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Salt duck

The British, and particularly the Welsh, have a long tradition of salting duck. There are both wet and dry cures; wet cured duck sometimes tastes a lot like corned beef. In Think Like a Chef (New York 2000), Tom Colicchio calls his salt duck ‘duck ham’ and contends that it “is essentially prociutto, with duck instead of pork” but while he has a descriptive point, that goes a little far. (Think 185) Salt duck has its own distinctive flavor. It is easy to make, keeps well and therefore is a good way to enjoy such an expensive item as a D’Artagnan duck breast.

Duck Recipe-a duck breast, trimmed of its skin and the fat layer beneath it
- cup coarse salt (English Malden salt is superb; kosher is OK)
- cup Turbinado or Demerara sugar
-scant teaspoon powdered bay
-2 teaspoons dry (Coleman’s is good) mustard
-1 Tablespoon coarsely ground pepper
-a peeled, minced shallot
-2 teaspoons dried thyme

  1. Put the duck on a sheet of plastic wrap big enough to envelop it.
  2. Mix together all of the other ingredients and coat all the surfaces of the duck evenly with the curing mixture.
  3. Wrap the coated duck tightly in the plastic, slide it into a freezer bag and refrigerate it for 36 hours.
  4. Throw away the plastic wrap and wipe the curing mix off of the duck, then blot the duck dry with paper toweling. Do not rinse the duck.
  5. For service, cut the duck on a diagonal into the thinnest slices.

Notes: The salt duck is good with toast or melba toast, pickled onions, cornichons or pickled okra, and prepared English or Dijon mustard.

- Colicchio uses proportionally twice as much salt and cures his duck for only 24 hours. He also uses a more basic cure with white sugar that omits the mustard and uses garlic instead of shallot. We like our, British, cure better.

- We found that the additional salt used by Colicchio was wasted; the duck did not absorb most of it, which therefore was discarded to no purpose.

- If you like a rosy, almost ruby and raw variant, you can leave the duck on the cure for the shorter 24 hour period. At 36 hours you should still have a rosy center.

- ‘Sugar in the Raw’ is a good, widely available brand of Turbinado sugar. Powdered bay leaves are produced by Rex Foods of New Orleans; they have a distinct sweet and pungent tone. If you do not have powdered bay, pound a couple of bay leaves with a mortar and pestle or, failing that, just crumble them. The powder, however, does make a more even cure.

- Elizabeth David uses a recipe for salting a whole duck from Lady Llanover's Good Cookery Illustrated--and Recipes Communicated By the Welsh Hermit of the Cell of St. Goves--with Various Remarks on Many Things Past and Present, published in 1867. This is it:

"For a common-sized duck, a quarter of a pound of salt, to be well rubbed in and re-rubbed, and turned on a dish every day for three days; then wash all the salt off clean, put it into a double with half a pint of water to the pound, and let it simmer steadily for two hours. Salt boiled duck, with white onion sauce, is much better than roast duck." (Good Cookery 408)

Double Saucepan

- Lady Llaover describes a 'double' elsewhere as "a vessel surrounded by boiling water;" the illustration is hers. (Good Cookery 35, Plate 3)

- David is incorrect in maintaining that Lady Llanover provided "a detailed description" of a double: That is it. A 'double' is something like a cross between a bain marie and a double boiler, and David herself does provide a detailed description: "It was a large double boiling pan, one fitting inside the other, the inner one light and made of tin, the outer one of heavy iron one inch larger in circumference. Both were fitted with covers and the whole contrivance could be used for oven cooking as well as for boiling.(Omelette 294)(original emphasis)

- Lady Llanover was using pre-Imperial 16 oz pints.

- Elizabeth David provides a twentieth century update of Lady Llanover's 'Welsh Salt Duck:'

"For the cooking of the duck my own method of improvising a 'double' is to place the duck, as directed by Lady Llanover, in water in a deep oval baking pan. This is placed in a large baking tin also containing water. Very steady, slow oven cooking--2 hours at gas no. 2, 310 F--gives better results than simmering on top of the stove. If, during the final half-hour of cooking, the duck is left uncovered the skin will be baked to a nice golden crispness; and my own inclination is to let the bird cool in its cooking liquid, eat it cold, and serve it with nothing but the simplest of salads." (Omelette 297)

- If that is your inclination too, the we have come full circle and you might as well use bfia's simpler version using boneless breast and a more interesting cure.

- For some reason, David insists that the Llanover recipe will not work with a duck of less than six pounds.

- Years ago the Editor joined the Curmudgeonly Raconteur in a dinner of (hot) salt duck at Pomegranates Restaurant in Pimlico, hard by the Thames. Its customers include MPs from nearby Westminster and just about every luvvie born since 1930; bad boys like Martin Sheen and Bill Wyman too. The room is, like the name, 'glamorous' in a pleasantly dated way. The salt duck was delicious and it remains on the predominantly British menu.

For something a little dressy with your duck, or other roasts, try Turnips with orange.