Duck Feast

Joined Oct 9, 2008
Heston Blumenthal’s “Perfect” Peking Duck

I’ve done parts or all of a few of the recipes from Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection cookbook (you can see most of the TV show on YouTube), and it’s always been spectacular. Then my daughter asked for a super-special duck dinner for her 11th birthday, and I thought, what a great time to try Heston’s “Perfect” Peking Duck.

Some of you may recall that, two years ago, I made a “Halloween Horror Menu” for my daughter, including “snail eyeballs,” “zombie bacon,” and other delights. It worked, more or less, but this time I thought it’d be fun to let Heston Blumenthal do the figuring-stuff-out part, and just execute. (Incidentally, I’m going to be starting a blog, which I hope will include some video as well, in which I do this kind of crazy modernist home-cooking stuff. This post, part one of the Peking Duck Meal, will be revised and become the first major post on that blog. I’ll let you all know when that goes live.)

Anyway, I read some blogs and such online, and found that there have been some pretty consistent difficulties. Most of them strike me as arising from not doing what Heston tells you to do, which is a mistake. But there is one bit that will take some rethinking—so I asked questions and did some research, and we’ll see how my changes work.

Butchering the Ducks

I bought 2 ducks at a big Chinese supermarket. They come with heads and feet, which is useful, as I’m going to be making a very gelatinous stock. Then I needed to cut them up, and divide the excess bits into two equal piles.

Here you see two trimmed ducks.

2 ducks.jpg

Here are the heads, necks, and feet in two pots. These will be used to make a double stock.

Heads in glass.jpg Heads steel.jpg

Next, I slowly and carefully peeled the skin from the ducks, keeping it as whole as possible. The meat is divided into four legs, one bone-in crown, and two boneless breasts. Here’s the meat:

Butchering .jpg

And the two sheets of skin:



Now half of the bones and trimmings, plus some extra duck wings (they were cheaper than chicken!) and half a pig foot, together with a little shaved ginger, scallion (spring onion), dry sherry, and quite a bit of cold water go into the pressure cooker. I’m using an InstantPot, my birthday present, which is wonderfully idiot-proof. This has to run at full pressure for an hour.

Instapot .jpg

Leg Confit

While that’s cooking, I started the leg confit. Now here’s where there’s a real change from Heston’s recipe.

He calls for old-fashioned confit poached in duck fat. That works, of course, but the fat is expensive, and with home immersion circulators it’s really not necessary. But everyone complains that, when they do the recipe the way he says, the confit comes out ridiculously salty. Why?

I figure that people aren’t allowing for the fact that in traditional confit, the cooking medium absorbs a great deal of salt and spices. If you’ve ever made traditional confit, you know that at the bottom there is some beautiful jelly—which is ridiculously salty. So I knew I’d have to reduce the quantities.

Heston wants you to dry-brine the legs for 12 hours in a great deal of dry spices and salt—150g salt, almost 50g star anise, and so on. Then you wash this off in many changes of cold water, and only then poach in fat. So my approach is simple.

I packed the inside cavity of each pair of legs with some fresh ginger, powdered ginger, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, and cinnamon. I salted all the legs more or less the way I’d plan to salt them just to cook straight in a pan, and used quantities of spice that looked appropriate, if a little light: I know that a very long immersion-cook is going to drive those flavors through and through, and I don’t want to overdo it. Then I added some trimmed fat and a whole mandarin orange peel, sealed it up tight, and fired up the circulator. 149F for 24 hours—that’s the recommendation of a number of fairly reliable sites and books.

Confit ready.jpg Confit running.jpg

So that’s the confit done, and I can basically ignore it until serving day, which is Sunday. (I want lots of time to avoid being in a panic, and besides, Saturday is going to be crazy for other reasons, such as a girl’s birthday party with her friends….)

For the moment, let the machines do the work.

That's all the images I'm allowed in one post, so on to the next....


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Joined Oct 9, 2008
Breasts, Part 1

There are two more main steps to the duck itself: the breasts and the crown.

For the crown, he wants you to wet-brine it, wash very well, and poach super-slow. Again, I’m planning to do this in the circulator, so once again I will be seasoning it lightly at the last minute; that’s a job for tomorrow, after the legs are done (since the target temperature for the breasts is not the same).

