At last, it’s Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck. For one last time join us as we make a Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe.
Wherever I go in the world I can’t stop thinking about Heston Blumenthal. Which explains why I once forced my travelling buddy Sam to suffer a rushed meal at the Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant during a brief stopover in Beijing (humeblebrag: on the way back from seeing the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang).
You see, Quanjude Roast Duck one of the places Heston visited to research how to make the Perfect Peking Duck recipe for his In Search of Perfection series.
I can barely remember the meal; we were in a massive dash so we were in and out within 20 minutes. But I do recall details, like the succulent meat, shattering skin, subtle cherry flavours and me asking to settle the bill before the food had even arrived. We were in a hurry.
I wish we’d spent longer in that restaurant. Not just because we’d have thankfully missed the traditional Chinese opera (which is excruciating), but because I’d have had better memories to reference when seeing just how “perfect” Heston’s In Search of Perfection Peking Duck recipe is.
So, here’s how to make Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck recipe. We’ve saved this one until last because it is, without question, the most complicated of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes by far – 3 separate courses using all of the peculiar techniques he’s deployed over the course of the Perfection series, plus a couple of new ones, too.
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck Recipe
Special Equipment: Sous vide cooker (optional), pressure cooker, digital probe thermometer, barding needle, butcher’s string, spice grinder, food processor
Special Ingredients: Shaoxing rice wine, mirin, rice vinegar, maltose, Hoi Sin sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand is best), wonton wrappers, Chinese pancakes, Szechuan chillies, Szechuan peppercorns, cardamom pods, pork ribs, bulk-quantity star anise
Time: 3 days, minimum
Serves: 2 – 4
Difficulty: The Boss Extreme
Here’s a photo of how the finished dish should look, as seen in Heston’s Further Adcentures in Search of Perfection book:
And here’s Heston showing you how to make his Perfect Peking Duck recipe on the show:
Sourcing and Ingredients
Much like Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck recipe also requires a trip to a dedicated Asian grocer. Posher supermarkets will get you so far, but only a true Asian grocer is likely to be able to supply you with the Maltose, pancakes and wonton wrappers (check the freezer section for the last two).
Most supermarkets will sell you some sort of Hoi Sin Sauce, but our favourite is the Sweet Hoi Sin by Lee Kum Kee, which comes in a handy squeezy bottle. As usual we sourced most of our supplies at the Wing Yip superstore in Manchester.
Heston recommends home-jointing two Silver Hill ducks, providing about ½ a duck per person. Since this is our final Perfection recipe we’re making this a quiet affair– and we’re cheating by just using a duck crown and some legs, all pre-packaged from the supermarket.
Heston’s ice-filtered soup requires pork ribs – you absolutely must have some sort of bone to provide the gelatin for ice filtration (more on that later). Morrisons supplied us admirably, but we’ve found it can be difficult to get plain pork ribs at UK supermarkets without them being slathered in a flavoured sauce.
Step 1: Soup Base, First Infusion (Day 1)
Okay you absolutely have to do this step at least two days before you plan to serve the dish. Even earlier if you can manage.
The reason for this is that the soup base, which needs two stages of cooking, has to be chilled and then frozen then slowly defrosted in the fridge. It’s a process called ice filtration and is going to result in a magically and beautifully clear consommé – one that loses none of its intense flavour. But ice filtration takes at least 24 hours (and anything up to 48), so to guarantee you get the result you’re aiming for start this 2 – 3 days before you plan to serve the dish. We’re starting Friday night to serve on Sunday evening.
First, saw up some pork ribs. You’ll want to do this because it’ll give you a greater surface area, meaning more flavour infusion. Plus, since gelatin is the element that makes ice filtration work you want to extract as much of that as possible.
Add just half of the sawn-up ribs to your pressure cooker, along with chicken wings, sliced ginger and spring onion and as many bits and bobs of duck as you can scrounge off the bones.
Refreshingly, for a Heston Perfection recipe, these ingredients don’t need sautéing, roasting, blanching or caramelising. But there is, of course, star anise. Cover the whole lot with water and cook at full pressure for one hour.
Step 2: Soup Base, Second Infusion. (Day 1)
Once the hour is up depressurise the cooker (you can speed this up by running it under the cold tap until you hear a hiss). Strain the liquid (bin the leftovers of course, it’s a Heston recipe and waste is essential) and then add all the remaining ingredients to the pressure cooker.
Cook again for another hour. Depressurise again. Strain again. Infuse a few spices into the liquid for 20 minutes (we did this as the liquid was cooling to save time).
