My recipe for today is a real French Classic, made all the rage by royalty and served for centuries. Nowadays, it is still popular in most French restaurants. I am talking about a roast duck recipe called duck à l’orange, or also known as canard à l’orange in France.
Duck à l’orange is a French sweet and sour dish, which is unusual in traditional French cooking. It consists of roast duck served with an orange sauce, and it is actually quite easy to prepare. If you can roast a chicken, you can cook a duck. This dish, in which the duck is cooked and served with an orange sauce, is classic French, however very few actually know that this particular dish has its origins elsewhere, perhaps in the cuisine of Tuscany?
Many food historians believe this delicious dish, which the Tuscans called paparo alla Melarancia was exported to France by Catherine de Medici, who married Henry II of France. Catherine’s arrival in France, in fact, brought a gradual integration of the Florentine cuisine in the French one, Véra also discussed when she talked about the arrival of pâte à choux in France in her post about éclairs.
However, when we take a deeper dive into the origins of duck à l’orange, we find that this dish has deep roots, almost certainly going back to the ancient Middle East, as dishes from that region often combined meat and fruit. The fruit balances the fat and flavor of the flesh with bright, tart notes. This combination was the rule in the Middle Ages and held influence down to the end of the seventeenth century, “almost all recipes for meat up to that time contain sugar,” according to Jean-Francois Revel in Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food.
The Kings of France planted oranges in the 16th century, but the fruit didn’t catch on until the 17th century, which is when we see the first mention of orange sauce. The first actual recipe for the dish seems to be from the 19th century; in The French Cook, Louis Eustache Ude calls it ducklings à la bigarade (bitter orange), and lavishes citrus sauce over the whole thing. Wherever it came from, duck à l’orange remained a classic throughout the 20th century. Today, there are millions of search results for the dish on Google, so it seems to have held favor into the 21st century.
For the first-time cook, the duck might come across as a little daunting. Unlike chicken or turkey, duck is comprised of all dark meat, including the breasts. Furthermore, believe it or not, duck meat itself is surprisingly lean. All too often, duck is considered a greasy or fatty meat. Although you will find a good layer of fat beneath the skin, it’s not difficult to remove or cook most of the fat out of the bird before serving.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a seared duck breast, you’ll often find the crisp skin is marked with a crosshatch pattern. Slicing through the skin in this way before cooking allows the fat to drain out as the meat cooks. Likewise, when you roast a duck, you’ll often find instructions to pierce the skin with a fork before cooking. This also allows the fat to drain out easily without soaking the meat and skin.
While duck sometimes has the reputation of being a gamy meat, most of the duck sold in the U.S. is white Pekin, which is known for its mild flavor and tender texture. Still, duck can come across as a little heavier than other types of poultry, which is why it pairs so well with citrus and tart flavors.
Duck à l’orange was hugely popular a generation ago, so popular in fact many regrettable variations were created and served which caused the dish to become less fashionable and out of favor. However, duck a l’orange, an exquisite one, with crisp skin, succulent meat, and a velvety citrus sauce that tastes like concentrated sunlight is a thing too delicious to succumb to the vagaries of fashion. The union of bright, zesty orange with delicious duck has retained its appeal across cultures, continents, and time. The flavors have worked for centuries, and they won’t stop now.
Like the throngs who still descend on temples of haute cuisine demanding their canard à l’orange, I have never stopped loving this dish, and I am particularly attached to the foolproof version I am sharing with you today, a version that I worked on with my partner in crime Vera.
The recipe I am proposing today is elegant and economical in its application of the classical technique to the challenge of achieving maximum flavor with the ingredients at hand. The result is tangy and delicious, subtle and robust all at once, a sauce that even Louis XIV or a bad tempered 21st-century celebrity chef, for that matter couldn’t possibly quibble with. I have cooked this old-fashioned duck à l’orange recipe a few months ago for our New Year’s Eve dinner feast we had with a few friends. With this very traditional French main course, I served foie gras to start and chocolate yule log to finish. But you don’t have to wait for the new year celebrations to indulge in this delicious roast duck recipe. Trust me on this one!
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in French cuisine, Chef Simon. You can find Chef Simon on his website Chef Simon – Le Plaisir de Cuisiner.
Duck à l'orange is a sweet and sour classic French dish consisting in cooked duck that is served with a tangy orange-based sauce.
- 1 duck (4 to 5 lb)
- 6 oranges
- 6 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 carrot , cut into 1-inch slices
- 1 onion , sliced
- 2 Tbsp Cognac
- 3 Tbsp Grand Marnier
- 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 2 tsp cornstarch , dissolved in 1 Tbsp cold water
- 1 bouquet garni
- Wash and dry four oranges and take off their zest. Squeeze them to collect their juice and reserve it.
- Blanch the zest for 5 minutes in boiling water and drain. Set them aside for the final garnishing.
- Heat the butter and the oil in wide pan and brown the duck on all sides.
- Add the carrot and onion. Sauté for 2 minutes then pour a ladle of water, then add the bouquet garni, salt, pepper. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.
- After 30 minutes, pour Cognac and Grand Marnier.
- When the cooking of the duck is complete, remove it from the pot and keep it warm by covering it with tinfoil.
- Filter the cooking juice in a saucepan. Add vinegar and orange juice and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Filter again and incorporate the dissolved cornstarch. Simmer on low heat until the sauce thickens slightly and its consistency is syrupy.
- Place the duck on a serving platter with the sauce poured on top. Garnish with the orange slices (see recipe below).
- Pre-heat oven to 200 F.
- Thinly slice 2 oranges. Place the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Sprinkle icing sugar on top. Bake for 45 minutes.
- Turn slices over and sprinkle icing sugar again. Bake for 45 minutes more or until orange slices are mostly dehydrated.