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I went on a duck hunt for the first time back in December and got hopelessly, completely, thoroughly addicted to it. If you haven’t had the opportunity to try it, and you’re looking for a new gun-related hole to throw money into, I highly recommend it. Like any outdoor endeavor, if you’re a good shot, you might actually harvest some game. And on the chance that you do, careful preparation of your kill is of supreme importance. Several people told me that wild duck wasn’t worth the effort. They were so wrong. So so wrong . . .

With that said, ducks taken over saltwater are a different breed than your typical farm raised or freshwater harvested quacker. They’ve been brining themselves from the inside out on salty marsh vegetables, and the occasional fish. Pretty much every hunting and cooking website I could find recommended roasting wild ducks whole unless they were shot over saltwater. At which point, most chefs threw up their hands and made the usual recommendations for less than stellar meat: “make it into sausage.”

As I usually do when I’m in a pickle as to how to prepare a piece of game, I turn to Hank Shaw at Honest Food. Hank’s not a personal friend, I’m just a loyal reader of his site. He produces a tremendous amount of content about preparing and eating wild game, and deep in the recesses of his site, he had a recommendation for how to deal with saltwater ducks: make them into pastrami. As the son of a New York immigrant, I’d grown up hearing about hot pastrami sandwiches, so my interest was piqued.

For the uneducated, pastrami encompasses any of the varieties of cured, smoked, and steamed products usually made from beef, pork, or turkey. You’ve most likely encountered a beef brisket prepared this way, served hot between two slices of rye with a good mustard. Maybe you added sauerkraut, russian dressing, and some melted cheese. According to Wikipedia (of course), pastrami predates modern refrigeration (duh), and was a popular way of preserving meat, though it didn’t hit American shores until the wave of Jewish Romanians found their way to the good ol’ US of A in the late 19th century.

That Wikipedia article pushed me further towards making pastrami from my ducks with a notation that Jewish Romanians typically made pastrami from goose breast, but found beef navel to be cheaper in America. Famed traveling eater Anthony Bourdain once said, “Only Texans and Jews understand brisket.” Given that Texan brisket is sublime, Bourdain knows a thing or two about food, and by my reading of the transitive property, I figured that a traditional Jewish method of cooking must be good.

The process of making pastrami is actually quite simple assuming you can find the ingredients and have access to a device in which you can make smoke and hold a temperature of about 200 degrees. The whole process takes place over several days as the meat cures but doesn’t really affect your day-to-day life much. And the results are totally worth it.

I combined two recipes for this project. The first, a goose pastrami, from Hank Shaw at Honest Food. The second, a duck breast pastrami, from Meatwave. Both recipes called for eating the final product straight from the smoker, or chilled and sliced. This deviates from the traditional cure, smoke, steam method which I believe is due to the water bath both recipes use to remove some of the saltiness. As such, purists might not consider either of these recipes a true pastrami. I don’t know enough about charcuterie to argue the point.

The first step in the process is to ethically harvest your ducks. Mine were all redheads shot near Port Aransas, Texas. Like all game animals, getting them in the cooler fast never hurts, a problem that came up during phase two. My hunting buddy who took me on my inaugural duck hunt isn’t a huge fan of eating duck. Therefore, proper meat care isn’t top of mind for him.

As a result, I ended up with some funky ducks. When I go next time, I’ll be sure to keep a cooler with ice on the boat so I can get them breasted and cooled quickly. Mine had a distinct gamey smell when I finally got them home and cleaned out. If you’re wondering why I posted an article about duck hunting in December and didn’t write about cooking them until March, its because they’ve been sitting in the freezer for nearly three months to kill off any nasty microbes.

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Recipe: Duck Breast Pastrami

Start by thawing your duck breasts in the refrigerator. Keep them there until you’re ready to start preparing. During this time, collect your ingredients.