When the liquid is fully cooled you need to put it in the fridge until the gelatin sets. Then place into the freezer, but beware that the gel can take anything up to four hours to set. So that we could get to bed at a decent hour for a change we just put our soup straight in the freezer.
We used an ice cube tray to help speed the thawing process the next day. The blocks need to be fully frozen through, a process which can take several hours or the whole night. Ice cube trays freeze faster (all those gaps underneath allow the cold air to circulate quicker).
Step 3: Brine for the Duck Crown (Day 1)
Speaking of organised, ahead-of-time preparation, let’s get the brine for the duck crown sorted during the time that the pressure cooker is running. Flavoured brines are great, but we’ve found that to naturally cool them from boiling to room temperature can take a while – the kind of waiting that can add up to an hour on to already long recipes.
Heston’s duck crown brine is a fairly simple combination of cinnamon, clove, coriander and star anise. Bring these to the boil and leave to infuse (again done as the liquid cools).
This brine should be kept in a sterile airtight container. Or you can brine the duck crown overnight now if you really want to get ahead.
Step 4: Ice Filtration (Day 2)
This is a very easy step, as the process can be left entirely unattended. It’s just long. You’ll want to rig up the following:
A large bowl with a sieve or colander in it, and muslin / a towel / one of our cheap disposable hairnets lining the sieve.
Put the frozen stock into this setup . This is why ice cubes are a good idea as they fit better, and the smaller pieces mean more air circulation and hopefully a quicker defrosting time (we warned about this after reading an absolutely essential report on the This Edible Life blog).
We set this up in the morning and by midnight we had maybe a couple of drops of liquid in the bowl, which was quite ominous. Fingers crossed, eh?
Step 5: Duck Leg Cure (Day 2)
You might have read one of Heston’s interviews where he explains how his love of gastronomy was born during a trip to a Michelin-star restaurant on a family holiday in France. The Fat Duck cookbook has other tales of Heston and his wife making gastro-trips round the country or many years afterwards.
For all the modernist trappings, Heston’s cooking is deeply rooted in French cuisine. So it’s no surprise that he’s inserting what we consider to be a fairly French technique into this traditional Chinese recipe –salting then confiting (actually I think salting is a fairly pan-European, if not global practice, but he’s calling this step a confit, so the French-themed intro sounds good).
Start this process by grinding the bejeezus out of the required spices. I’ve long since lost any fear over sharp, woody-textured spices adding more scratches to our ruined mini processor since the Perfection Chicken Tikka debacle.
Mix these with salt and pack the mixture under, around and over the duck legs. Leave them in this mixture for 12 hours, or for the rest of the day (refrigerated, of course).
Step 6: Wonton Fillings (Day 2)
This step will “only” take an hour or so if you are organised about it.
First up, blitz 20g of duck meat – salvaged from whatever bits of duck aren’t being brined or cured – with half a teaspoon of salt (no, there is no part of this recipe where the duck doesn’t get salted-up in some way).
20g is such a tiny amount that your only sensible option is to use a spice grinder. Leave this for an hour (the salt will “draw out” the proteins, apparently, making for a better mixture). While you’re waiting, you can attend to the veg.
Ha! You thought just because this was a Chinese recipe Heston Blumenthal wasn’t going to find a way to add butter? Think again, fool!
Admittedly, this is a mere 25 grammes, not the butter-onslaughts that the majority of Heston’s Perfection recipes can be. Melt in a pan. For authenticity we are using a Tefal® Thermospot™ wok just like we presume they would in a traditional restaurant in the hutong districts of Beijing.
Wilt the mixture of shredded cabbage and minced spring onion. You want these to be very well softened. Spread the mixture out on a plate to cool quicker.
Meanwhile blitz most of the remaining duck meat with skimmed milk and duck fat, then add the ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil and blend until you have a smooth paste.
Add the cooled spring onion and cabbage mixture, then stir through the few reserved pieces of finely diced duck meat.
Step 7: Pickled Cucumber Slices (Day 2)
Just recently we’ve been coming across elaborate garnishes for Heston’s Perfection dishes. The toasted and salted melon seeds for the Chicken Tikka spring to mind, as do the confit onions in the Perfection Chilli Con Carne. Heston’s Perfection Peking Duck recipe is no exception.
Meanwhile thinly slice cucumbers with a mandolin. Pour the vinegar mixture onto the cucumber slices (it doesn’t need to cool) then set the lot aside (ideally in the fridge) until the very, very, very end of the recipe.
