from Ralph’s (a general grocery store) and 99 Ranch, but our favorite duck is from this place: Lee Wing Poultry. Another place that sells frozen duck, as well as pheasants, capons, and quails is Iowa Meat Farms.

On the review of Lee Wing Poultry, there is a review that says if you are not Vietnamese, not to go there because they will be mean to you. We’re not Vietnamese, and our experience has been that they were polite, but not terribly warm, on the first visit. By the third, they were smiling and remembered we liked the duck. Pretty much like any other place — if you’re nice, excited about the food, and give them business, they will be very nice in return.

Here’s our duck. He looks much better to us than what we have gotten when they are frozen: the skin is taut and the eyes are clear.

The main problem with cooking duck is that it is incredibly fatty. From a 5lb duck, you can get 1 1/2 – 2 cups of rendered duck fat. This is very tasty stuff, but if you don’t get it off the duck, the skin stays fatty and does not crisp up.

There are a number of ways to try to get the fat to melt. One way that seems to help is to separate the skin from the meat before cooking. You could do this with your fingers, but it is hard to get it all that way. Instead, enter the Bicycle Pump (or a firm straw, like bamboo, and powerful lungs). We use this one just for duck pumping, cover the tip with plastic wrap when we are using it, and clean it like a kitchen utensil.

Some sources suggest putting the pump or the straw into a hole at the top in the neck. This can be hard if you have bought a duck without a neck, but we have found that it is hard even when you have a duck with a neck that has been killed and sold in the Buddhist style with head & feet.

Instead, we have found that the spot at the bottom of the breast is quite effective. You stick in the pump nozzle between the skin and the flesh and go at it. If you are not getting air pumped under the skin, puffing up the skin, find a different spot and keep trying.

When you get a bunch of air in there, you can move the bubble around with your hands to get it to the hard-to-reach places like the back and legs.

When he was puffed up, we cut off his head and feet and placed him in a rack to cook. The Five Hour Duck recipe suggests cooking at 300F for 4 hours,followed by 1 hr at 350-400 to crisp. We have found this to be too long, drying out the meat, and are using 275F at 3 1/2 hours, followed by glazing and about 30 min at 350F. Here he is after the first hour.

And the second (flipped on his back):

And third:

And after the last half-hour at 275F:

We made a glaze of soy, ginger, duck broth from the liquid in the pan, green onion, honey, and candied yuzu peel with syrup. We reduced it by about half and then basted the duck every 5 min or so until it was done — caramelized, but not burned. It took just over 30 min to get there. Here he is cut up with some green onion after letting him rest for 15 min:

We served him with a type of Japanese bok choy sauteed with bacon, green garlic, and a splash of vermouth.

The flavor on this duck was excellent — rich, meaty flavor of duck with a light, slightly sweet glaze. The green onion works well, too. The texture of the meat comes out soft — it falls apart like after a long braise, which can be good or bad. It was slightly dry, but not as bad as how it was the first time we did it with the five hours. I think I like my duck meat to be firmer and juicier, but this is still very tasty. The skin had lost most of its fat, which was good, but it still was not very crispy. Great flavor, though.

We had leftovers the next day for brunch: cream puffs with a poached egg, roast duck, and creme fraiche. Very tasty, if not the easiest things to eat!

Most recipes for Five Hour Duck ask you to slash the skin, but this time, we did not do that and used the pump to separate the skin instead. It was effective at getting most the fat to drain away: we ended up with just over 1 1/2 cups of duck fat. The skin was left in large pieces, which was a good thing. However, it wasn’t enough to totally crisp the skin, even though it was effective at making a very tasty duck with flavorful and not too fatty skin.

An additional step that we are going to try is drying out the skin first. Often, Peking duck recipes ask you to dry the skin in front of a fan or in the fridge. So, tune in next time and we’ll add a drying step to see if that takes us to super crispy skin.


Bacon Badge

22 01 2010

This is the report of the Bacon Badge Trial. We started making bacon about a year ago and have made it 4 or 5 times since then, but haven’t been totally happy with the results. We think we’ve picked up some info along the way, though, and are pretty confident that this version will work well.

Bacon is a cured piece of pork belly, which has usually been cooked or smoked after curing, but can also be hung and dried as in pancetta. The cure is a mixture of salt, spices, and nitrites.

Nitrate/Nitrite Interlude
You know all those organic bacons that call themselves nitrate or nitrite-free? They aren’t really at all. Bacon doesn’t taste like bacon without the nitrite giving it the cured flavor. What they add instead is a vegetable that is naturally high in nitrates like celery (look for it on the label). They will often add bacteria — the bacteria break down the nitrate and turn it into nitrite, which is the active compound that flavors the bacon and gives it a nice pink hue. So, they can get away will adding a “natural” nitrate and calling it “nitrate-free”, even though there is little difference between synthetically made and natural nitrates.

