The finished smoked duck... amazing!
Duck has a reputation in the United States of being hard to cook. Many people don't like duck This is mainly due to people poorly cooking it. How many of you have had duck at someone's house? Greasy and smothered in orange sauce? Who would want to eat that? Uh... not me!
The other experience most others have had is at a Chinese restaurant. You can often get really good duck at a Chinese restaurant... IF they know what they are doing. It can be fantastic. However, it can be really bad as well.
I have always liked duck. I plan on raising my own ducks in the future, so I thought I would experiment a bit and try to find some alternate ways to prepare duck. I had actually never heard of smoked duck before I had decided to get some ducks for my smoker. After I had read a bit online, I found out that there were a number of people who were also smoking duck. Not a lot, but enough for me to get some ideas of what I was looking to do and confirming my own ideas as well.
Duck does have a lot of fat in it. This is not a problem. It gives it a lot of flavor. But we don't want the fat to stay in the meat. I am not too concerned about the fat content in a health context (since I saved the fat!), but too much fat left in duck meat results in a greasy meat. That is not tasty at all. One way to avoid that is to make sure that the duck's skin has "drains" in it. I used a paring knife and poked all over the skin, through the skin but not the meat (muscle) underneath, to allow the fat to drain as the birds cooked.
I rinsed the birds with cool water after I removed the giblets and neck from the cavity. I only used a bit of salt on and in the birds. The fat and smoke will provide enough flavor. I covered the wings and legs with foil to prevent them from cooking too fast and burning (I removed the foil during the last hour). I did not tie up the birds at all. I wanted the smokey, hot air to circulate all around the birds.
I arranged my offset smoker as you can see above. On the left is the firebox. I have a pile of charcoal ready to light. To the right of that is my water pan. I make sure to keep the air humid (not wet) by keeping this full of water. Under the cooking grate in the smoke box I placed a drip pan to collect the fat from the cooking birds. I'll discuss what I did with the fat in a later post.
I used a mix of hickory and mesquite wood blocks and chips - that was all I had access to where I live. Hickory is a medium strength wood - flavor speaking. We can use it with beef and pork in moderation, lightly with chicken, and it is probably too strong for lighter fish. Mesquite is a stronger wood for flavor. It can easily overpower smoked meats, so we use it with caution depending on the natural flavors of the meat we are smoking. Duck and other waterfowl, as well as most game meats, are much more strongly flavored, so they can handle a bit more mesquite. I thought a mix of about 60/40 hickory/mesquite would be a good ratio.
In general, I add wood every 15-30 minutes for the first few hours, then I only add additional charcoal to keep the temperature at a steady place.
Temperatures are the most important thing to monitor when smoking/BBQ-ing. There are a number of temperatures which I keep track. First is the smoke box temperature. I try to smoke/BBQ fatty meats at about 225 F (107 C). This is the ideal temp to slowly melt the fat and connective tissues and create a juicy meat. Lean meats like turkey can be smoked/BBQ'd at a bit higher temperature... 325 F (162C). For duck, I tried to keep the cooking temp between 250-275 F (121-135 C). It is fattier than turkey, but it doesn't have nearly the connective tissue as a brisket would have. I monitor this temperature with a screw-on probe thermometer I drilled through the door of the smoke box.
The next temperature I monitor is the meat temperature. I use a probe thermometer with a heat resistant cord connected to a battery operated digital display as you can see in the photo above. My goal for duck is 160 F (71 C) in the deep breast. Once the temp raises to this goal, it will continue cooking for a bit with an ultimate goal of 165 F (74 C). I like this model. On the lower line of the digital display, you can see the current probe temp on the left and the goal (alarm) temp on the right.
In reality, I don't completely trust this temperature probe. I think the heat will conduct down the probe and give a falsely elevated reading. When I get close to the goal temp, I will then use an instant read probe thermometer and check the meat in several places. This gives me an idea of how much longer to BBQ the meat. I will move one piece of meat to the cool end of the smoke box (farthest from the firebox) if it is at a higher temp than the other pieces. In the case of the ducks, I spun them around since one end was cooking faster than the other.
Here is the end product. A crispy skin. Juicy but not greasy meat. Good smoke flavor, but not overpowering. It took about 4 hours... I think. I wasn't really keeping track of the time. Our guest for the duck dinner, Joan (also a bit of a food snob... in a good way!) is a duck lover. She orders duck whenever she gets a chance. She said that this was the best duck she has ever tasted. High praise!
There is a mix of art and science to smoking meat the right way. Practice will make perfect. Get to know your smoker, and you will be making great food! Have fun!