There's something about sharing a Peking duck that tempers awkward situations. That's why, every time potentially uncomfortable family interactions arise, we beeline it to one of our favorite Peking duck restaurants in the city, Decoy. Decoy is an offshoot of the popular Red Farm, a modern Chinese restaurant group helmed by dim sum master Joe Ng and regional Chinese food expert Ed Schoenfeld (RIP). It's hidden underneath bright and audacious Red Farm—you know you are in for something special as soon as you enter the dimly lit space.
While everything from their crispy fish skin crisps and masterful cocktails is spectacular, the Peking duck is unrivaled. Shatteringly crisp skin adorns lush, tender morsels of meat. The freshly pressed pancakes are so thin you can check Instagram through them. The amount of work to prepare such a perfect duck is apparent. They only have a limited number for sale each day. I wanted to approximate the magic of the Peking duck at home with as little active labor as possible. The secret? Waiting a long time for the duck to dry, like…a whole dang week.
But first, some history—
Ducks were first domesticated in China about 4000 years ago. There is evidence of roasted duck being prepared as far back as 420 AD. Still, it wasn't until the Yuan dynasty, between 1271 to 1368, that it was served in imperial courts. Physician Hu Sihui is the first to record a recipe for a roasted duck in a 1330 cookbook. That preparation was a tad more elaborate, as it required the duck to be roasted inside of a sheep's stomach.
Peking duck originated in the former Chinese capital Nanjing, but when the Ming dynasty moved the imperial court to Bejing (Peking is an old spelling of Beijing), the roasted duck came along with them.
Peking duck is still treated like an exquisite meal in China, made with free-range ducks raised to exact specifications. Once slaughtered, the space between the skin and flesh is pumped with air to separate it. Then, the ducks are hung to dry and coated with maltose syrup. This gives them their signature burnished complexion and crisp skin. The ducks are hung and roasted in one of two ways—in a traditional large oven cooked by the heat emanating from the walls or slowly roasted over a wood fire.
How I Get Crispy Duck at Home (hint: time does all the work)
I have tried recipes approximating the long, arduous process that usually comes with preparing Peking duck. I didn't want to do any of that. I was looking for a tender roast duck with fully rendered crispy skin. For this, I turned to my old friend, the dry brine.
I patted the duck dry and evenly coated it in a dry brine of salt, sugar, and knorr in equal parts, taking special care to get in the cavity and in between the wings. Next, I lightly scored the breast's skin, only cutting through the skin and not so deep I saw flesh. Then I let it rest on a rack in my fridge for one week, rotating the duck a quarter turn every day to ensure even drying. After 7 days, we were there.
In a low 325F oven and still on the rack, I started roasting it breast side down for 30 minutes, then flipped it and roasted it for an additional 1 ½ hours. The skin was already a very light golden brown, and the fat was rendering wonderfully.
Then I turned the oven up to 375F and brushed my duck all over with a mixture of equal parts honey and soy sauce. The extra sugars and higher heat gave the duck a deep glossy coat. I roasted the duck, breast side down, again for 25 minutes, then turned it over for a final 25 minutes.
I pulled it out and let it rest for at least 20 minutes while preparing my accouterments. I didn't have scallions, so I thinly sliced white onion and shocked it in ice water. I also had a bunch of cilantro with tender stems and leaves, cucumber spears, hoisin, and Caramelo flour tortillas.
The skin perfectly separated from the duck, and all the fat was rendered entirely.
And while it didn't have the same shattering crisp of traditional Peking duck, it wasn't tough at all, almost dissolving in your mouth. The meat was seasoned and tender, and the Caramelo flour tortillas were an easy replacement for the delicate Mandarin pancakes. What a stand-in for my Decoy cravings! I didn't need an air pump, hanging room, or a fancy oven. All it took was time.