The end was in sight. With only a handful of days to go, the 2017 duck season was winding down. To make matters worse, the southbound migration through northern Iowa had long since passed. Stale, refuge-wise mallards and a few stragglers of other species were all that was left. In spite of the dismal outlook, falling temps and gusty northwest winds had made it impossible to sleep in. No matter how pathetic the numbers, there was still a chance of putting one more duck on the dinner table before things iced up for good.
As it turned out, the decision to go duck hunting was a good one. There was no big flight, of course, but there was a thin trickle of ducks. Although the morning was still young, a brace of bluebills and two drake redheads were already in the bag and I was feelin’ good. But one thing was missing. Although the bulk of my decoys were high visibility, brightly colored drake canvasbacks, that species was noticeably absent. The legendary king of ducks had yet to make an appearance. The situation took a happy turn when around 8 o’clock, I spotted a lone 'can rocketing downwind. Once the bird noticed my spread, the duck made a wide arc and came powering back to my counterfeit lookalikes. The bird presented an easy shot.
Bagging a prime canvasback is always a stellar event; the pinnacle achievement of American waterfowling. In the time-honored, tradition-steeped world of duck hunting, no single species is more historically or culturally significant. During the 1800s, canvasbacks were the mainstay of commercial gunning enterprises which, during its 70-year heyday, provided tens of thousands of Americans with a ready source of high quality protein.
Even in those days of unfathomable abundance, the famed canvasback was prized above all other fowl. At bustling urban markets, fresh canvasbacks fetched two to three times the price of other species — including the ever-popular redhead and mallard ducks.
Nowhere was the canvasback craze carried to greater extremes than on the eastern seaboard’s Chesapeake Bay. It was here that mind-boggling concentrations of 'cans gathered each winter to feed on the succulent roots and tubers of wild celery; a diet that earned the species its celebrated reputation for unrivaled table quality.
In the Eastern cultural hubs roast canvasback was the first-choice entree for the tables of the elite. Whether served at state dinners or featured on the gilded menus of the finest hotels, the noble canvasback was the last word in fine dining.
The canvasback’s culinary standing has not diminished over time. Today, it remains the gold standard of gourmet dining. Here’s the step by step procedure for the best duck dinner of your life.
Initial Preparation: If the regal canvasback truly is the king of ducks, then it must be treated as such. To begin with, the bird should be handled with the respect. That means keeping it dry and keeping it clean. In order to achieve their flavorful potential, canvasbacks must always be plucked whole; never ever skinned or breasted — a barbaric practice that is as wasteful as it is disgusting.
In order to attain maximum tenderness, canvasbacks should be aged [35 to 40 degrees is perfect] for a minimum of three to five days before roasting. Regardless of cooking method, canvasbacks should be served rare [or for more squeamish diners] no more than medium-rare. Anything beyond that is guaranteed to reduce the quality of the presentation. It takes real talent to mess up a fat canvasback; overcooking is the fast track to achieving that goal.
A properly aged canvasback is amazingly easy to prepare and should always be cooked hot. By hot, I mean an oven heated to 450 degrees. Some ovens won’t get that hot, but most will make it to 400 or so if you give them time to get there. 400 degrees works fine.
Most 1800s, ‘Down East’ duck dinners included servings of wild rice, oyster dressing, stuffed clams, or crab cakes. Speaking of side dishes, roast canvasback represents a signature moment in gourmet dining, and you might want to go the extra mile. Instead of prefab box mixes or those smothering cream of mushroom concoctions, ratchet it up a bit. Pull all the stops and thrill guests with servings of long grained Minnesota wild rice, fresh baked oyster dressing, or crab cakes prepared in your own kitchen.
Into the Fire: Canvasbacks are large ducks. The one mentioned at the beginning of this column weighed just a quarter-ounce shy of 3 pounds. But in spite of their size, cooking times are amazingly short — assuming, of course, that your oven is hot. In most cases, 18 to 20 minutes will bring ducks to rare, while 20 to 25 minutes or so will bring them to medium-rare. Keep in mind that not all oven dials or meat thermometers are created equal. Suggested cooking times are approximate; not absolute.
Once they’re removed from the oven, any large ducks should be rested for 8 to 10 minutes before carving. Don’t forget that ducks will continue to “cook” as they rest. That’s one lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Trust me. Nothin’ dampens a party like a dry, fully cooked bird!
Taking it Outside: I enjoy preparing all species of waterfowl in outside grills. Utilizing indirect heat, bank coals on opposite sides of the kettle and shoot for an initial high temp of around 400 degrees. The difference between this method and the indoor oven is that, although grill temperatures start high, the heat will steadily diminish during cooking. But since cooking times are relatively short with ducks, this decrease is much less of a consideration than when cooking larger game.
For heat, I prefer to mix charcoal with chunks of dry apple or mesquite. In this instance, we are simply cooking; not smoking the meat. Milder woods, like apple, will impart a light smokiness without overpowering the duck’s natural flavor. Unless the cold is extreme, outdoor cooking times will usually approximate those of indoor ovens — more or less. I usually begin testing ducks after 20 minutes or so and remove from the grill the minute — no, the second — juices begin turning from blood red to pink. Remember that super-heated birds will continue cooking after they leave the grill.
Once your duck has rested, it’s time to dish up the sides, carve your bird and start the feast. If things went according to plan, the skin will be slightly crisped: the meat will be medium rare and melt in your mouth juicy. Wild or domestic, there is simply no other meat that can hold a candle to properly prepared canvasback duck — it’s that good. Your first incredible, flavor-filled bite is all that’s needed to provide a reminder of why the regal canvasback has always been, and will forever be, the undisputed king of ducks. Long live the king!