In The Kitchen:
Making Duck Confit: A Convenient Slow Food
Guest Article: © The material on this page is copyrighted by Ellen Ussery, July 2008. It was posted to the site December 2008.
Duck confit. Is it fast food or slow food? I’d have to say it’s both. It takes careful, patient preparation, but in the end, you will have ready at hand the makings of a delicious and deeply satisfying meal that you can put together in no time at all. This is fast food worth eating.
Once you have duck confit (meaning “preserved duck,” pronounced “con-fee,” with the emphasis on the second syllable) in your fridge (or cellar), you’re ready for anything. You may find yourself tired and hungry at 6 p.m. and realize that you had given no thought to dinner plans. You can whip out some confit, heat it gently, toss a salad, add some crusty sourdough bread (or, if you happen to have some leftover boiled potatoes, brown them quickly in some of the fat from your confit), and have your dinner. After such a meal your bodily strength will be fully restored. You will feel like some magical mommy has come to your house and nourished you.
Any dinner guest who is presented with confit will feel honored indeed, certain that such depth of flavor and silky texture could only be achieved by some very hard work on the part of the cook, and that something quite precious is being shared with him.
And yet, even the initial preparation of duck or goose confit is not much actual effort. The most important part of the whole enterprise is organization. Once you can picture the whole process, you can schedule it to fit into other activities so that in the end you will find that you have spent the last 24 hours doing any number of things and, oh, by the way, produced this spectacular food.
So don’t be put off by the length of these instructions. There are a number of important details, but basically, once you have the ingredients ready, there are three steps. You set the duck pieces to cure in salt and herbs for 16 to 18 hours. Then you poach them very gently in rendered fat for 3 to 4 hours. Finally, you allow them to cool slowly to room temperature in the cooking fat. (The amount of time for the last step depends on your schedule. A slow cooling is better, but if your schedule demands, you can put the confit in the fridge before it is fully cooled.)
For us, assembling the ingredients takes place days, weeks, or months before we actually cook the confit. Then I have everything in the freezer when mood and time permit me to make the final preparation.
When we butcher ducks, we rarely leave them whole for roasting. (For roasting, we prefer goose.) We find we get much more out of a duck (or perhaps a “junior” goose) by keeping the breasts for quick sautéing, served with or without a sauce, and saving the other meaty parts to make confit. We generally eat some livers right away, and freeze the rest for chopped liver or pâté. Necks are reserved for our dog. The carcass and sometimes the pinions (wing tips) have been reserved for the stockpot, but I recently read that roasted duck carcasses make a delicious snack. I plan to try that soon. When freezing the legs, thighs, and wings for confit, it is helpful to know the size vessel in which you will be cooking them. Each package should contain the number of pieces that will fit snugly in one layer in your cooking pot or slow cooker. (See Harvey’s instructions for cutting up a duck.)
Rendered fat is the other main ingredient. I always make this as soon after butchering as possible. It will keep in the fridge for a long time and in the freezer at least a year. (See instructions for rendering and storing fat.)
It is crucial to have enough fat to fully cover all your meat when poaching it. Sometimes your ducks will not provide enough fat. If you have geese, their fat is excellent for use in confit (and for baking pies, as well as making the world’s best matzoh balls). Chicken fat is not an acceptable alternative, but good quality lard is, especially when mixed with some duck fat. I cannot tell you how much you will need. It depends on the size of your birds, the size of your cooking pan, and what shape of container you will use to store the confit. But for one 12-inch pan, I would have on hand 5 cups of fat at a minimum.
The only other ingredients in my recipe are salt, thyme, and garlic. There are many recipes calling for more complicated seasonings, but we prefer to accentuate the essential flavor of the meat itself. I have always used coarse Celtic Sea Salt. Recently I was out of that and used Kosher salt, which is not as coarse. It seemed to penetrate the meat more completely than the coarser sea salt I was used to using. If I were to use it again, I would use slightly less. The amount again depends on the size of the container in which you will cure the meat. But for the same 12-inch pan, about a quarter cup should do. I usually have fresh thyme out in the garden till late Autumn and that is what I use, but I have used dried thyme with good results. As for garlic, doesn’t everybody have a guest room closet full of garlic, like us? The more the better, I say.