In order to make bacon, you need to buy “pink salt”, which is table salt mixed with 6.25% sodium nitrite. It is colored pink so that you don’t get it mixed up with regular salt — nitrite can be toxic at high enough levels. We got our pink salt as DQ curing salt from Butcher & Packer.

Pork bellies were the next challenge. We have a few good Asian markets here and the first bellies we got were from 99 Ranch. The first bellies we got seemed pretty good and were from Denmark. They were about 1 1/2 inches thick, did not flop around a lot, and cost $3 a lb.

Floppy Bellies Interlude
It turns out that fat composition of meat can vary a lot and that this can affect all sorts of things: like flavor, time to go rancid, and floppiness. Floppiness makes bacon hard to cut and is often a product of diet. You see, pork producers like to feed their pigs dried distiller’s grain with solubles (DDGS), which is what is left over after corn is fermented and distilled for ethanol production, and this affects the meat. It is cheap food, but has a lot of corn oil and makes the fat high in polyunsaturated fats, which are soft. It tends to go rancid more quickly and in our book they do not taste as good at all. So, we try to avoid the floppy ones.

We had been pretty happy with our Denmark bellies, and with the ones from Sweden we saw after that. After that, though, it seemed all we could get were American bellies for $2 a lb that were about an inch thick and quite floppy. They were pretty anemic, too. We made some bacon with them, but it wasn’t so great. So, we stopped making bacon for awhile.

Then, we were shopping at a neat Korean market Zion and saw their display of pork bellies — 3 shelves, 4 different cuts, and 2 breeds. Amazing, really. The black hog bellies (also called Berkshire or Kurobata) were from Canada and on sale that week down from 4.50 to 2.50/lb. We asked the nice guy stocking the shelves if they had any whole ones in the back, as they pretty much only sell chunks and sliced belly for things like bbq. We ended up with this gorgeous thing:

Here it is cut in ziploc sized pieces. One thing that is interesting about this belly is that it has an extra layer of muscle from near the rib cage that is usually cut off of others. It has a little extra gristle, too, that we’ll have to cut off when we cook it, but that shouldn’t be too bad.

We mixed up a dry cure based on the pancetta recipe in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie with the exception that we cut the pink salt and the pepper in half and we added 1/4t. ground allspice to each 5 lbs. The full belly was just under 10 lbs and we portioned the dry rub to each ziploc based on the weight of the piece. We had tried to get even cuts, but they varied from 2 3/4 to 3 and 3/4 lb.

Dry cure vs. Wet cure Interlude
What we are doing is a dry cure — the salt is rubbed on the pork belly and allowed to sit for a week or so. A wet cure is when you make a liquid brine and soak the belly in the brine for a few days. Sometimes a brine is injected into the meat, which speeds up the process. The wet cure is the cure of choice for most industrial bacon because of the speed.

We then rubbed the cure into the meat, zipped up the bags, and stacked it in the fridge. We flipped it every couple of days. As it cures, you can feel the texture of the meat get stiffer — faster at the edges and slower closer towards the middle. It is ready when the middle gets moderately stiff — about a week per inch or so. We took ours out at 12 days.

When it is ready, you take it out, rinse it off, and cook it at 200F for about 2 hours until the meat reaches 150F internally. You can also smoke it or hang it at this point. Our meat thermometer is being particular at the moment, so we cooked it until the middle got firm when we poked it.

Here it is when it came out…mmm…bacon…the house smelled amazing.

After letting it sit on the counter until it cooled, we cut a few slices.

We fried these up. This bacon is perhaps not at its best when fried in slices because it is not very sweet. It has a rich, meaty flavor with a long taste on the tongue. I think a lot of it has to do with the fat giving it a nice depth.

My favorite way to have this bacon is diced, fried up, and served over poached eggs with creme fraiche and green onion.

Some other stuff we’ve had with bacon
Sauteed with shallots and vegetables like Brussels sprouts or broccoli
Any egg dish (souffle, omelet, etc.)
Scallops and cream sauce
Bacon frisee salad

So, did we get the badge?
Well, we’ve learned quite a bit about the various ingredients that go into bacon (check!).
We’ve sourced the main ingredients at prices we’re happy with (check!).
We’ve learned about the various ways that bacon can get made (dry cure/wet cure, smoking or not) (check!).
We have made one version at least enough times to feel pretty comfortable with the recipe (check!)
And, we were quite happy with how this last version came out (check!).

Alright, I say that passes! On to the next one!

Useful References
Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman
Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli
Making Bacon at eGullet