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Dharma Kitchen


Ask the Chef: Why is it Okay to Serve Rare Duck Breast?

Carrie H

Here's the second installment of our feature Ask the Chef, where we handle your burning questions, the ones that drive you crazy in the kitchen. We've partnered with Matthew Robinson, a chef with not only kitchen experience but product development chops and lots of food science knowledge to boot. His mojo is to inspire people to innovate in the kitchen. You can find him at the Culinary Exchange. Or right here! 

This month's question comes from Paula Jacobson, who runs the Cookbook Construction Crew with Sheilah Kaufman. No stranger to the kitchen, Paula's got a question that she has "asked many chefs and never gotten a satisfactory answer. We are always told to cook poultry to 165°F to ensure safety. Why is it okay to eat rare duck breast, which is how it is always served in restaurants? Thank you!

Here's Chef's answer: 

This is an excellent question and the answer is simple.  Experts, like folks at the USDA and FDA, say it is not appropriate to cook any poultry to a temperature under 165°F without increasing the risk of foodborne illness and it really isn’t ok to eat rare duck breast for the same reason.   

I imagine a conversation about this issue may go something like this:

Person Sitting at Table In Restaurant: {Thinking: Hmmm…I think I will have the duck breast.  I love duck breast. So tasty!

Waiter: Hello and welcome to Chez Mallard.  Shall I tell you about our specials or do you already know what you want?

Person Sitting at Table In Restaurant: I will have the duck breast.

Waiter: Excellent choice. How would you like the duck breast to be cooked?

Person Sitting at Table In Restaurant: How does the Chef recommend the duck breast be cooked?

Waiter: The Chef recommends the duck breast be cooked medium rare. The duck breast will be very pink, juicy and very tasty.

Person Sitting at Table In Restaurant: {Thinking skeptically: Hmm, that sounds like it might be undercooked, but this is how the chef recommends it.} Why can this duck breast be undercooked and still be safe to eat?

Waiter: {Says one of the following}

A) We here at Chez Mallard know the farmer personally and these ducks are raised on a small bucolic farm where gentle westerly breezes push the pathogens off shore and ensure there are no microorganisms that could infect the duck.

B) Only birds that are processed in a military-industrial complex style of mass production environment are in danger of being infected. (continue with answer A) or

C) These ducks were massaged and de-feathered in a hot wax spa-bath so all the pathogens are killed then encased in the wax and literally stripped judiciously from the ducks. 

To borrow from another farm animal: Every one of the answers that the well-meaning, but ill-informed waiter gave above is HOGWASH. The fact of the matter is that poultry—duck included—should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F, or medium-well on the “how to cook meat“ description scale. Why? Because like other poultry, ducks are susceptible to contamination with salmonella and campylobacter, regardless of whether it comes from a small or big farm or how it was de-feathered. Additionally, if the chefs who cook the duck don’t follow good sanitation procedures (like washing hands or properly sanitizing surfaces), other cross contamination can happen. Cooking to a minimum temperature of 165°F ensures that pathogens are killed and the risk of foodborne illness reduced.

The inability to get satisfactory answers from chefs about this is mildly concerning, but might indicate an interesting conundrum a chef (and maybe a serious home-cook) faces. A chef will always be interested in creating a duck breast that is perfectly delicious, but should they do so knowing that it is not cooked to appropriate temperatures? If chef’s reputation is only as good as the last duck breast served, should a chef ignore his or her food safety responsibility? One only needs to look as far as the Redzepis or Blumenthals of the world to see what difficulties a food safety issue can cause.

Of course, the person sitting at the table certainly has a choice, but an informed choice it should be. Certainly, part of a chef’s professional responsibility is to make sure his or her clientele are aware that undercooking duck to medium-rare or medium might be great for taste, but also comes with certain risks. At a time when chefs have rock-star status and are perceived as being key opinion leaders, if they are not following proper food safety standards, confusion about how food should be cooked appropriately could grow, and result in unfortunate consequences. The situation becomes even more risky when the person sitting at the table is knowingly or unknowingly pregnant, a senior citizen, or part of another high-risk group more susceptible to foodborne illness. Shouldn’t the customer be able to rely on the professionalism and knowledge of the chef and staff and expect full disclosure--i.e., the duck will be most tasty when cooked medium rare or medium, but this means cooking the duck to a lower temperature than is recommended?

While we may not all agree that chefs are ultimately responsible for both taste and food safety, there is one thing that cannot be disputed: Duck should be cooked, like all the other poultry, to a minimum internal temperature of 165∘F to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. 

Got a burning question about something kitchen or food related that you just can't figure out? Leave it in the comments! Thanks!

Quack quack!