For the Cure

  • 1/4 cup Kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground juniper berries
  • 3/4 teaspoon pink curing salt (#1)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • a touch of cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp Colmans mustard
  • 1/2 tsp paprika

For the Rub

  • 3 tablespoons ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons  ground coriander
  • 1.5 tablespoons garlic powder
  • a cup of vinegar for dipping

There’s one item on this list that took some hunting, pink curing salt. You can pick it up online from a variety of sellers, but I found both #1 and #2 salts locally at Callahan’s General Store. Yes, it was more expensive. Yes, I had to drive to go get it. But the people are fantastic, and I like to interact with local business when I can. They also had Tender Quick which my local HEB doesn’t carry. A thorough description of #1 vs #2 curing salts can be found here. Like the author, I generally err on the side of #2 since I only want botulism in the facial wrinkles of those who need it. For this recipe, I used #1 because I knew that I’d be cooking these to temperature and storing them in the refrigerator.

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Prepare the cure by mixing all the ingredients in a suitable dish. I used a coffee cup. Once mixed, set aside and remove your thawed duck breasts from the refrigerator. Give those luscious breasts a thorough once over. Toss out or carve off any seriously blood shot meat, and remove the silverskin. Some hunters manage to keep that delicious duck fat in place. I was not so lucky. Once they’re cleaned and prepared, give them a final wash under cold water and remove to a plate.

Generously coat each breast in the cure, placing them in a sealable plastic bag. Once all the breasts have been rubbed down and have a home in the bag, remove the air, and place in the refrigerator. Flip the bag and squish things around every 12 hours for the next 3 days.

After the curing period has ended, prepare your rub by mixing the three ingredients together completely. Remove your breasts, and wash under cold running water, removing as much of the cure as you can. Place them in a bowl and fill the bowl with cold water. Change the water every thirty minutes for two hours.

Depending on your smoker, start your heat and smoke at some point during the water bath process. You’ll be targeting a temperature less than 225 degrees and a healthy bit of smoke. I used oak, but feel free to use your favorite.

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With your smoker at temperature and making tremendous smoke, remove your breasts from the bowl of cold water, and give them one final wash. Dry them thoroughly, dip them in vinegar, and coat them generously in the rub. Gently shake off any excess and place on the smoker. Smoke until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Review

Both recipes I pulled inspiration from suggested a fairly long smoke time. Mine were done at 37 minutes. I owe this to their relatively small size and my inability to get the temperature at anything below 230 F. That’s a fine temperature for an all day pork shoulder smoke, but it runs a little hot for these delicate little breasts. My next iteration will have a heavy focus on keeping the temp around 210 or so.

Slicing into the duck breast, you can see the characteristic pink tone throughout to let you know that your cure took hold. The first bite (and the second, third, and so on) are sublime. There’s no doubt that this is a cured product as there’s a definite salty flavor though it is not overpowering like most jerky. There’s a nice sharp bite from the vinegar with a hot finish from the pepper. Speaking of jerky, if you’ve ever had “not quite done” jerky, that’s as close as I can approximate the texture. My breasts turned out moist and tender and it was all I had to keep from piling into them right there.

I took one to a coworker who had loaned me some waders for the trip and watched him devour it within a few minutes, stopping only to begrudgingly share with his manager. He had avoided hunting ducks over saltwater, but said that this method of preparation might give him a reason to head to the coast for more than just red drum.

Ultimately, I was very satisfied with how these turned out, especially given their poor care in the field. For future saltwater duck hunting trips, I’ll be sure to get the birds breasted out immediately to avoid any funk. I’ll also be sure to watch my smoker temperature. Otherwise, I was totally satisfied with the flavor imparted by the various spices and neither my coworker or I have fallen ill in the last few days.

Now to go find a good spicy mustard recipe.

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24 Responses to Hunter’s Recipe: Wild Duck Pastrami

  1. I really need to go hunt something. Between the deer, dove, and duck recipes I’ve seen on here, seems to tasty to pass up.

  2. Now to go find a good spicy mustard recipe.

    I make my own with grated horseradish added for extra zip. You might also want to try American wasabi, which actually has no wasabi in it. It’s made from mustard and horseradish. Make it from powder and add a couple of drops of dry Vermouth along with water. It takes about 15 minutes to mature. The vermouth adds flavor and makes it more aromatic. Vermouth works with any dry mustard, like the Colman’s in the picture.

    If you are lucky enough to have a Japanese or Asian grocery somewhere reachable, get some real wasabi stems and a grater. Use within 15 minutes of grating or keep it covered, because it will lose potency if exposed to air. Real, fresh ground real wasabi, which is rarely served in Japanese restaurants, will light up your taste buds like nothing else. Sometimes you can find real wasabi in tubes. It’s good, but nothing is a good as fresh made from the ground stems.