Now the boneless breasts are for making the filling of some dumplings. Here I plan to follow his directions exactly, with two small exceptions. First of all, he wants you to use 200g of the breast meat for the dumplings, and the rest for the stock. I’m not going to do that, because everyone agrees that those dumplings are spectacular…and I happen to know that homemade dumplings freeze admirably. So I’m going to scale everything in the recipe to the quantity of meat I actually have, and hope to have a bunch of extra duck dumplings for special occasions.

The other small change to the dumpling recipe: I’m going to add some of the consommé gelatin to them. Eh?

Okay, so the stock, now cooking in the InstantPot (round 1), is going to be extremely gelatinous. When it’s ready, I pour it into ice cube trays, let set in the fridge, and then freeze them solid. Then I put the cubes in a cheesecloth-lined colander and leave that over a bowl in the fridge. What’s supposed to happen—I’ve done this before, and it works—is that perfect consommé melts out of the cubes, leaving all the impurities behind, suspended in gelatinous goop. (This is called ice filtration, by the way.)

Now in his recipe, Heston wants you to keep back some of the goop to add when making the stir-fry confit. I will do that, but I’m also going to have reduce-able confit stock, because I’m cooking in a bag, not in fat. So I’ll use some of both for the stir-fry, and mix a little of the goop into the dumpling mixture just before filling.

Some of you will have realized where I’m going with this. When the dumplings are steamed, the gelatin melts, leaving me with not just Heston Blumenthal duck dumplings, but with Blumenthal duck soup dumplings (xiaolongbao). And if there’s one thing my daughter likes more than any other savory food, it’s soup dumplings. So cross your fingers…but I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.

The first step of the dumpling filling is to puree 20g of duck meat with a little salt and chill very well. The idea is that the myocins in the meat are activated by the salt, which helps the whole thing bind together and not break. (If you’ve ever had broken sausage, you know why this is important; this is also why everything from here has to be kept super-cold all the time.) I actually have a little more than 300g of duck breast to use, instead of the 200g he asks for, so I’m multiplying everything by 1.5.

Puree with salt.jpg

Next, I sweated leek and napa cabbage in a little butter:


Now he asks you to purée 125g (187g for me) duck meat with the salted paste and some skim milk powder, and dice the rest very fine. I worry a lot about broken forcemeats, so I’m hand-dicing all the remaining meat fine and measuring out the portion for puréeing.

Purée, then chill again for a little, then purée in egg, sesame oil, and so on:

Dumpling mix.jpg

Then fold in the diced meat, the sweated veg, and some aromatics. So here’s the dumpling filling, ready to use:

Dumpling mix read.jpg

I won’t make the dumplings until tomorrow evening, or possibly later, but that shouldn’t make any difference.

Ice Filtration

So after the first round, I strained the stock and poured it over a fresh batch of carcass, aromatics, and fino sherry (incidentally, Shaoxing wine would be more traditional than dry sherry, but really good Shaoxing is very hard to come by, in my experience, and after a year living in Taiwan I have horrible memories of bad Shaoxing; good dry sherry is an excellent substitute, and when it’s cooked to any significant degree, I think only a real connoisseur could tell the difference):

After stock round 1.jpg

Another round of processing later, I strained, brought the stock to a simmer, and added a bunch of aromatics:

Ready stock 2.jpg

After letting this infuse, I poured it into ice cube trays and left them to set in the fridge. And, a few hours later, here are my gelatinous ice cubes, set and ready to freeze:

Stock cubes.jpg

Now they get wrapped in a cheesecloth bag and set over a big measuring cup to melt slowly in the fridge. This takes 24-36 hours. Yet another step that takes a long time but involves no actual work. This kind of cooking, I find, is mostly about planning everything thoroughly in advance, so that there’s as little pressure to get things done as possible. The final stages should be 90% assembly, heating things up, and plating. Otherwise such project cooking becomes too unpleasant to actually enjoy on the day.

End Day 1

Confit is processing. Consommé is self-straining. Crown is ready to process. Dumpling filling is complete. There are some garnishes to make, nothing complicated. What’s left?

