Duck Breasts on the Grill

Sunny Davis is from Walterboro, South Carolina, near the black and sinuous Ashepoo River, about an hour from Charleston. She comes from the Lowcountry Barnes family, one of those few who have not lost their rural traditions. The Barnes sisters—Erlene, Rena, Lessie Rae, and RuRu—are all great cooks, and their brother Russell is a stalwart for tradition. Whenever I have a question about real Lowcountry food or farming, I call a Barnes. Russell still renders his own lard in an outdoor kettle, stirring it all day with what looks like an oar but is in fact a “lard paddle.” He also grows his own cane and grinds and boils his own syrup from it.

Not surprisingly, Erlene’s daughter Sunny is also a great cook. Her boiled peanuts, her okra and tomatoes, her hoecakes, and her pickles are the best. But when it’s her birthday, I grill for her. One year I cooked two dozen duck breasts on the grill, then another dozen when a late-night crowd arrived. This is a wonderful dish, wonderfully simple to prepare. These grilled breasts are prepared similarly to the porgies, but the ducks improve by being seasoned in advance. Begin the recipe several hours before serving.

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  • 1 set of duck breasts, with skin
  • 1 cup mixed fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, oregano, and thyme
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • ¼ cup olive oil


Slice the skin of each duck breast down to, but not into, the flesh, in 3 or 4 evenly spaced places and place on a nonreactive plate. Grind the herbs, garlic, and oil in a food processor until ground evenly. Coat the duck breasts with the mixture, cover, and refrigerate until ready to grill.

Build a charcoal fire off to one side in a covered grill and let it burn until the coals are all evenly gray.

Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the grill several inches over the fire and cook them until the skin is seared and cooked crispy brown, about 4 or 5 minutes. Fat from the duck may drip into the coals and ignite. If so, move the breasts to the side of the grill away from the fire and cover the grill. Close all of the grill vents if necessary to kill the flames. After the skin side is cooked, turn the duck breasts over and place them on the fireless side of the grill. Continue cooking for no more than 3 minutes. The breast should be rare, springing back when poked with a finger. Slice diagonally into several pieces, through the slashes already made in the skin. Serve immediately.