A legendary dish made easy, this Peking duck recipe doesn’t require any special equipment or advanced skill. But it still tastes so satisfying!
What is Peking duck
One of the most symbolic dishes of Chinese Cuisine, Peking Duck (北京烤鸭) is a delicacy named after the city where it was invented several hundred years ago (Peking is an older variation of the word Beijing/北京).
It’s a dish consisting of several elements: sliced pieces of roast duck with crispy skin and tender meat, thin pancakes, a savoury sauce and some julienned vegetables. These elements are assembled into a roll for consumption.
Every time I travel back to Beijing where I worked for nearly a decade, Peking duck is always my No.1 dish to eat with family and friends. If you’ve tasted it before, you’d understand why it’s regarded as a culinary art.
An easy home version
Unlike most of the dishes I share on this blog, not many home cooks in China would cook Peking duck in their own kitchen. To produce it to a restaurant standard, you’d need to be highly skilled and have professional equipment, such as a pump to blow up the duck skin, a large oven that allows the duck to be cooked vertically, etc.
In response to some readers’ requests, I’ve tested and come up with an easy version of home-style Peking duck. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as what you get from a good restaurant, but it’s definitely more than satisfying as a homemade dish (my biassed culinary fans in our Red House said it tasted just as good).
This recipe doesn’t require any special equipment or advanced cooking experiences. The steps are explained in detail with extra tips and substitute ideas.
How to prepare the duck
Like roasting five spice chicken, you’ll need to prepare the duck in advance to achieve the best taste and texture. For this recipe, start the process 1 to 2 days before cooking. This involves four simple steps.
STEP 1: Season the duck.
Pat dry the duck with kitchen paper to remove any moisture then rub a good layer of fine salt all over (including the cavity). Leave it to rest for about 1 hour over a wire rack inside a tray.
STEP 2: Tighten the duck skin.
The traditional method involves basting: hold the duck over a pot of boiling water then use a ladle to pour water over the duck. I’d like to introduce an alternative, simpler way: Boil some water in the kettle then gently pour it over the entire duck skin (remember to flip over and do the other side). You can use a deep tray to collect the water, or do it inside a sink.
You’ll see the skin tightens as soon as the hot water touches it. It also looks shinier and smoother. At this stage, you might notice some remaining ends of the feathers appearing. Remove them with a pair of tweezers.
STEP 3: Coat the skin with syrup.
The key ingredient used in this step is maltose (Mai Ya Tang/麦芽糖), a type of syrup with dense, super sticky consistency that is commonly used in Chinese cuisine. It has a milder sweetness than sugar or honey but gives food a much glossier look. You should be able to find it in most of the Chinese/Asian shops.
You’ll need hot water to soften and dilute maltose and add a small amount of vinegar (any type). Evenly brush one layer over the entire duck skin. Leave to dry in the fridge for 1 hour then brush another layer.
STEP 4: Air dry the duck.
This process reduces the moisture in the skin thus helping to crisp up while roasting. Put the duck (over a rack and inside a tray) in the fridge without any cover. Keep it there for 24 to 48 hours. You can shorten the process by blowing cool air at the duck with a fan if available.
How to roast the duck
Before cooking, don’t forget to take the duck out of the fridge at least one hour beforehand. This allows it to come back to room temperature.
Stuff the duck
Stuff the cavity of the duck with the following ingredients: apples, scallions, garlic, star anise, cassia cinnamon and bay leaves. This serves two purposes: To make the cooked meat juicier, and more flavourful too. To prevent the stuffing from falling out, seal the openings of the duck with toothpicks or skewers.
Roast in two stages
For best results, I recommend you use a fan-assisted oven, aka convection oven. Preheat it at 200°C/390°F. If using a conventional oven, increase the temperature to 220°C/425°F.
Place the duck, the breast side facing up, on the middle rack of the oven. This allows the heat to travel in all directions and ensure an even browning. Remember to put a large tray at the bottom of the oven to collect any dripping fat while cooking. Leave to roast for 15 minutes.
In the second stage of roasting, reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F (or 200°C/390°F if using a conventional oven). To prevent burning, cover the tip of the wings and the end of the legs with aluminium foil. Continue cooking for another 60 minutes or so.
- The cooking time required differs depending on the size of the duck and the performance of the oven. I used a 2.5 kg (5.5lb) duck for this recipe. Please feel free to adjust if necessary.
- The best way to check the doneness is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Insert its tip into the inner thigh area near the breast. If the temperature reaches 74C°/165F°, the duck is fully cooked.
- If the inside part isn’t cooked yet but the skin has gained the desired colour, turn off the fan of the oven and loosely cover the top of the duck with aluminium foil. Continue cooking for a little longer. This prevents over-browning.
- Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated when you open the oven door as there will be smoke coming out.
What to serve with
Don’t rush to carve the duck. Let it rest for 15 minutes. Then carve the meat, along with the skin, into small pieces. A sharpened knife will make this task much easier.
Now let’s talk about the four classic items which are served with Peking duck. They are thin pancakes, sweet bean sauce, julienned scallions and cucumber.
The thin pancakes used for wrapping Peking duck are called Chun Bing (春饼) in Chinese which means spring pancakes. They are also known as Peking duck pancakes or Mandarin pancakes in English. You can find them in Chinese stores (usually in the frozen food section). Defrost in the fridge then steam for a few minutes to warm up before serving.
If you, like myself, appreciate the freshness of homemade food, I highly recommend you try my recipe for Peking Duck Pancakes to make them from scratch. I’ve made a tutorial video showing how they’re made with an efficient method.
