What Is A Duck Press And Should You Get One?

You know, there is a lot to be said about simple cooking. The joy of using three or four ingredients to turn something ordinary, like pasta, into something extraordinary, like carbonara. There is a whole school of cooking that believes in this principle, i.e., Alice Waters, per The Cooking World. The French are not among them. Well, at least not the arbiters of the continued tradition of bafflingly beautiful, complex, and richly flavored dishes. Who else could have given us foie gras, cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon, and duck confit? A simple look at the list of dishes Anthony Bourdain ate while in Lyon for an episode of "Parts Unknown" will give you an idea of the kind of food we're talking about (via Explore Parts Unknown).

Speaking of the French and Anthony Bourdain, the television superstar was witness to one of the most theatrical displays of French cooking available. The instrument in question, according to Food and Wine, was a duck press. You read that correctly. A duck press. And when it comes to duck recipes, the French really know what they are doing. They know how to extract every last morsel of flavor from these fatty little waterfowl. And the duck press, by its very nature, is designed to do just that.

Like a wine press, but for ducks

Anyone who has ever been to an old and established winery — or had an uncle who grew grapes in the backyard and fermented his own hooch in the basement — will know what a vintage winepress looks like. Essentially, it's one big corkscrew with a wide, flat base that presses into the grapes when turned. The extracted juices flow into a waiting barrel from a spout at the bottom of the press (via the National Museum of American History). The same principle applies to the duck press.

A duck press is not something you are going to find at your run-of-the-mill dining establishment. These contraptions can be incredibly heavy for a piece of kitchen equipment. According to Cusinology, duck presses are cast of bronze or steel and can weigh upwards of 20 pounds. These enormous contraptions are almost exclusively utilized for fine dining, owing to the nature of the dish that requires one. The recipe is one of the more extravagant bits of French food theatre. Canard à la presse (pressed duck) is an involved dish with an exacting preparation and a bit of a muddled history.

Some muddled history

There are numerous stories of how the duck press came into being. According to Cusinology, the duck press shares notable parallels with the apothecary press, which was used to concoct medicines. Most trace the development of the duck press to the 19th century, though the technique has been attributed as beginning with the peasants of southern France who used to smash duck carcasses with stones.

Regardless of who actually decided it was a good idea to flatten a duck and juice it like a ripe lemon, there is no doubt that the method was popularized in the fine dining establishments of 1800s Paris. Canard à la rouennaise (duck in blood sauce), which would later be rebranded canard à la presse, was, and remains, the signature dish of the restaurant La Tour d' Argent, per D'Artagnan. The classic preparation for canard à la presse, according to Food and Wine, begins with the butchering of a young duck. Once plucked and scored, the duck, innards still inside, is roasted briefly until rare. The legs, breasts, and liver are then removed and set aside. The remaining carcass is cut in half, crammed into the duck press, and pressed to release all of the blood, marrow, and other juices. A beautifully thick sauce is then concocted using the extracted gold, some red wine, butter, Cognac, and the duck liver. This gets poured over the legs and breasts, which have been finished in a separate pan.

Where to buy one

Until recently, duck presses were not exactly easy to come by. Today you can find one with a quick web engine search. Your search will bring up links to Webstaurant Store, eBay, and even Etsy. Unless you're a shrewd buyer, a duck press is going to set you back "a few quid," as the English would say. Matfer Bourgeat produces a few different models, a brass one for $3,336 and a steel one for $2,191. However, if you wanna get really fancy, the French maker Ercuis produces a silver-plated Duck Press Grand Hotel that could be yours for a mere €17,600 ($18,700).

Duck presses don't have to cost you the same as a small car, however. If you scour the used market and are willing to put in a little elbow grease, you will be able to find one that's much more budget-friendly. After all, the press Anthony Bourdain bought in France had a starting price of just $100 when it went up for auction in 2019, per Food and Wine. Should you choose to spend your hard-earned cash on a duck-crushing device, you could be making canard à la presse for your guests. And imagine the looks on their faces when you pull from your pantry this enormous, medieval-looking corkscrew, set it on the table, and proceed to destroy a duck carcass before their very eyes. They certainly won't forget it anytime soon.

Extravagant, but sustainable

According to D'Artagnan, though the French culinary tradition tends towards the extravagant, the elegant, and the bold, there is a centuries-long through-line of sustainability. Long before governments, activist organizations, or celebrity chefs were interested in food sustainability, the French were in the habit, out of necessity, of utilizing every part of the animal so that absolutely nothing would go to waste. Anything that was edible, or could become so, was used. This is the heritage that the duck press hails from.

Think back to the recipe for canard à la presse. The whole duck is used: the legs, the breast, the liver, the blood, the carcass, and the internal organs. Absolutely nothing goes to waste. And while a duck press may be a more common sight at Michelin Star restaurants like À L'aise in Oslo, Norway, where chef Ulrik Jepsen delivers his own rendition of canard à la presse, there is no denying the usefulness of this extravagant instrument, per Fine Dining Lovers. In the end, should you choose to purchase a duck press, you needn't reserve your endeavors to waterfowl alone. As this YouTube video from D'Artagnan shows, a Bloody Mary is just as at home in a duck press as the bird is itself.