The secret to cooking duck perfectly is in slow-roasting, and the best place to do that is on the grill or in the smoker. Before you get started cooking a duck, there are key points you should know.
Duck doesn’t cook like chicken, and it doesn’t taste like chicken. Duck is entirely dark meat—even the breasts—and duck has a thick layer of greasy fat that you certainly don’t want to eat. Ideally, a cooked duck has little or no fat left in it, and the skin is thin and crispy.
Getting Rid of the Fat
The most important part of cooking a duck is to get rid of that fat. There are several strategies for doing this, like steaming the duck over boiling water for about 20 to 30 minutes. This is a traditional method, but it cooks the duck and blocks the absorption of smoke flavor when you cook it. This isn’t desirable if you want to grill or smoke the duck.
Another trick is to pierce the skin of the duck at regular intervals, about every inch over the entire surface of the duck, but be careful. You want to cut through the skin and fat, but you don’t want to cut into the meat. This can best be done by very gently pushing into the skin with a knife. The fat is easier to cut than the meat so once you are through the skin, push carefully until you feel resistance. These vents will allow the fat to drain from the duck.
The traditional way of cooking duck was over a live fire, particularly on a rotisserie spit rod. This lets the fat drain away and burn off in the fire. With a gas grill, that grease is just going to catch fire, and you will end up getting that bird nice and crispy in about 10 minutes—which not what you want. Whether you are using a gas or charcoal grill, you need a drip pan to catch the greasy fat as it drips off. If you are using a rotisserie, this is a standard set up. If you are not using a rotisserie, you want to set up a drip pan that will keep the duck from touching the drippings. You also want to set the duck so that it can effectively drain off that fat. One great trick is to use a standing chicken roaster, like those that are used in beer can chicken recipes. You don’t want the can, just the cage that holds it. This is a great position for the duck to be in while it roasts.
On a grill, you want a roasting temperature around 325 F and need to hold it there for about two to three hours. You will cook duck longer than you would chicken so there is time to allow that fat to melt away. You are grilling indirectly since you are using a drip pan. Never put a fire under a drip pan as that just makes bad smoke.
There are a couple of things to look out for so you will know when your duck is done. First, the internal temperature needs to hit 165 F. You probably won’t have to worry too much about this, but you should check anyway. Next, you want to make sure that the skin is thin and crisp. The fat of a duck sticks to the skin, so you know it is gone when the skin is nice and crispy. Lastly, the duck should have a nice, even brown color over its surface.
Smoking is an alternative method to grilling. Smoke your duck at about 225 to 250 F. This is a good temperature for poultry. You will smoke for about four to six hours, depending on the temperature you are holding. For the smoke, use a good fruit wood like apple, cherry, or perhaps hickory. Oak might be a little mild and mesquite will probably be too strong. You want a good supply of smoke. Duck has plenty of flavor, so you can add a lot to it without overpowering the duck.
While you will be able to get the fat out of the duck on the smoker, you might not get crispy skin because the temperature might not be high enough to achieve it. You can transfer the smoked duck to a grill for a few minutes. Set the grill up for indirect grilling, but maintain a hot fire. Make sure to turn the duck so that every side gets the intense heat, and keep an eye on it so it doesn’t start to burn. You can also put the duck in your oven for about 15 minutes at 500 F. This will get it crispy.