    • The best wasabi is out of New Zealand. I have ordered direct from a company there and had it in less than 2 weeks.

      • Yes, it’s excellent even though I prefer fresh, and it’s real wasabi, not made of mustard and horseradish. New Zealand grown (which may offend wasabi purists) and really strong, the way it should be.

  3. I’ve never eaten duck, but this article makes me want to put on some camo, head south, get my “Duck Dynasty” on, and shoot and smoke me some duck!! Saving this article!!

  4. Nice. The other day a colleague of mine was talking about “Hoover” hog recipes – haha. Good times.

    • Good! We actually had some before dinner tonight and it was well received. Hopefully yours turns out well too!

  5. Do some some research on sodium nitrates. There’s a reason why whole Foods doesn’t allow it in their stores. Celery juice or powder does the same thing and Its much better for you.

    • Ah come-on. Sodium nitrate works great at bluing guns. Now we have two uses for it. Sprinkle a little on our duck – sprinkle a bit in our bluing tank. Consolidated materials.

  6. Hmmm. You may have changed my mind on duck.
    I’m going to give this recipe a try. I love me some hot pastrami and grilled onions!

  7. Just curious, if you’ve never hunted ducks before, how did you know that yours were “funky” compared to what they normally smell like? The ones I’ve shot always seem gamey but that’s just they way that they are, they’re not chickens after all.

    Duck is great when cooked rare or medium rare at most.

  8. My preferred method of preparing duck is to wrap breast filets in thick slices of bacon, broil until the bacon is done, then away throw the duck and eat the bacon. Duck is an acquired taste that I could never quite acquire, and I’ve tried it just about every way you can imagine prepared by renowned duck cooks and chefs, but it still taste like duck, you just can’t get rid of that gamey whang that is unique to duck. The reason I quit duck hunting is I could never get past the taste. There’s a reason folks go to such extremes to overcome the flavor/odor with every masking agent and spice known to man. It’s easier to doctor the whang out of Javelina than it is duck.

  9. Might want to do a little research on this… Not only doesn’t freezing kill bacteria, it breaks down the tissues or other components of foods over time, so that the bacteria will grow even faster once the food is thawed. That’s one reason commercial frozen food labels have a warning about keeping stuff frozen until you are ready to use it. And that’s one reason why thawing and then refreezing stuff isn’t generally a good idea unless you cook it in between.

    http://tinyurl.com/p3fa6k7
    Myth #3: Freezing Kills Bacteria

    Freezing foods renders bacteria inactive but doesn’t actually kill anything. That means if your food went into the freezer contaminated, once thawed it will still harbor the same harmful bacteria. Cooking it to the recommended temperature is the only way to ensure that your food is safe.

    • Guess I was right. I was going to post that my understanding was that cold doesn’t kill bacteria, it just prevents their growth. Takes heat or chemicals (the “cure”, maybe?) or something else to actually kill the little buggers.

      • Some chemicals will kill bacteria, but they are generally not something you really want to eat. Salt and sugar do not “kill” bacteria either, really, just inhibit their growth and reproduction.

        Meat “cures” best when it is as clean and uncontaminated as possible from the beginning. Clean hands, tools and work surfaces are a must for any food preparation. Most food connected illnesses are actually caused by poor handling, prolonged, substandard storage and careless preparation. All food can easily be contaminated. That’s why cooking, safe handling and refrigeration are so important.

        All too often, however, it is just so much easier to blame the farmer, processor or manufacturer…

        • true enough-I was thinking about vinegar myself, heard and read that in former times, like the Middle Ages, the only really safe things to drink were alcoholic beverages like wine (the alcohol killed the germs) and buttermilk (I assume that was due to the lactic acid?)

        • There are many things: acid, alkaline, salt, honey, sugar, fats… that inhibit bacterial growth and reproduction to one extent or another. Most do not actually kill the organisms, and if the conditions are right, bacterial growth will continue even if slowly. Most people do not understand this, thinking that the germs are killed by whatever.

          Most folks think that alcohol kills germs. Not so. Fermented beverages were safest because the water was boiled during the process of making the beer or whiskey. Yeasts and friendly bacteria also work on the ingredients, making the environment for the bad bugs unfriendly – and so many of them die over time. Most bacteria can’t live long without oxygen, for example. So, it’s not the alcohol in the beer that kills the germs, but the process of making it.

