A romantic dinner to impress your Valentine: Duck Breasts with Pears and Shallots

by Terry B on February 10, 2010

Shallots, garlic, tarragon, brandy and balsamic vinegar create a lively sauce for simply prepared duck breasts and sautéed pears—an easy, elegant Valentine’s Day dinner. Recipe below.


Ducks are funny. When we’re kids, they’re the subject of cartoons and homey barnyard stories. “Quack” is one of the great comic animal sounds we all enthusiastically learn. But put duck on a restaurant menu and suddenly it’s exotic and luxe, even in rustic preparations. Prepare duck at home and it’s sure to impress, making it perfect for a romantic dinner for you and your valentine.

Unfortunately, duck can also seem intimidating to some home cooks. And sure, preparing duck confit can be a long, involved process. But duck breasts are a breeze, not only easy to prepare, but quick.

Duck is richer tasting than chicken, with a meatier, deeper flavor. As usual, much of the flavor comes from fat. Ducks are impressively fatty birds, particularly in the skin [don’t worry—proper cooking renders much of it]. Because of this fatty richness, duck plays very nicely with fruit and tart flavors.

Here, pan seared duck breasts are finished in the oven and paired with pear wedges sautéed in duck fat with shallots, garlic and tarragon. A sauce of brandy, balsamic vinegar and chicken broth is given a silky finish with a little butter swirled in at the end. The result is delicious, complex and indulgent without being overpoweringly rich.

Duck Breasts with Pears and Shallots
Serves 2

2 boneless duck breast halves with skin [about 3/4 to 1 pound—see Kitchen Notes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 firm ripe pear, unpeeled, cored and sliced into 8 wedges [see Kitchen Notes]
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup chicken stock or broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Pat duck dry and trim off any excess fat. Score skin in a crosshatch pattern at 1/2-inch intervals with a sharp knife; this will allow duck fat to escape as the breasts cook. Season with salt and black pepper on both sides, but don’t go overboard; broth will add some saltiness. Heat a 12-inch ovenproof, nonstick sauté pan or skillet over medium-low heat. Place duck breasts, skin side down, in the heated, dry skillet. No oil or other fat is needed—the duck will produce plenty. Cook the breast until the skin is crispy and most of the fat has rendered, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Transfer breasts to plate and pour the fat from the pan into a bowl, reserving it. Return duck breasts to the pan, skin side up, and place in the hot oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted diagonally into center registers 125°F for medium rare. Unlike chicken, this is perfectly safe—and delicious—so check at 5 minutes so you don’t overcook. Remove from the oven. Transfer breasts to cutting board, tent with foil and allow to rest.

NOTE: Place a towel or potholder over the handle of the pan—it will be hot, he said from experience.

While duck rests, reheat pan over medium-low heat. Add 1 tablespoon reserved duck fat, then add pear wedges and sauté until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning gently and occasionally swirling pan to make sure pears are cooking in the fat, not scorching in a dry pan. Add shallots, garlic, tarragon and sugar and cook, stirring, until fragrant—a minute or so. Stir in vinegar, brandy and broth, scraping up brown bits. Let it cook down just slightly, about 5 minutes, then swirl in butter bits until they melt and combine.

Meanwhile, slice duck breasts into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices. Fan on individual plates along with pear slices and top with sauce. Serve. I served these with white rice and spooned some of the sauce over it.

Kitchen Notes

Buying duck. Locally, I find duck breasts at Chicago grocery chain Treasure Island. There are also various online sources. In a post I did a little over a year ago on cooking duck with raspberries [another wonderfully elegant dish], I talk a little about the ins and outs of buying duck. As it happens, the Treasure Island duck breasts come in packages of four breast halves. I cooked all four to the point of removing the pan from the oven, then set two aside. Tonight, we had sliced duck breasts with cannellini beans and garlic and onion sautéed in reserved duck fat. Simple and delicious.

Slicing the pear. Like apples and some other fruits, pears will discolor if you slice them and then let them set. Prep your shallots and garlic ahead of time, but don’t slice the pear until the duck breasts are in the oven.


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni February 10, 2010 at 4:33 am

I adore duck. I grew up on Long Island – how could I not adore it? Love the combo with pears – I hadn’t thought of that one, but it’s perfect for this time of the year!

