When making these Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions, your kitchen will smell like a high-end restaurant. Succulent duck meat melds together with delicious sweet and tart apple-onion sauce with cranberries. It’s a comforting and delicious meal perfect for any celebration or just a cozy weekend dinner.
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Russian literature is peppered with descriptions of ducks cooked with apples. Whenever there was a scene of family happiness or festive celebration, some kind of version of a roasted duck with apples was usually described. From a very young age, I was an avid reader and those descriptions of cozy meals around the duck really stuck with me.
More than three decades ago, when I was really small, maybe 4-5 years old, I was sick. My mom, in desperate attempt to get me to eat anything, asked me what I wanted for dinner. I remembered those stories that I read. I remembered the feeling of happiness that they conjured. I told my mom that I wanted duck with apples.
By some totally strange luck, my mom had a whole duck in the freezer. Where she got a duck in mid-80s in Soviet Union when most store shelves were bare, is still a mystery.
I am almost positive that it was the only time that she cooked duck in her life as I don’t remember this humble bird making an appearance again on our dining plates. It was even stranger that not only she had a whole duck in the freezer but there were also apples on the kitchen counter.
For the next few hours my mom performed some magic and voodoo dances.
I don’t know how but she was able to defrost a whole duck. Remember, it was the 80s in the Soviet Union – time when no-one even heard of such a thing as a microwave, let alone had one.
It was also the time when we had just a couple of channels on TV and none of them included even anything that resembled a cooking show. In fact, the concept of a cooking show or even a cooking magazine was totally unfamiliar.
Somehow, by calling friends and friends of friends (not everyone even had a phone line back then), she was able to procure a recipe for the aforementioned Duck with Apples.
In the evening, after spending the whole day in the kitchen, getting this meal ready for me, she presented me with the beautiful dish. She served me a piece. I took a bite and said: “It doesn’t taste like chicken.” I refused to eat anymore of that duck.
It’s been more than 30 years and my mom still remembers that story and tells it to me every few years. Now, whenever I see duck on the menu, I almost always order it.
I love the gamey taste of the bird, the intense, yet mellow flavour of the duck, the crispy skin, the delicious sauce and juices. And every time I order or cook duck, I always remember that story (I actually don’t have a memory of that event, just the story that I was told) when my mom spent a whole day cooking a duck for me and I refused to eat it.
This recipe for the Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions is an homage to that Russian Duck with Apples. In Russia, the most popular duck recipe is for the whole duck that is stuffed with whole or chopped apples and then roasted in the oven.
In my version, I use duck breasts that I sear first, then braise in a delicious mixture of Ontario apples, onions, thyme, and cranberries.
For those who think that braising duck breasts is a sacrilege, I tried this same recipe with duck legs also. It works and is totally delicious but I personally like Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions more than the legs. And if you think of it, the when the whole duck is roasted, the duck breasts also get fully cooked and delicious.
What Apples to use to make Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions Recipe?
For these Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions I used a Red Prince variety of Ontario Apples. It’s a great winter apple that is available February through June.
I chose it because it has a tart and sweet flavour that is perfect for savoury dishes. It is also very crisp and turns into a beautiful silky sauce after a long braising time.
If you haven’t tried Red Prince before, I urge you to try this not very common variety if you have a chance. Remember to look for a Foodland logo to make sure that you are purchasing Ontario apples. Here’s a great guide on how to use different variety of Ontario apples.
How to make Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions Recipe
This recipe, as most of my recipes, isn’t difficult but it requires time and a little bit of finesse. Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions are one of those restaurant-quality dishes that you would make to impress someone.
First, you start with scoring the duck breasts in a diamond pattern. Scoring is just a fancy way of saying making a cut without cutting through.
You just need to make cuts on the skin of the duck breast every 1/4 inch all the way to the meat but without actually cutting the meat. Then you you make similar cuts at 90 degree to the original cuts to create a diamond pattern (see the photos of the finished duck breasts). This is done to allow the fat to render easily.