I have to process the crown, which is easy. I have to make the dumplings, which I’ve done many times, so I’m not worried about that.

And then there’s the skin….

That part really worries me. I believe that it’ll work, because everyone swears it does, but it seems like a very big deal of which remarkably little can be done all that much in advance. Sunday is going to be all about skin and fat!
Joined Oct 9, 2008
By the way, if you're following every step of this with bated breath, the final infusion of the simmering stock looked like this:
Infusing stock.jpg
Not sure why, but I got the wrong image, and then couldn't correct it. Feh.
Joined Sep 17, 2018
Let me know how the sous vide confit comes out. I've never done it any other way than in the fat.
Joined Oct 9, 2008
Day 2

Day 2 started with two minor disasters, quickly dealt with.

First, I woke up and immediately thought, “Wait, I didn’t let those gel cubes freeze solid — the stock won’t melt.” This is important. The point about ice filtration is that freezing actually breaks the gelatin’s holding power. If you’ve ever frozen Jell-O or aspic, you know that it weeps. That’s the point behind ice filtration. Since I got the stuff to gel but then put it pretty much straight into the bag, it’ll just sit there. So I bunged the bag of stuff into another bag and shoved it in the freezer down in the basement, which is colder and faster than the little freezer attached to my fridge. Here’s hoping it’ll freeze fast, break, and thaw quickly!

Second, for some reason my immersion circulator threw off all the water overnight. I haven’t used this circulator—an Anova mini Nano thing—much, but this didn’t happen so quickly with previous circulators. Maybe it’s because the temperature is relatively high (149F). In any event, it was sitting at around 134F. I added a lot of water and revved it up again, then covered the whole top with lots of plastic wrap. I’ll let it run until maybe 8:00. Should be fine.

Back On Track

Okay, the confit is stewing away merrily, the jellied stock is frozen and now thawing in the fridge, and I’ve made the light pickling solution for the cucumber garnish. (Meanwhile, for dessert, 90% of the tiramisù hard work is done.) All’s well!

To make the cucumber garnish for the dumplings, you boil wine vinegar, water, and sugar, then chill it. Then he wants you to slice the ends of an English cucumber on a mandoline, stopping when you start to get into seeds. Now I’m not going to do it that way: first of all, I’m pretty darn good with a knife, and second, I don’t own a mandoline. So, with great care, I shaved the cucumber:
2-Sliced Cucumber.jpg

And put the slices in a little bag with the liquid:
2-Pickling Cucumber.jpg

Meanwhile, the confit is done. I put the bag in a lot of ice water for about 10 minutes to chill fast, then into the fridge it goes until needed:
2-Confit Done.jpg

Before I got to this, my daughter and I scoured an Ocean State Job Lot store (sort of an all-things-clearance cheap store) and got 4 proper flower pots (for the tiramisù dessert) and a cake rack, since I only have one, all for $5. They’re in the dishwasher now.

The Crown

I decided that the right thing to do here is to do the crown tonight and let it rest in its bag, just like the confit. It can reheat at 140F or so for half an hour until needed for serving. Heston wants it poached very slowly until it just hits 160F inside, which seems rather well-done to me; I realize that he’s thinking of Chinese-style duck breast, which is generally served more well-cooked than in the West, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go to such extremes. Now I did some research, and eventually settled on 145F as my target core temperature. Once there, it has to remain at that temperature for about 10 minutes to pasteurize, but several very knowledgeable types (including Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab) think that cooking for about 1.5 hours makes for maximal moistness without any of the stringy, pappy sort of thing that can happen when you overcook.

As with the confit legs, I seasoned the crown by eye, and then coated the back side (which won’t show so much) with the whole spices he calls for: cinnamon, star anise, clove, coriander, peppercorn—basically a version of 5-spice mixture.
2-Crown Ready to Cook.jpg

And pop it in the circulator for 1.5 hours.
2-Crown Done.jpg

With that done, I can finally turn the circulator pod off, for the first time in two days!