Ed Schenk February 10, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Great recipe and beautiful Picture. It looks like you got the duck just right!

Mellen February 11, 2010 at 1:28 am

Oh, Terry, you’ve outdone yourself with this one. Not only is duck the perfect romantic Valentine’s Day meal, the recipe is simple and gorgeous. We were hoping to go to NYC this week, to celebrate Valentine’s Day among other things, but no transport other than expensive Amtrak’s available, so here we sit. If we can find a duck (how can we do that in a blizzard?) we might try this.

Terry B February 11, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Thanks, Toni! Interestingly, if you click through to my duck with raspberries recipe, you’ll learn that most “Long Island” ducks are now grown in Indiana!

Thanks, Ed! You really do have to try to not overcook it. Unlike chicken, duck is perfectly fine on the slightly rare side.

Mellen—I hope DC can dig out of the snow soon. You guys have been getting Chicago winter weather this year. Heck, maybe even Canadian weather. One thing about the sauce, by the way. It’s not thick and “saucy”—much thinner than that. But it is delicious and, when served over rice, sinks into it, flavoring every bite.

The Glutton February 11, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Hello Terry-

I’ve enjoyed your blog for awhile, but as an upstart blogger myself I’m now making a concerted effort to comment when I really like a site or post.

This looks like a great recipe, and you’re dead on that duck is one of those things that seems fancy but anyone can do. I also love duck breast for multi course dinners since you can sear them off in advance and just pop them in the oven to finish to temperature while you’re on a previous course…makes service easier if you have guests.

Thanks for the great blogging.

sweetbird February 12, 2010 at 10:15 pm

I’m always interested in finding new preparation for duck breast – it’s one of my favorite proteins. I can totally see this with an arugula salad with blue cheese and candied pecans.


Terry B February 13, 2010 at 12:07 am

The Glutton—Thanks! And thank you for the great make ahead tip. One challenge with dinner parties is to prepare delicious [okay, and impressive] food while still spending time with your guests.

That salad sounds like a perfect addition to the duck, Sweetbird! And even unsweetened pecans would work, what with the sweetness of the pears.

Laura February 13, 2010 at 1:13 pm

You’ve convinced me…duck breasts on Sunday night! Was trying to figure out what to serve that wouldn’t be too time consuming yet wouldn’t be obviously easy…

The Chef In My Head February 13, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Looks lovely, I am forwarding this to my brother in law! Love your blog, I will be back again and again! ~LeslieMichele

[email protected] February 14, 2010 at 8:44 pm

I just made duck breast so your post caught my eye… love the pears which I’ve never done before… great recipe and so well written and easy to follow. Well done, and happy Valentine’s Day!

Christina February 16, 2010 at 1:54 am

Happy belated Valentine’s Day, Terry B. I hope that you and Marion had a wonderful weekend.

I can never get enough duck, but I’ve only cooked it once, in a preparation quite similar to this, but without the pear. What kind of pear did you use? A crunchy variety (ie bosc) or a melty variety (ie d’anjou)? It looks DELICIOUS, and I can imagine the pairing of the sweet with the meat.

Martha had a recipe for roast duck in the most recent issue. That’s one I want to try too.

Rog Greene February 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Nice recipe, Terry. You can save a good buck on boneless duck breasts if you take a trip to Super H Mart in Niles. Lots of bargains for the cook there.

Terry B February 17, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Hi, Laura. Hope you did give duck a try—you’re such a good cook and duck breasts are deceptively simple to prepare.

Thanks, The Chef In My Head!

Deana—How did you prepare your duck?

Christina—We had a lovely Valentine’s Day. Hope you and ECG did too. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember what pears I settled on. The bosc were rock hard, so I probably used d’anjou or Bartlett.

Rog Greene— We love Super H Mart! I didn’t know they sold duck breasts, but that makes perfect sense. Thanks!

Delicateflavors February 28, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Duck and pears, what a scrumptious combination! So delicious and simple to prepare. Thank you for sharing. :)

Amanda November 1, 2010 at 12:20 am

Had some frozen duck breasts in the freezer and stumbled upon your recipe. This was fantastic, but I did omit the sugar. I will be back to visit for sure!

joyceyorks September 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Absolutely yummy but watch for hot pan handle. I dropped the pan and the pears and had to recover. Happily it was just for us so we ate it nevertheless.

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