Hold the turkey; how about roasting a duck for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner instead?
Cantonese roast duck—the glistening red birds you see hanging in Chinatown shop windows—is known for its shiny, crackly-crisp skin and succulent meat. The duck is traditionally hung to air-dry before cooking, for extra crispy skin, and roasted with a liquid marinade sealed inside the cavity, for extra juicy and flavorful meat. It’s a must-eat dish during any family gathering.
Making the dish at home is a multi-step process that you’ll have to start a day or two in advance. But when you break down the steps, it’s actually quite simple, and the results are well worth the time.
Several steps are geared toward ensuring your duck roasts up with the crispiest of skin.
First, the duck is “inflated” with an air compressor inserted under the skin, to separate it from the meat. This way, excess fat can safely drip off while the duck roasts, without softening the skin. This is a common practice for preparing Peking duck, Cantonese roast duck’s northern cousin, but many high-end Cantonese roast duck places use the method as well.
The duck is then blanched in two rounds: first with just water, to firm up the skin, and then with water mixed with Chinese rose cooking wine, red vinegar, and maltose or honey, to add color and flavor.
Finally, the duck rests in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours to air-dry, for another layer of protection against soggy skin. Traditionally, it would simply be hung up in a cool, dry place.
After that, most of your hard work is done. All that’s left to do is roast the duck in the oven, first at a higher temperature, for, you guessed it, extra crispy skin, and then at a slightly lower one to finish. Serve with a side of plum sauce, and you have an impressive centerpiece for a Cantonese-style feast.
Cantonese Roast Duck
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Rest Time: At least 24 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour, and 10 minutes
- 8-inch stainless steel turkey lacer (or, you can use a bamboo skewer)
- Air compressor
- Stainless steel S-shaped hook, or butcher’s twine
- Wire cooling rack
- Roasting pan and rack
For the duck:
- 1 3 1/2-pound whole duck, neck attached
- 16 cups water, divided
- 2 cups ice, for ice bath
- Plum sauce, for serving
For the dry rub:
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon sugar
For the marinade:
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 2 pieces fermented red bean curd
- 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 scallions, cut into 3-inch pieces
- 3 slices ginger
- 3 garlic cloves, lightly smashed
For the blanching liquid:
- 8 cups water
- 1/2 cup rose cooking wine (mei kuei lu chiew), or substitute rice wine
- 1/2 cup diluted red vinegar (da hong zhe cu), or substitute rice vinegar (though you will lose some of the red color)
- 1/2 cup maltose, or substitute honey
The day before, prepare the duck: Wash duck with warm water and pat dry with paper towels. Remove excess fat from the inside of the cavity and discard. (If you can, choose a leaner duck, which will roast up crispier.) Use tweezers to pluck out any pinfeathers; if you have a cooking torch, you can also use it to singe them off. Chop off the feet, if attached, with a knife.
To make the dry rub, in a small bowl, combine salt, white pepper, five-spice powder, and sugar and mix well. Rub the mixture all over the duck and inside the cavity. Transfer to the fridge and let sit for 2 hours.
To make the marinade, in a bowl, combine soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, fermented red bean curd, five-spice powder, and sugar and mix well, breaking up the bean curd. Add scallions, ginger, and garlic.
Remove duck from the fridge. Pour the marinade inside the cavity and rub it all over. Use an 8-inch stainless steel turkey lacer or bamboo skewer to truss the cavity closed.
If you have an air compressor, use it to blow air under the skin of the duck. Place the duck breast side up and insert the tube of the air compressor under the skin, around the neck area. Press paper towels over the cavity and rest of the neck to ensure that no air leaks out. Blow air under the skin for about 1 minute, until the duck inflates like a balloon and the skin is separated from the meat. Flip the duck and repeat.
If you do not have an air compressor, use your hands or the back of a wooden spoon to reach under the skin and loosen it from the meat.
Secure an S-shaped hook on the duck’s neck, or tie butcher’s twine securely under both wings. Ensure that the duck does not fall when you lift it by the hook or the twine.
In a large bowl or pot big enough to fit the duck, prepare an ice bath. In another large pot, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Turn off the heat. Holding the duck by the hook or the twine, suspend it over the pot and use a ladle to spoon the water all over the duck, for about 2 minutes, until the skin turns firm and white. Discard the water. Immediately submerge the duck in the ice bath, to further firm up the skin. Remove and pat dry with paper towels.
To make the blanching liquid, clean the pot of any grease and bring another 8 cups of water to a boil. Add the rose cooking wine, red vinegar, and maltose and mix well. Turn off the heat. Once again, holding the duck by the hook or twine, suspend it over the pot and use a ladle to spoon the liquid all over the duck, for about 2 minutes.
Remove hook from the neck, or snip off the twine, and chop off the neck and head with a knife.
Set a wire cooling rack on a plate and place the duck on the rack, breast side up. Transfer to the fridge to air dry for 24–48 hours. (You can also use a fan or blow dryer to speed up the process.)
The next day, roast the duck: Line a roasting pan with foil, for easier clean-up, and set a roasting rack on top. Place the duck breast side up on the roasting rack (because the breast side is thicker). Wrap up the wings and legs with foil, to prevent burning. Let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.
Transfer duck to the middle rack of the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Then, lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and continue to roast for another 20 minutes.
Remove roasting pan from the oven. Flip the duck so that it is breast side down. Return roasting pan to the middle rack of the oven and roast, still at 350 degrees F, for 20 minutes.
Remove roasting pan from the oven. Remove the foil from the wings and legs of the duck. Return roasting pan to the oven and roast for another 20 minutes. (If your duck is larger than what this recipe calls for, add 15 minutes of roasting time for each additional pound. The USDA recommends cooking duck breasts to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F to ensure that any harmful bacteria are killed.)
Remove duck from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Remove aromatics and liquid from the cavity and discard. Chop the duck into small pieces and serve with plum sauce for dipping.
Recipe by CiCi Li
CiCi Li is the producer and presenter of “CiCi’s Food Paradise” on NTD Television. Join her in discovering the world of Asian home cooking at CiCiLi.tv