So far, so good. Tomorrow is my daughter's party with her friends, so there won't be a lot of cooking going on. Sunday is the day. Brace yourself -- it's gonna be wild stuff.
Joined Oct 9, 2008
IMG_20181027_011526372.jpg After re-watching the show, plus the ongoing discussion of a Shanghai restaurant and its special chicken, I've decided to tinker with the skin. Last night I stitched the skins to the racks and left to chill and dry overnight. This evening I'll baste with near-boiling water and dry more. Then roast, glaze, fry.
Joined Jan 8, 2010
That's some proper cooking Chris!
Hope everyone is going to enjoy the meal
Joined Oct 9, 2008
Serving Day

A lot to do today—but actually, it wasn’t that bad.

First thing was to make the tiramisù itself, which I’ll discuss elsewhere. Then the skins had to go in to bake at 140F convection for 3 hours. My oven won’t let me use convection under 170F, so I did that for 2 hours, turned it around (because I find my convection oven uneven) and baked another hour or so.
3-Baking the Skin.jpg

During the final baking, one skin came unattached at one end, and bubbled up nicely. No bad thing, but not flat. Oh well.
3-Duck Skin B.jpg

4 shiitake caps, gills sliced off, are seared flat, glazed with mirin, and then glazed with extra consommé. Now I didn’t get nearly as much consommé as I should have, because (I assume) I didn’t let it freeze long enough, so I used some of the jelly, cleared of as much fat as possible.
3-Glazing Shiitakes.jpg

These go into the fridge.
3-Glazed Shiitakes 1.jpg

Next up, shred the confit. Somebody asked how that came out, doing it sous vide, so here you go.
3-Confit Whole 2.jpg

And shredded, with the glaze for stir-frying. That glaze is 50g sherry, 65g tawny port, 500g poaching liquid plus more semi-clarified consommé jelly, all reduced until it coats a spoon.
3-Confit and Glaze 2.jpg
Joined Oct 9, 2008
For the stir-fry also, 140g shiitakes—which is more mushroom than I had expected!
3-140g Shiitakes.jpg

And the aromatics (ginger, shallot, scallion, chile, garlic):

And a little dry crushed spices:

We made dumplings, and as I rather expected, we got a ridiculous number. My wife hasn’t sent me her photos, but it was a generous trayful, plus we’ve still got about a third of the filling. This all for 12 dumplings! No worries: they’re freezing in the basement now.

With about an hour to go until service, I fired up the immersion circulator to 140F and popped in the crown to warm, then started on the part I was dreading: frying the skin. Again, my wife has the photos; I’ll post those tomorrow probably. But basically, you heat a pot of oil and have next to it a deep roasting pan and one of the racks of skin. Heat the oil to 375F and ladle it over the skin repeatedly until it turns golden. This took three runs, as he warns, and was not nearly as terrifying as I thought it’d be. Then cut the skins off the racks, trim into neat rectangles, and put in the warming drawer to wait.
3-Fried Skin.jpg
Butcher the crown, slice the breast (dull rosy, as I’d hoped), and put that in the warming drawer.

Boil water and set over it the steamers with dumplings on the bottom and pancakes on the top, to cook 8 minutes.

Stir-fry: oil, then dry spices until fragrant, then vegetables. When they start softening, add 3/4 of the glaze and toss through. Add the confit, keep stir-frying until hot, adding more glaze if it seems necessary. I found my main problem was that the glaze tended to stick to the bottom, because I don’t have the right sort of pan for this, but it was fine.
3-Stir Fry.jpg

Slice the glazed shiitakes in the bottoms of nice bowls, add 4 dumplings each (he wants 3, but so what?), add hot consommé, garnish with pickled cucumber and scallion threads, and serve.
Joined Oct 9, 2008
The Completed Meal

Here’s the whole feast:

The breasts and skins:
3-Breast and Skin 2.jpg

The garnishes:

One complete pancake getting ready to eat:

The stir-fry on iceberg lettuce:

The soup with dumplings:


I think he forgot to tell me to season the consommé, because it desperately needed salt (there isn’t any in it, after all). Otherwise, the soup was fabulous, the dumplings creamy and delicious, and the little slices of pickle do a lovely job of balancing the whole thing.