          Alcohol is a solvent, and it makes the bacteria actually slippery, unable to attach to things, so when the thermometer is wiped or dipped in alcohol, the germs can’t stick and can easily be rinsed or wiped away in large part. Soap and water, with a clean towel to dry hands and utensils performs the same function. But the object isn’t “sterile” then, by any means.

          Skin can’t be sterilized. At least not while it is attached to a living being. 🙂 Many friendly bacteria live in the skin, and are responsible in large part for the health of the skin, the largest organ in the body. Iodine actually does kill bacteria… but it will damage living tissue by the same mechanism. That’s why it has been “denatured” and tamed to make betadine and other such products. They do a little better job than alcohol. But, of course, they can’t be used in food.

          The best, and most reliable thing to develop in our battle with the bad bugs is a healthy and robust immune system. Regular exposure to some bad bugs (can’t be prevented anyway), along with a healthy diet and lifestyle, will ensure that you don’t fall prey to every little germ that wanders by… including those still in your sausage.

  10. Great recipe! You should start a section on cooking wild game( I’m always looking for new ideas). Also, why not do something with leg and thigh? Confit, cacciatore, or even stock it out. Sorry, must be the cook in me trying to use the whole product.

  11. “I went on a duck hunt for the first time back in December and got hopelessly, completely, thoroughly addicted to it. ”

    I warned ya’all, didn’t I? Waterfowl hunting is incredibly addictive. Once you figure out how to prepare the meat and cook it, it only gets better.

    -If you’re in a warm environment, and can’t get your ducks in a cooler, it helps to gut them quickly so that the temperature of the meat drops. Since i’m usually done hunting by 10am or so, I don’t worry about this. I just get them home and breast them out.
    -I like to soak the breasts overnight in the fridge in a big bowl full of water, salt water, buttermilk or beer. Pull them out after about 12 hours, rinse well (give the meat gentle squeezes to force any blood out of the meat), trim any blood shot meat and cut of the silver stuff. I like to vacuum seal the breasts 2 to a pack for easy meal preparation. If you’re going to make sausage or something, and it’s not going to be in the freezer for more than a few weeks, just pile the breasts into one big gallon freezer bag.
    -If you really enjoy duck hunting, but don’t enjoy duck steaks, try making sausage. A decent meat grinder is about 150-200, and the all in one sausage kits from Cabelas are very easy, very tasty, cost about 20, and you can cook them in the oven.

  12. Hey there, Ralph –

    Care to post yours for purposes of comparison?

    Start with buttermilk cornbread…

    Ingredients:
    10 ounces by volume masa harina
    9 ounces by volume white cornmeal
    1/4 cup sugar
    1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    2 large eggs
    1 cup buttermilk
    Preparation

    Procedure:
    Preheat oven to 400°;
    lightly grease an 8-inch cast-iron skillet and heat in oven for 5 minutes.

    While pan is heating, whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl;
    whisk in melted butter;
    add eggs and buttermilk and whisk until just smooth.

    Pour batter into hot skillet and bake at 400° for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown.

    Stuffing ingredients:
    Buttermilk cornbread
    1/3 cup unsalted butter
    1 cup crescent-chopped celery
    1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion
    1-3/4 tablespoon very finely chopped fresh sage
    1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    4 white sourdough ryebread slices, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
    2 1/2 to 3 cups chicken broth
    2 large eggs, lightly beaten

    Procedure:
    Crumble cooled cornbread into large bowl.

    Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat;
    add chopped celery and onion and sauté 10 to 12 minutes or until tender;
    stir in sage, pepper, and salt.

    Gently stir celery mixture and bread cubes into crumbled cornbread in bowl, until just blended;
    add chicken broth and eggs, and stir until other ingredients are moistened.

    Either spoon mixture into a lightly greased 11- x 7-inch baking dish or stuff a bird with the mixture.

    If preparing outside a bird, bake at 350° for 45 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown; garnish with fresh sage leaves.

  13. I am still trying to figure out why someone (like your friend) would go though all the trouble of duck hunting and not eat the ducks. Makes no sense. The rendered fat, the bacon wrapped breasts, the delicious pastrami. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm

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