Once the duck breasts are scored, you need to sear them skin side down on a medium-high heat for about 8 minutes.
You need to use a thick bottom pan, such as Dutch Oven or Le Creuset cast iron pan that I use. The key at this point is patience.
The duck breasts will stick to the pan and then they will magically release from the pan once they are properly seared after about 8 minutes. If you are using duck legs, then it may actually take you longer to sear them, about 10-12 minutes.
After the duck breasts are seared, you remove the meat from the pan, drain the fat, then cook the onion until it softens, deglaze, add the apples, return the seared duck breasts back to the pan, add the stock, and braise for 1.5 hours.
Once cooked, add some frozen cranberries and broil to crisp up the skin again for a few minutes.
When making these Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions, your kitchen will smell like a high-end restaurant. Succulent duck breasts meld together with delicious sweet and tart apple-onion sauce with cranberries.
It’s a comforting and delicious meal perfect for any celebration or just a cozy weekend dinner. To make this recipe even more Russian, I serve it with buckwheat, which is a traditional side in Russian cuisine.
Braised Duck Breasts with Apples and Onions
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 duck breasts (about 320 g each)
- 1 large onion (225 g, or 3 small onions)
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 2 medium Red Prince apples (150 g each)
- 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme (more for serving)
- 1/4 cup vermouth (optional, see note)
- 1 cup stock (chicken or vegetable)
- 1/2 cup frozen cranberries
- salt, pepper to taste
- Slice the onions into 0.5 cm thick pieces.
- No need to peel the apples. Quarter each apple, remove the core from each quarter. Then slice each quarter into 4 wedges.
- Thinly slice the garlic cloves.
- Bring the duck breasts to room temperature, pat them dry with a paper towel.
- Using a sharp knife, make long diagonal cuts along the skin of the duck breasts every 0.5 cm. The cuts should cut all the way through the duck skin but not cut the meat. Once done, make another set of cuts at 90 degrees to create a diamond pattern. Making these cuts will help the duck fat render.
- Generously season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. I only use a little bit usually as I don't salt my food much.
- Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy bottom pan on medium-high heat.
- Add the duck breasts to the pan skin side down and cook without moving for about 6-8 minutes. Once the skin is properly seared and crispy, the duck breasts will very easily release from the pan. If you try to lift the duck breasts and they are really sticking to the pan then let them cook for another minute or so.
- Once seared, remove the duck breasts to a plate skin side up.
- Drain all the fat from the pan into a bowl to use for the next step.
- Return the pan back to the stove, add a little bit of the saved duck fat (about 1/2 a tablespoon) and add the sliced onions. Cook on medium heat stirring occasionally for 10 minutes until the onions just begin to soften and slightly turn colour. You may need to add a bit more duck fat as needed.
- Add the sliced garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
- Add the vermouth to deglaze the pan and scrape to get all the onion and duck bits from the bottom. Let the vermouth evaporate.
- If desired, add a bit more duck fat (1-2 teaspoons) to the pan, add the apple wedges, thyme leaves, and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Move the apple-onion mixture around to create space for the duck breasts. Return the duck breasts to the pan and nestle them between the apple-onion mixture skin side up.
- Add the stock to the pan, bring it to boil. Reduce the heat to low so that the mixture just simmers, cover the pan tightly with a lid and cook on low for 1.5 hours.
- After 1.5 hours, remove the lid, turn the heat up to high and cook for about 3-5 minutes to reduce the sauce a bit.
- Once the sauce is reduced, add half a cup of frozen cranberries, mix them in with a spoon and transfer the pan to the oven turned to broil.
- Broil for about 3-5 minutes or until the skin gets crispy again. Make sure to watch the oven carefully as broiling can turn the food from beautifully golden and crispy to dark and burnt in about 45 seconds if you leave it too long.
- Serve with mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, quinoa, rice, or, for a more authentic Russian meal, with buckwheat.