The skin technique needs some more work, as some slices were rather thick and chewy, but most of them were glassy and crisp, and with the beautiful breast slices and garnishes, a terrific pancake-full.

As to the stir-fry, I thought it needed a little more salt. My wife thought that the shiitake was overkill, given that there were shiitakes in the consommé, and she’s definitely got a point. I did like the very subtle flavors, every one of which was clear: the faint heat, the unctuous confit, the aromatics—all of it came through nicely.

Would I do it again? Heck no! But I might borrow bits of the dish at some point.
Joined Oct 9, 2008
A Few More Conclusions

Some of this is mea culpa, things I did wrong, but I do think it matters in judging this insanely complex recipe.
  1. I screwed up the consommé. I did not freeze the gelled cubes fully, and did not get nearly as much clear consommé as I should have. That said, two very minor criticisms of the recipe:
    • It really would be best to make clear just how important the freezing is. The recipe is very lah-di-dah about how long the ice filtration step is going to take, and that’s a serious problem, as many bloggers have indicated. Most of them don’t seem to understand quite how it’s supposed to work, but they’re almost unanimously horrified by a small amount of consommé when it comes near to serving time. If you do this:
      • Allow a bare minimum of 48 hours to make the consommé from start to finish
      • Freeze the aromatic infused stock until it’s a block of ice, no cheating
      • Assume that it will take around 36 hours to melt properly
    • The consommé must be seasoned at the last minute, or it’s weirdly dull. (If you’ve ever tasted unseasoned strong stock, you know what I’m talking about.) You must allow a little time to season and taste before ladling it over the dumplings.
  2. I screwed up the stir-fry glaze. It took me 24 hours before I suddenly realized this. I was thinking, “how come the stir-fry was kind of dull and flat?” And then I remembered: the glaze is supposed to be balanced with sherry vinegar. That would definitely have lit up the flavors.
  3. You really do need a proper seasoned wok or a nonstick pan to make the stir-fry, as the glaze deposits itself on the bottom of any other pan, and you don’t have a way to get it off. This leaves your stir-fry dry and a little dull (plus, see above).
  4. I screwed up the skin just slightly, because I forgot a step. Before you roast it, stitched to its cake-racks, you need to go over it with a pin, pricking everywhere but not going all the way through. The idea is to get the fat to render out as you cook. I didn’t do this, and the result was that in some places, I had pieces that were a bit thick and a little chewy.
All that said

The whole thing is marvelous. It works stunningly well, even when you screw up a bunch of things, as I did. I would recommend a couple of very small points, however, to just slightly up-tick Heston (as sous-vide revised by me):
  • Over-season the legs before the confit process. Not a huge amount, but imagine that you’re cooking for salt-lovers, and then put on the whole spices generously to match.
  • Cook the confit at a lower temperature. If you’re doing it sous vide instead of in a fat bath, it’s going to be drier, and the recipe has nothing to balance that out. Rather than add some additional thing to obscure slightly dry leg meat, just cook the meat less. I think probably 145F or even 140F for 24 hours would be dandy.
  • Be a little generous when seasoning the crown. That skin is so intensely crispy that you’ve got to have something to stand up to it, and you don’t want the dominant flavor to be hoisin sauce.
  • Include a small pinch of salt in the maltose glaze when you do the skins. They need a teeny kick. But be sparing!
  • If you know how to make your own dumpling skins, do it; otherwise, I suggest rolling out the premade ones on a mixture of flour and cornstarch until they’re about 1.5x the size, give or take. These will fill more generously, obviously, and be lighter on the palate.
  • Make twice as much stir-fry glaze as he calls for. It keeps just fine, so don’t worry about it—make it in advance. Season aggressively with both salt and sherry vinegar: it should be a little salty and quite tart.
  • Unless you don’t like hot-spicy flavors, as I suspect Heston does not, be aggressive with both the dry and the fresh chillies in the stir-fry. A strong kick there, especially when combined with the more assertive acidity, will help tremendously when balancing between the unctuous-almost-greasy-but-not-quite pancakes and the elegant-creamy-unctuous dumplings.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to skip the cucumber pickles on the dumplings. You need that acid.
  • Skin-stitching: I used toothpicks worked under-over-under, and it worked very well. I got my break where I had been a little reckless about it, so don’t do that. On the other hand, it is not necessary to trim the skins down to the narrow fatty-breast rectangle: so long as everything attached to the cake racks is well attached, you can get fabulous skin from the whole bird.
  • I had planned, as I said, to include some of the consommé gelatin in the dumplings. This didn’t happen, because (given my screwup) I didn’t have much gelatin to use. I would definitely want to try this next time around, if there is one.
  • EXPERIMENTAL: I think that the pancake combination—skin, breast, cucumber, scallion, hoisin—needs a hit of umami that doesn’t come from the hoisin. My suggestion is as follows:
    • Put a sheet of kombu and a few shiitake stems (you’ll have lots) in cold water with a pinch of salt, inside a stiff bag.
    • Process the bag at 140F for 75 minutes, then chill in ice water until definitely cold.
    • Remove the kombu and put the crown in the bag, remove as much air as possible, and allow to rest in the fridge for 24 hours.
    • When ready to cook, strain the contents, keeping the liquid, season with salt and whole spices as the recipe requests, put the crown back in the bag, add about 1/2 cup of the liquid, and then cook in the bath at 145F for 3 hours.
  • EXPERIMENTAL: I suggest that the skins be bathed in water, just off boiling, to which a generous pinch of baking soda has been added and dissolved. Do this repeatedly, until the skins seem very tight, and then chill until needed, at least overnight. Based on some work by Kenji Lopez-Alt and others, I believe this will help crisp the skin in the final frying, and if you don’t use much, you won’t taste the bitterness.
Final thoughts

