Perfectly Seared French-style Duck Breast. Magret de Canard.

By mid-December seasonal refrigerators in French supermarkets are full of local delicacies for Christmas luxury dinners: foie gras, escargot, oysters, seafood of all sorts, roasts of all kind, goose, and of course, whole duck and duck breast.

After spending some months in France nothing is more natural than serving Magret de Canard for Christmas Eve dinner. The preparation from the beginning to serving takes about 45 minutes and it requires your 100% presence.

For many years I had been afraid to handle duck breast – it had seemed to me beyond grand mastery to create a perfecly seared duck breast, the way they make it in France – tender, juicy, with crispy golden skin that melts in your mouth. But all of the hesitation is a thing of the past. After a few recipes and try-outs, I’ve aggregated this experience into this lengthy to read, but quick to implement, technique. 

  • 2 duck breasts
  • salt, pepper
  1. Take the duck breasts out of the fridge and leave to come to room temperature, about an hour or so.
  2. Wash and pat dry with paper towels. Do NOT season yet!
  3. Preheat the oven to 200C.
  4. Using a very sharp knife, score the duck breast by making long diagonal incisions across the duck skin going from top left corner to bottom right, 1 inch / 2cm apart. The incisions should be deep enough to cut through the fat but should not reach the meat. Once done, make incisions going from from the top right corner to the bottom left.
    This will help that duck fat melt faster and create that beautiful golden crispy skin.
  5. Put the duck in a heavy frying pan skin-side down. Turn up the heat to medium-high. Once you hear the sizzle, set the timer to 5 minutes. Now duck fat will start melting and it will sizzle and splash all over the place – be careful as the sizzling fat can shoot pretty far. It helps you have a splash guard to put over the pan.
  6. After a minute or so, you will notice the outer edges of the breasts start contracting. If you press down the meat with thongs on both ends of the breast for 30 seconds, you will have a perfectly-shaped piece and an even colour!
  7. As the fat melts, you need to remove it from the pan as it will overcook and will taste bitter – you just can’t do this to the pride of French gastronomy!
    Usually, I remove the pan from the heat, pour the fat into a prepared bowl, and return the pan back; about 3 times during the searing process. But you can do the same by removing fat with a spoon with a long handle.
    If you can multi-task, you can also baste the top side of the duck with fat and juice from the pan, while removing the fat.
    Reserve the fat for future use by freezing. But I generally have pre-cooked potatoes ready in an oven-proof dish. At this point I pour some fat over it, mix potatoes with some herbs de Provence, garlic, and paprika and put the dish in the oven.
  8. After 5 minutes carefully, lift the breast off the pan. The skin should be golden and feel quite crispy. If not, you can increase the temperature and leave for another minute or two.
  9. Flip the breasts over and immediately lightly salt the seared skin. 
  10. Sear the turned-over breast for another minute or two, basting with pan liquid: 2min for small breast, 3 minutes for medium-sized pieces.
  11. Place the pan in the oven (some move the breasts in a roasting pan). Now cook until ready – 6-7 minutes for rare and 10 minutes for well-done meat. A good rule is to compare the feel of the meat to your face:
    Cheek = rare
    Chin = Medium
    Forehead = well done.

    By the way, none of the magret (and steaks) served in French restaurants are well-done: they are medium-rare to rare by default. If you ask for a well-done steak (bien cuit), it’ll be overcooked or burnt. French cooks just refuse to acknowledge another degree of readiness for meats that these two.

  12. The last essential step is to let duck rest. This helps the moisture spread evenly. Remove the breast and place them on a cutting board, skin side up. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
  13. Cut into thin slices. Serve.

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