Step 8: Confit Duck Legs (Day 2)
A long, long time ago we decided to make Heston’s Potted Duck recipe to snack on over Christmas. When I opened the jar it lasted no longer than the time it took to watch the misleadingly-titled Hong Kong thriller Motorway.
This part of Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck recipe shares a lot with Heston’s Potted Duck. And, just like we did with the potted duck, we’re going to cheat at confiting using a trick from the book Cooking for Geeks – sous vide confit.
It’s dead simple. Instead of smothering your duck legs in two pricey jars full of duck fat you just add a few tablespoons to a sous vide bag, seal it up and return to it several easy hours later. It’s a great trick that gives results equally as good as the traditional confit method, but you save on fat and have more control over the temperature – a good thing if your oven can be as wildly inaccurate as ours.
The duck legs need about 6 – 8 hours. We just left them on overnight, then chilled them in cold water in the morning, refrigerating still-sealed in the bag until we’d need them for the final stages.
I frenched the legs just for you guys.
Step 9: Wonton Filling (Day 3)
For this step you’ll need some scales, a couple of spoons and a tolerance for slimy fingers.
Heston wants each ball of wonton filling for his Perfect Peking Duck Wonton Soup course to be of exactly the same weight – good for keeping them all consistent.
We found the best way to achieve this was to set a small plate on our garbage-quality Salter scales, add a ball of filling then hit zero once we had the right weight. You can pinch or pluck extra quantities of filling as needed, rolling each portion into a uniform ball.
Step 10: Roasting the Skin (Day 3)
Roasting is a bit of a misleading description of this next bit of Heston’s In Search of Perfection Peking Duck recipe, mainly because the oven gets barely more than lukewarm.
To keep the skin even and presentable, and to help it to cook as evenly as possible, Heston tells you to knit it to the grill rack. Yes, knit. With a needle and twine.
There’s a long list of the practical skills I lack, and knitting is definitely amongst those. But, I figured we could do something similar to hold the skin in place, which is where these adorable multi-coloured paperclips come in. Unfolded and re-tied around the skin they work roughly the same way that a needle and thread would.
Boil the vinegar and maltose together ready to coat the skin.
Strapped down tighter than a Temple of Doom victim (or a badly-written eBook heroine from Seattle), then painted with the vinegar maltose mixture, the duck needs to go into the barely lukewarm environment of a 100°C oven for a few hours.
When the skin comes out it’ll look almost exactly the same as when it went in, pale and pudgy. However that time in the oven will have performed some vital dehydrating that’ll give you a shatteringly crisp result after the second hotter stage of roasting at the end.
Step 11: Forming Wontons (Day 3)
Place each ball of the wonton filling in the centre of each wonton pastry. You’re meant to use round pastry but we could only find the square kind.
There’s all kinds of fancy ways to close them up, including tying a thread of spring onion round the top like a drawstring. We just moistened then twisted ours.
Assembled I reckon they all look pretty handsome.
Step 12: Collecting the Ice Filtered Consommé
This was the part of the recipe that gave me the most fear. You can’t speed up the ice filtration, or you’ll lose the effect and end up with a cloudy and polluted consommé. But a too-cold fridge, poor air circulation or a thick slab of ice can slow the process down dramatically.
The advice from This Edible Life blog was invaluable in helping us to avoid this. So it was with enormous relief we opened the fridge to see the bowl holding more than enough consommé for the two generous portions we needed.
Left in the muslin / hairnet you’ll find the hideous wobbling slurry of stuff that was making your soup cloudy. Keep this, as it’s packed with flavour and there is still a use for it.
Step 13: Poaching the Duck Crown (Day 3)
Ah, the good old days of stove-top sous vide. Which, by asking you to maintain a pan of water at a precise 70°C for a couple of hours, is exactly the technique Heston Blumenthal is asking you to do for this part of his Perfect Peking Duck recipe
There is absolutely nothing wrong with stove top sous vide, and it’s a great and efficient way to cook lean portions without investing in ridiculous gadgets or fiddling around with slow cookers and soldering irons.
We’ve tried all of those methods, so to make life easy for ourselves we just decided to bag up the duck crown and give it the Sansair treatment.
If you do poach the crown in water you’re meant to add the gelatinous mass left over from the ice filtration. We just added it to the sous vide bag.
Save this bag juice for finishing the stir fry.
Step 14: Assorted Prep Work (Day 3)
One of those steps that we insist is a proper actual step, even though every other recipe book will tell you is not.
But with three dishes to assemble at the end of this recipe we think it’s advisable to set aside half an hour or so to slice mushrooms, make cucumber batons, chop chillies, and all the rest.
