Before I tried it, if you’d asked me whether duck legs could be grilled successfully, I would have guessed no.
I would have been wrong. I now know that the answer to any question about cooking duck legs is this: With time, they become tender. Like pork ribs, duck legs like low and slow. Confit, obviously, is the prime example of this: Not only do you “marinate” the duck in seasoned duck fat for a day or two, you then cook it at a super-low temperature for hours. Another good example is a braise of duck legs and aromatic vegetables that I put together 15 years ago or so. Inspired by a somewhat more complicated recipe by Gary Danko (and reproduced below, because why not?), it slow-cooks the legs in stock and their own fat.
Those treatments both employ added moisture, but duck legs have enough fat, so any slow-cook method that renders the fat will result in tender meat.
After thinking about this, the only surprise is how easy it is to apply the approach to grilling: After removing “excess” fat (if there is such a thing), you salt and spice the legs, let them sit for a while, wrap that fatty skin flap around the exposed meat, and grill them using quite low and indirect heat for 90 minutes or so. At that point, you brown and crisp them over direct heat, and you eat them. In theory, one duck leg serves one person, but anyone with an appetite will eat two, given the opportunity.
Grilled Duck Legs
Makes: 4 servings (or 2; see text)
Time: 3 hours, largely unattended
4 duck legs
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Optional: 2 star anises, 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, ¼ cinnamon stick, 2 cloves, and 1 teaspoon dried ginger, or the spice mix of your choice
1. If there’s a lot of excess fat hanging around on the skin flap, trim some of it off. But don’t go crazy over this, because the fatty skin is really good, it offers the meat some protection, and no one’s going to force you to eat it anyway. Mix together the salt and pepper with any spices you’re using (grind them first if necessary) and rub this mixture all over the duck legs. Let them sit on a rack for an hour or all day; unless the weather is stifling, you don’t need to refrigerate.
2. You want an indirect fire for this, so if you’re using gas, just set half the burners to medium or medium-low, depending on the power of your grill; if you’re using charcoal or wood, light a fire on one side of the grill only and let it calm down a bit before you start. (See text for more details.) Wrap the skin flap of each leg around the meat and put the legs over the cool part of the grill; no part should be over direct heat. Close the grill’s cover and walk away for an hour-and-a-half, checking only to make sure that your heat stays between, say 300 and 400 degrees; precision beyond that isn’t important. Turn the pieces once or twice, but don’t worry about that much, either.
3. The duck is done when a thin-bladed knife pierces the meat easily. If you’re really lucky, the skin will be crisp and brown at the same time, but if it’s not, no problem: Carefully, with full awareness, brown the duck directly over the heat. Do not walk away for more than 15 seconds, and I’m serious. When the duck is so beautifully browned you can’t stand it, remove it from the heat and serve right away, with lime wedges.
This is a recipe inspired by Gary Danko. It’s fantastic any time of year, but will be extra useful when the weather starts to cool off a bit.
Crisp-Braised Duck Legs With Aromatic Vegetables
Makes: 4 servings
Time: about 2 hours, largely unattended
4 duck legs, trimmed of excess fat
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped
8 ounces carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 celery stalks, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt and fresh black pepper to taste
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the duck legs, skin sides down, in a skillet large enough to accommodate all the ingredients comfortably; turn the heat to medium and cook, rotating (but not turning) the pieces downward into the pan as necessary to brown the skin thoroughly and evenly. Meanwhile, peel and dice the vegetables.
2. When the skins are nicely browned, turn and sear the meat sides for just 1 to 2 minutes and season with salt and pepper. Remove to a plate; remove all but enough of the fat to moisten the vegetables (there’s plenty more fat where that came from). Add the vegetables, along with some salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat, until they begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Return the duck legs, skin sides up, to the pan and add the stock; it should come about halfway up the duck legs, but in no case should it cover them. Turn the heat to high, bring to a boil, and transfer to the oven.
4. Cook for 30 minutes, then turn the heat to 350 degrees. Continue to cook, undisturbed, until the duck is tender and the liquid reduced, at least another 30 minutes and probably a bit longer. (When done, the duck will hold nicely in a 200-degree oven for up to another hour.) Serve hot.
Mark Bittman is the author of How to Cook Everything.