🛎 Substitutes: Although not traditional options, you can replace duck pancakes with Gua Bao (steamed bao buns) or ready-made Spring Roll wrappers (either the wheat-based Chinese version or the rice-based Vietnamese version).
Another quintessential accompaniment for Peking duck is Tian Mian Jiang/甜面酱 known as sweet bean sauce, sweet flour sauce, or sweet wheat sauce in English. It’s a classic condiment used in Northern Chinese cooking and particularly popular in Beijing cuisine.
It’s a dark brown, smooth sauce with a thick consistency and a savoury but slightly sweet taste. Although many brands found in Chinese stores label this sauce as “sweet bean sauce”, it is in fact primarily made from fermented wheat flour (be aware some versions may contain a small amount of beans).
For Peking duck, you could use this sauce straight out of the jar/package. However, it tastes much better if cooked with a little oil and sugar (like the restaurant version). Simply use some duck fat rendered from the roasting process. Mix with sweet bean sauce and a little sugar and simmer over low heat until little bubbles appear.
🛎 Substitutes: If you have trouble sourcing sweet bean sauce, replace it with hoisin sauce (海鲜酱), yellow soybean sauce (黄豆酱), or plum sauce (苏梅酱).
Lastly, prepare some julienned cucumber and scallions (aka spring onion, green onion). These two classic ingredients can be replaced by pickled radish, blanched bean sprouts, lettuce leaves, or julienned apple, etc.
How to wrap
Now you’ve got all the elements of a Peking duck meal. It’s time to wrap up and enjoy! Lay a piece of pancake on the plate. Spread some sauce over then add a few pieces of sliced duck, scallions and cucumber.
Fold the bottom part up, then fold the left and right sides towards the centre to form a cylinder leaving the top part open. Give it a generous bite. I’m sure you’ll be proud of your made-from-scratch creation!
Make a soup (optional)
In Peking duck restaurants, waiters usually ask the diners what is their preferred way to cook the duck carcass after the meat has been sliced off. Among a few options, duck carcass soup (鸭架汤) is the most popular choice. In fact, many people would take the carcass home to make the soup later.
Simply simmer the carcass (broken into smaller pieces) in water for 30 mins or so. Add some sliced napa cabbage or winter melon to balance the taste. To make it more substantial, you can also put in some tofu pieces. Add salt and white pepper to season.
Peking Duck, An Easy Home Version (北京烤鸭)
BEFORE YOU START
- 1 duck, about 2.5kg/5.5lb
- 2 tablespoon fine salt
For the syrup
- 2 tablespoon maltose, see note 1
- 120 ml hot water, about ½ cup
- 1 teaspoon vinegar, see note 2
For the stuffing
- 2 stalks scallions
- 1 head garlic
- 2 apples, quartered
- 4 star anise
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 pieces cassia cinnamon
For the sauce
- 3 tablespoon sweet bean sauce (Tian Mian Jiang/甜面酱), see note 3
- 1 teaspoon sugar
You also need
- Peking duck pancakes, homemade or shop-bought
- Scallions, julienned
- Cucumber, peeled and seeds removed, cut into sticks
Prepare the duck
- Pat dry the duck with kitchen paper then rub the salt over the skin and the cavity. Put the duck over a wire rack with a tray underneath to collect any drips. Leave to rest on the counter for 1 hour.
- Bring about 1½ litres of water (about 6 cups) to a boil, then gently pour it over the entire duck skin (remember to flip over and do the other side). You can use a deep tray to collect the water, or do it inside a sink. If there are feather ends on the skin, remove them with a tweezer.
- In a bowl, mix maltose with hot water and vinegar until completely dissolved. Brush a layer of the mixture over the duck skin. Leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour then brush another layer.
- Keep the duck refrigerated uncovered (over the rack and inside a tray) for 24 to 48 hours.
Roast the duck
- One hour before roasting, take the duck out of the fridge to bring it back to room temperature. Put all the stuffing ingredients (scallions, garlic, apples, star anise, cassia cinnamon and bay leaves) into the cavity. Use toothpicks or skewers to seal the openings of the cavity.
- Preheat a fan-assisted oven, aka convection oven, at 200°C/390°F (or 220°C/425°F if using a conventional oven). Put the duck over the middle rack of the oven with the breast side facing up. Place a roasting tray at the bottom of the oven to collect any dripping fat during roasting. Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
- Then lower the temperature to 180°C/350°F (or 200°C/390°F if using a conventional oven). Use aluminium foil to cover the tip of the wings and the end of the legs. Continue cooking for a further 60 minutes or so (see note 4)
- Check the doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken (the inner thigh area near the breast). The temperature should be no lower than 74C°/165F°.
Serve the duck
- Take the duck out of the oven and leave it to rest on the counter for 15 minutes.
- While waiting, prepare the sauce. Add ½ tablespoon of duck fat collected during roasting to a pan. Add sweet bean sauce and sugar. Mix and simmer over low heat until tiny bubbles appear. Transfer to a small serving dish. Whisk to fully incorporate the sauce and oil.
- Steam the pancakes for 3 minutes to warm up if they’re cold. Slice the duck into pieces.
- When eating, spread a little sauce over a pancake, put the duck, scallions and cucumber in the middle. Wrap up into a cylinder and enjoy.
Cook a soup (optional)
- After most of the meat has been removed from the duck, boil the carcass in water to make a soup with Napa cabbage or winter melon. Simply add salt and white pepper to season.