You also need to flame off some Xiaoshing wine…
… and reduce the grim juice from the sous vide bag.
This is the point where you get to mess up every chopping board you can lay your hands on and create loads of washing up by using your treasured Gü ramekins for mise-en-place.
Step 15: Frying the Duck Skin (Day 3)
This ridiculous and dangerous-looking step is where you’re going to ensure your duck skin is as fully crispy as possible.
Assemble a pan of hot oil, a ladle and a foil-lined roasting tray near the pan with the Anastasia duck-skin rack propped up inside.
Drizzle the hot oil onto the skin from the top, so it runs down. You’ll see some fetching bubbling and sizzling. Take care not to spill oil onto the bread bin or down that gap between the worktop and the fridge.
Step 16: Assembling the First Course (Day 3)
After all that work the first course is, in fact, the simplest of all to assemble. Aside from some evocative steaming you simply need to do two bits of cutting and open some packets.
The first packet to open is the one full of spring roll pastry. Gently steam these in a massive pan full of water. You can use a bamboo steamer if you like (we got one because they’re cheap) but any kind of steaming set up you have will be fine. Maybe add some greaseproof paper on the bottom if you’re worried about them sticking.
Meanwhile cut the skin into nice presentable portions then carve the duck breast meat from the crown.
Serve with the steamed pancakes, the cucumber and spring onion, and Hoisin sauce.
Unless you want all your food to be stone cold when you eat it we’d advise that you eat this dish first, then return to the kitchen to make the next course, and so on.
Obviously that’s not what we did, for the sake of the photos. But if you want to actually enjoy the food you’ve made it’s the more sensible option.
Step 17: Stir-Frying the Second Course (Day 3)
You’ll need your ham-like salted and confit-ed duck meat shredded before you can start making the second course.
Begin by frying the aromatics, then just throw all the other ingredients in one by one.
It’ll take a while to cook everything through. When it’s nearly done add the flamed alcohol, soy sauce, and some of that reduced grim juice (hey, it has flavour).
Include some fussy garnish, if you like (sliced spring onion, chopped red chilli, coriander, you know the drill) and then serve.
Don’t forget to wash and trim some lettuce leaves to serve up with. Wrapping portions of the stir fry in each leaf then chomping them down like salty low-carb burritos.
Step 18: Cooking the Soup and Dumplings, Third Course (Day 3)
First up ignore Heston’s advice to “poach the dumplings over the soup”. I don’t even know what that means, but we figured he meant to either steam them (our setup doesn’t allow this) or to drop them in the soup pan. Don’t for heaven’s sake do the latter as even on the lowest hob setting the dumplings will stick and you’ll end up with the bottoms glued to the pan and ripped pastry. Behold:
No only will this spoil the dumplings, any debris will ruin the pure clarity of the consomme – clarity being the whole point of all the ice filtration work you did earlier. You will have a happier time all round if you put them in a seperate pan to simmer to prevent torn dumplings from clouding your soup.
Meanwhile heat the ice filtered consommé to a simmer.
Place the steamed dumplings on top, then pour over the soup and finish with the pickled cucumber slices that you’ve blotted before serving. And some slivers of spring onion if you are feeling particularly flamboyant.
This is the final course, so congratulations you have just finished Heston’s In Search of Perfection Peking Duck recipe.
Since Heston’s Peking Duck recipe comes in three parts it seems appropriate to look at each one individually.
Crispy Duck Pancakes
They say Peking duck is all about the skin. Being your typical Gweilo I’d have disagreed with that completely in the past, thinking the focus should be all about meat, meat and more meat, (wrapped up in hearty carbs).
But I’d have been wrong. Crispy duck skin, done properly, is a thing of beauty and wonder. The shattering texture, the velvety melting flavour, the richness, the slight sharp tang of the vinegar. You could happily eat a plate of this stuff – like crisps that’d kill you in a week.
The duck, cooked to the traditional Chinese temperature rather than the rare western one, was nowhere near as overdone as we had feared.
Combined together they made a simple but fantastic dish. The skin is much more captivating than the duck meat though, so it was slightly depressing we had just the one crown’s worth. What we did eat was wonderful.
Confit Stir Fry
Salt-fry more like. There’s a captivating blend of complex flavours at work in this dish. But you’d have a hard time tasting them under the heaps of salt.
Salt from the confit process, salt from slurry concentrate, and more salt from the soy sauce. I have quite a high tolerance for salt, but this was too much even for us.
The ham-like texture of the salted duck wasn’t our preference either. It rendered the meat tougher than we would have liked. This might be an error in prep or us carrying out the methods in slightly the wrong way, but the chewy mouthfeel made each bite an ordeal.
