The Secret to Perfect Peking Duck

When it comes to Chinese cuisine, Peking duck holds a spot of honor among the myriad of delectable dishes that have originated from this rich and diverse culinary tradition. This dish, known for its succulent meat and crispy skin, is not just a meal; it’s an art form, with a history that extends back to the imperial era of China.

Understanding Peking Duck

Peking duck, also known as Beijing duck, is a famous dish from Beijing, dating back to the imperial era. It was originally prepared for the Chinese royalty and is now considered one of China’s national dishes. The traditional preparation method involves inflating the duck by air to separate the skin from the fat, which helps to make the skin extra crispy.

Primary Characteristics of Peking Duck

A quintessential Peking duck boasts several key characteristics:

Crispy Skin: The skin should be thin, crispy, and perfectly browned.
Tender Meat: Beneath the skin, the meat should be incredibly tender and not overly fatty.
Rich Flavor: The flavor should strike a balance between the sweetness of the hoisin sauce and the savory duck meat, with a faint hint of smokiness.
Aromatic Experience: The aromatic scent is a vital part of the experience and comes from a unique blend of spices and the wood used in the roasting process, typically fruitwood such as cherry or apple.

The Preparation Process

The process of preparing Peking duck is intricate and requires patience and attention to detail. Here’s an overview of the method, typically spread over several days.

Choosing the Right Duck

The duck should be a white-feathered Pekin breed. It should be plump, with a good balance of meat to fat, and ideally, it will weigh between five to seven pounds.

Inflating the Duck

Traditionally, air is blown into the duck to separate the skin from the fat. This can be done manually or with the help of a pump. The purpose of this step is to render the fat more easily during cooking, ensuring that the skin becomes crispy.

Boiling and Glazing

The ducks are dunked in boiling water briefly to tighten the skin, and then they are hung to dry. A glaze made of ingredients such as maltose syrup, vinegar, and sometimes food coloring is brushed onto the duck to assist in achieving the desired color and sheen during roasting.

Drying the Duck

The duck must be dried thoroughly to achieve the perfect crispiness of the skin. This step often requires hanging the ducks in an open-air space for 24 hours, which allows the skin to tighten and dry out further.


Roasting is a critical step in the preparation. Authentic Peking duck is traditionally roasted in either a closed oven or a hung oven. The closed oven is more modern and allows for a controlled environment, whereas the hung oven exposes the ducks directly to the flames of burning wood, imparting a smoky flavor. The roasting time varies depending on the size of the duck and the specific roasting method, but generally, it takes about an hour.

Carving the Duck

In restaurants, Peking duck is often carved table-side. Mastery is required to carve the duck in such a way that each slice contains a bit of crispy skin and tender meat, and the process is considered an art form in itself. The slices should be thin but substantial, allowing diners to appreciate the texture and flavors fully.

Serving Peking Duck

Peking duck is traditionally served in three courses. The first features the crispy skin, sometimes dipped in granulated sugar to enhance its flavor. The second course consists of the meat, which is typically served with steamed pancakes, thinly sliced green onions, fresh cucumber strips, and hoisin sauce. Diners compile their pancakes with these ingredients creating a harmonious blend of textures and tastes. Lastly, the remaining meat can be stir-fried with vegetables, or the bones can be used to make a rich, flavorful broth.

Finding the Right Wood for Roasting

The choice of wood is significant as it imparts the duck with a distinctive flavor profile. Fruitwoods such as cherry or apple are often preferred because they burn cleanly and impart a subtle sweetness that complements the meat’s natural flavors.

Cultural Impact and Popularity

The widespread appeal of Peking duck goes beyond taste; it’s an emblem of Chinese culture and culinary sophistication. Its preparation and presentation have been refined across centuries, making it a ceremonial centerpiece at banquets and an integral element of China’s gastronomic identity.

Diplomatic Dinners and Global Recognition

Peking duck has an established reputation for being served at state banquets and official functions, symbolizing the elegance and rich heritage of Chinese cuisine. The dish gained international popularity as China opened its doors to the world, becoming a must-try experience for tourists and a source of inspiration for chefs globally.

Finishing Thoughts

Peking duck is not just food; it’s a celebration of skill, tradition, and culture that has captivated the palates of people around the world. From the specific breed of duck to the meticulous preparation, carving, and service, every step is essential in creating the perfect Peking duck. As with any culinary masterpiece, the real secret lies in respecting the traditions while still embracing the individual quirks of each chef who brings this dish to life. Whether you’re lucky enough to enjoy Peking duck in a Beijing restaurant or attempting to recreate this dish at home, the experience is a testament to the profound depth and beauty of Chinese culinary arts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Peking Duck?

Peking Duck is a famous duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era, known for its thin, crispy skin. The meat is finely sliced, and typically served with steamed pancakes, spring onions, cucumber, and sweet bean sauce.

What makes Peking Duck different from other duck dishes?

The uniqueness of Peking Duck lies in its cooking method and presentation. The ducks used for Peking Duck are specifically bred and fed for the purpose, and the traditional preparation involves inflating the duck, scalding, glazing, and hanging it to dry, creating the unique crispy skin after roasting.

How is the perfect Peking Duck skin achieved?

Achieving the perfect Peking Duck skin involves several steps:

  • Firstly, air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the fat.
  • The duck is then dunked in boiling water to tighten the skin and finally glazed with a layer of maltose syrup.
  • After this, it is hung to dry for 24 hours in a cool, airy place to ensure that the skin will crisp up during roasting.
  • Lastly, the duck is roasted either in a closed oven or hung oven until the skin turns glossy and brown.

What ingredients are needed for the glaze?

Traditionally, the glaze for Peking Duck is made using maltose syrup, vinegar, and sometimes other ingredients such as soy sauce, garlic, and other spices to enhance the flavor. The exact recipe can vary depending on the chef’s preference.

Can Peking Duck be made at home?

Yes, while making Peking Duck at home can be time-consuming and might not exactly replicate the dish found in restaurants, it is possible to achieve a similar dish. Home cooks can employ a simplified process, focusing on achieving crispy skin and flavorful meat by using an oven and carefully preparing the duck as per restaurant methods where feasible.

What is the recommended way to serve and eat Peking Duck?

Peking Duck is best served by slicing the skin and meat thinly. Typically, a diner will take a pancake, spread some sweet bean sauce on it, then place a few pieces of duck, and finally add some spring onions and cucumber. The pancake is then rolled and eaten by hand.

Are there any special tools needed to prepare Peking Duck?

In traditional preparation, a special duck roasting oven is used, and a pump is needed to separate the skin. However, at home, a hand pump for inflating the skin and a roasting rack to ensure even cooking in a conventional oven can be suitable substitutions.

How long does it take to prepare Peking Duck?

The preparation of Peking Duck can take several days, including the time to air dry the duck after inflating and glazing, and the roasting time. The actual active preparation time may be a couple of hours, but the overall process requires planning several days in advance.

Is there a specific breed of duck that should be used for Peking Duck?

Yes, the White Peking duck is the breed traditionally used due to its optimal amount of fat and size. However, for home cooks, any domestic duck that has a good layer of fat beneath the skin can work reasonably well.

What are the health considerations when eating Peking Duck?

Peking Duck is a rich and indulgent dish. It’s high in fat, particularly saturated fats, and therefore should be consumed in moderation, especially for those watching their cholesterol levels or following a heart-healthy diet. Balance with vegetables and moderate portions to enjoy this delicacy responsibly.