Would I do this again? Maybe.

It’s a lot of work, but having done it once, I can see how much of it is really quite automatic and (once you know it’ll work) low-stress. The main difficulties are planning ahead adequately and trusting Heston to know what he’s doing.

Planning: as I say, you’ve got to allow 48 hours, minimum, for the consommé. And since you’re going to need that consommé for various prep things, I think you need to buy your ducks 72 hours before service and start cutting at once. Given that, with my modifications, you can have pretty much everything done significantly in advance, there’s every reason to think that, for a Sunday dinner, you can have 90% of this meal completed by Saturday night, but to achieve this, you’ve got to start Thursday morning.

Trust: This is not my first rodeo with Heston Blumenthal. Stop worrying. That’s my #1 piece of advice. If you’re cooking a dish he’s invented for home cooks, do what he says. Sure, some tinkering because you’ve got sous vide or whatever is perfectly viable, but you’ll have to do some research. (For example, the confit I made was fabulous, because I knew about the salt-spice problem, and the confit lots of bloggers have made was awful because they didn’t know.) Otherwise, just do what he says. He’s a 3-star chef and a creative genius, and when he’s developed something for the home cook, he really does mean it, okay? How can you not trust that smiling, round, be-glasses-ed face? Trust him. And that also means—calm down. (Which is where I pretty much failed, but next time….)

A proper schedule for the recipe

Let’s assume a Sunday dinner, around 6:30, okay?


Make experimental kombu brine. Peel ducks. Butcher ducks. Stock round 1. Chill brine. Start confit. Seal crown with brine. Stitch skins to racks and refrigerate. Stock round 2. Make dumpling filling. Infuse stock. Freeze stock.


Start thawing stock. Make pickles. Baste skins with boiling water-baking soda mixture, and refrigerate.


Once you have some consommé to work with, make glaze. Once you have gelatin to work with, make dumplings. Both can be done Sunday if you like. Make maltose glaze. Cook crown at 140F for 3 hours, then chill.


Prick and bake skins. Make glaze and dumplings if not done before. Prep stir-fry ingredients. Make raw garnishes. Shred confit. Warm crown at 140F. (I strongly suggest that you start a rice cooker now: I can’t think why Heston doesn’t serve this with good rice!)

Fry skins, cut in rectangles, keep hot. Steam dumplings and pancakes. Stir-fry confit. Heat consommé and season. Garnishes on plates for service. Butcher crown.

Complete soup. Complete stir-fry. Complete pancake course.

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