There’s great stir fry waiting to be found in this recipe, but you have to strip away a lot of Hestonisms to find it.
Soup and Dumplings
My good lord. The dumplings melt in the mouth like heaven (thanks, most likely, to all that extra duck fat added to the mixture). The crystal clear soup is like a magic trick. It looks like it shouldn’t hold as much flavour as it does.
The cucumbers are pretty much a pointless irritant, unnecessary garnish along the lines of those confit onions in the Chilli Con Carne.
This really was quite a stunning way to end the meal. Especially the dumplings. You could have laid out fifty of those and I’d have happily munched down every last one.
This was a fitting choice for the final dish in our cooking of all 16 of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes, since it’s not only a spectacularly complex affair, but also a kind of greatest hits playlist of Heston’s favourite cooking techniques.
You’ve got a pressure cooked stock for the soup, just like stocks of Heston’s Chilli Con Carne or Risotto, but it’s double-fortified the same as the fish stock in Heston’s Perfect Fish Pie recipe. The meats are salt-treated for flavour, with the duck crown being brined like Heston’s original Perfection Roast Chicken, and the legs covered in a flavoured cure, just like salmon and haddock for the Fish Pie.
Crisping the duck skin was a more successful version of the early steps we made with Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe, and melting the maltose on a low heat was very reminiscent of our pan full of Golden Syrup for Heston’s Treacle Tart recipe. Poaching the actual duck breast was made easier by our sous vide rig, avoiding the hassle of keeping a pan at a constant temperature, a bit like the potatoes for the Fish Pie.
Added nostalgia occurred when blitzing the dumpling paste, which took us right back to the sausage emulsion for Heston’s Bangers and Mash, and those pickled cucumbers were another of the Perfection series unnecessarily-elaborate garnishes. Of course absurdly long cooking times and hard-to-find ingredients were all familiar experiences as well.
If this recipe was a film it’d be Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle: fantastic in its own right, but with a familiarity that references and builds upon all the work that has come before it (also, it’s as different to what you’d be served in Quanjude Roast Duck as Miyazaki’s movie is to Diana Wynne Jones’ original novel). And, like Miyazaki’s ‘penultimate’ movie (we do not count Ponyo) it’s gorgeous, indulgent, epic, masterful and balanced.
The balance is a key factor. Those three dishes not only hark back strongly to the traditional way of preparing a whole duck in a range of dishes, as intended, but also complement each other perfectly. Heston claims to have made eight dishes, referencing the luckiest number in Chinese culture –we’ve counted several times and we can still only see five. Maybe he’s including the sliced cucumbers and the bottle of Hoi Sin sauce? Still, across those five to eight dishes there is an ideal selection of taste, texture and flavour.
Right back at the start of this journey the first Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe we made was Heston’s Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese. In that show Heston declares that his intention was to create a recognisable version of the classic, but also to “take this dish forward”, using modern skills, techniques and expertise to enhance the entire experience.
That’s exactly what this recipe is. It’s exactly what you’ve heard or been told Peking Duck can and should be, run through a European Modernist filter, and all the benefits that brings (and if you don’t like modernist cooking then you ought not to be reading 4,669 word reports on Heston Blumenthal recipes).
We’re not saying we liked every aspect of Heston’s Perfection Peking Duck, and we’re certainly in no hurry to repeat it again. But, expensive, longwinded, tricky, obscure and with outstandingly delicious results of a neglected and often abused classic, Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck recipe is the best possible summary of everything the entire In Search of Perfection project sought to achieve.
Aww, hell. I’d just injection-brine a duck breast and sous-vide it. Grill or maybe deep fry maltose-painted skin and serve the pancake course alone.
Of course, there is something very seductive about making an ice-filtered soup again. And we’d be tempted to remake the dumplings because we could eat those things like popcorn.
And if you’re in the mood for more cultural delights, why not watch one of my all-time favourite Chinese movies – Tsui Hark’s period blend of comedy, action, romance, caper and martial arts, Peking Opera Blues:
This Edible Life – We mentioned this earlier. This is the definitive report on making Heston’s Perfect Peking Duck recipe. Invaluable and comprehensive reading for anyone thinking of attempting the recipe.
The Guardian – Paul Levy’s review of the original broadcast show. Can you tell we’re a bit short on links for this recipe? The brilliant Levy does say make some sage and intelligent observations about the kind of person who would make any of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes.
Is three days to make a Peking Duck recipe worth it? Or what’s your favourite part of this traditional Chinese recipe? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section…