The amounts that follow are what work with my 12-inch copper rondeau:
- 8 to 10 pieces of duck leg, thigh, and wing
- ¼ cup coarse Celtic Sea Salt
- 15 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
- 15 sprigs fresh thyme
- 5 cups (or more) duck and/or goose fat
- Parchment paper cut to fit on top of the layer of duck pieces
Using a pan large enough to snugly hold all your duck pieces in one layer, scatter enough of the salt to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Scatter half the garlic and half the thyme on top. Then lay in the duck pieces, skin side up (meat side down). Sprinkle the remaining salt, garlic, and thyme on top. Cover tightly and refrigerate for 16 to 18 hours. I usually do this around 5 or 6 in the evening so that I am ready to start cooking the next morning around 9 or 10.
Rinse off all the salt from the duck pieces and dry thoroughly. Place in your cooking pan in one cozy layer, skin side up. A metal pan is better than glass. Add about half of the garlic from the curing process. Pour in the rendered fat, which you have gently melted in a saucepan, being sure to completely cover the duck. Set the parchment paper down in the pan directly on top of the duck. This is helpful to keep the duck covered in fat. Place in a 200F oven. You may have to raise the heat a bit. What you want is for a tiny bubble or two to rise from the fat every few seconds. You do not want a simmer—that is too hot. So you must monitor it carefully until you get a steady series of bubbles. After three hours, check it by piercing with a fork. In most cases, it will be tender, but not falling off the bone. That is the point at which you should stop cooking. But if it still feels quite tough then continue for up to another hour.
You can also poach your duck in a crock pot. The advantages are that it will cook at the proper low temperature without using as much energy as an oven and, if you are doing this in warm weather, you won’t heat up the kitchen. In my case the disadvantage is the size of my crock pots: Neither of the two I own holds as much in one layer as my rondeau.
Cooling and Storing
Decide what shape container you will use to store your confit. I generally use a flat glass casserole since that makes it easier to remove just a few pieces at a time. However, it takes more fat to fully cover the duck. By using a wide-mouthed mason jar, you can squeeze the duck pieces more closely together, and end with a thicker layer of fat on top. The one time I tried this I found it difficult to remove the pieces of duck without mangling them. If I do it again, I might set the jar in a pan of hot tap water till the fat liquifies, then remove the pieces I want. Or plan to use the whole jar at one time.
Whatever container you choose, immediately upon removing the duck from the oven, use tongs to place the pieces in it. Then strain the fat into a heat-proof glass jar or measuring pitcher. Do this in two stages. In the first, stop well before any of the cloudy contents of the pan are poured out, to yield a jar of clear fat. Pour this immediately over the duck. It may not cover it completely but it should be close. Let this cool gently at room temperature. This slow cooling down is as important as the slow cooking for developing the flavor and texture of the meat.
Now pour the rest of the fat through the strainer into your jar. You will have a bottom layer of meat juices and a top layer of fat. Set this jar in the refrigerator for several hours until the fat solidifies. When it does, you will be able the spoon it out and cover the bare spots of your duck before you store it in the fridge or cellar. You will be left with some salty meat juices which can be used for soup or sauce making. These juices would turn the confit sour as it aged if they were allowed to be incorporated into the final product, so it is important to exclude them in this step.
Most people will store their confit in the refrigerator. But traditionally in France, confit was stored all winter in a cellar with a constant cool temperature. So this would be a safe choice, as long as you are certain that there are no hot water pipes or the like that would cause the temperature to fluctuate.
Though you can eat your confit as early as the next day, the flavor improves with aging in the fat. I have kept confit in the refrigerator for as long as three months. But since I don’t have a usable cellar, and refrigerator space is at a premium, I find that it works best for me to eat it up in a few weeks and make successive batches. An advantage is that I reuse the fat for the second batch. I won’t use it a third time for confit but will cook potatoes or greens with it. Since the fat was never heated to a high temperature, it is perfectly safe to do this.
Once you have learned how to fit confit into the rhythm of your life, you won’t want to be without it.