Pear-Brined Tea-Smoked Duck Breasts
Duck Breasts brined in salt and pears then rendered to a crisp before being infused with smoky tea. If Casablanca could ever be a dish, this would be it. I mean, how tragically romantic does that sound? And then sliced on the bias (more, more baby, please!) served with cranberries, pea shoots and sweet potatoes from the land of geisha-cool itself- Okinawa? I am so there. Let’s start at the beginning.
Brining 102, let’s call it, since brining 101 was more than likely covered in your house last week what with all that turkey. I bet you didn’t add fruit to your turkey brine though, did you? But guess what- you could have and it would have been delicious, though for turkey I would probably have suggested citrus. You probably added lemon, but you could’ve done just as well with super-seasonal satsumas- oh so good with tender turkey. But duck, duck is another matter. In fact, you rarely hear about brining duck, which is a shame. Sure, for confit one prepares a “dry brine” of sorts, but in general, gamy, earthy duck is an oft-overlooked bird in the realm of brine.
Let’s discuss for a moment, shall we, the merits of dry versus wet brine. Now I’m just a bored housewife, self-taught in the ways of the kitchen and mostly steeped in so much wine that I probably couldn’t tell an arse from a shoulder anyway, but I have some opinions nonetheless. Take them with a big ol’ grain of salt, but not one of the grains of salt from the brine, because I’ve been told that duck infused salty brine isn’t exactly sanitary. Not that I heed that advice- I’m completely willing to lick a raw duck breast to see if it’s sufficiently salted, and if that is the way god wants to take me from this green earth, I’m more than okay with it. Yes, duck flesh brine poisoning would be an A-Ok way to go if you ask me- much better than perishing in the bottom of a porta potty while unsuspecting party poopers drop loads on your head (Sorry, I just read about this fetish today and I can’t get it out of my mind. I’m sure you’re real excited to talk about food now, aren’t ya?).
Back on track. IMHO, dry brine (or curing, as it were) is great if you want well-salted skin, but wet brine is better if you’re looking for just a hint of saline but, more importantly, you want to lock in moisture when cooking. I am ok with dry brine for small, single muscle cuts meant for cure or confit, but I much prefer wet brine for whole birds, and breasts etc that don’t get cooked slow and low over a long period of time. Duck breasts fall squarely into this category because they most definitely should never be served at any temperature over medium (I prefer medium rare, in the 130-135°F range). I add whole pears, cardamom, juniper and clove to the brine because those are all things I associate with both smoke and holidays. This time of year that’s kind of a prerequisite to cooking, and I used Grant Achatz’ flavor bouncing technique to determine that they would combine well.
Enough about brine- let’s talk smoke and sear. My curmudgeonly mother happened to be present for the lusty duck fest 2010 and she took one look at the breasts and said, “There is no way I am eating those things. Don’t you have any lean chicken breasts?” After I clutched my heart in horror remembering that I came from a family of Lunchables and Hungry Man TV dinners back in the day, I attempted to assuage her fears over the visible inch of fat on the luscious breasts. You see, those poor little duckies need that layer of fat to survive the cold, migratory winters.
That doesn’t mean you end up eating the fat though, no, you sear it off and make yourself some nice duck yum in which to fry potatoes and all manner of bland things that are greatly improved by the addition of fat. The searing is accomplished by slashing a crosshatch pattern in the fat layer, then frying them in a hot skillet while the fat renders. A key to this process is periodically pouring off the fat into a waiting vessel so that it doesn’t overspurt and fresh contact between fat and pan is constantly made.
After the breasts are seared down to a point, smoke is a wonderfully-decadent element to introduce. Rather than smoke in a wok, which is traditional when making tea-smoked duck, I simply added tea to a hot dutch oven and let it begin to smoke. Then I tucked the breasts-flesh side down- into the pan and replaced the lid. Mere seconds on that side sears them perfectly and infuses them with a deep, rich smoke that is also effervescent. Served with duck fat-roasted Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, cranberry compote and pea shoots, this is a dish you won’t soon forget.
Pear Brined Tea-Smoked Duck
- 2 duck breasts, Moulard, Muscovy or Pekin all work well
- 2 c water
- 2 c ice
- ¼ c kosher salt
- 2 pears, quartered
- 4 cardamom pods, crushed
- 6 juniper berries, crushed
- 4 cloves, crushed
- 3 tbsp loose green tea
- Heat the water, salt, pears, cardamom, juniper and cloves in a medium saucepan until the salt has dissolved. Remove from heat, add the ice and stir until cool. Make a crosshatch pattern on the fat side of the duck breasts with a very sharp knife to allow for permeation. Place the cold brine and duck breasts in a ziplock or shallow dish and allow to brine overnight. Remove from brine and pat dry.
- Place a dutch oven with lid over medium high heat. Once heated, place the duck breasts, fat side down, in the pan. Fat will render quickly and fill the bottom of the dutch oven. As it collects, periodically pour it off. This process takes 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the layer of fat. You will know most of the fat has finished rendering when a crust begins to develop and it takes on a lightly-charred look.
- At this point, remove the breasts from the dutch oven, pour off the fat (a little remaining is fine) and drop the tea into the oven. Cover for 30 seconds. Open quickly so as not to let too much smoke out, and replace the breasts, this time flesh-side down. Cover the lid and sear for two minutes on that side, quickly remove the lid, turn the breasts back over, and sear for an additional two minutes for medium rare. (this may vary depending on the thickness of the duck breasts- a thermometer read of 134° is a good goal)
- Remove the breasts to a cutting board and slice on the bias into strips. Serve with cranberry compote, pea shoots, and Okinawan sweet potatoes roasted in duck fat.