When I made my New Year's resolutions, I vowed I'd learn to make Confit de Canard. It's always been one of my favorite dishes to eat, but I knew enough about duck, French cooking, and the taste and texture of a good one (always eaten in a restaurant) that I had always been, well, scared to try it on my own.
I've now faced the demon duck and I'm here to tell you that it is not at all difficult. It takes little to no technique but it does need a bit of time and some planning. The reward is exquisitely delicious and at an affordable price -- and vastly better than those pre-cooked ones packed in a can or vacuum bag.
Before taking you through the process, let me first demystify the whole notion of confit. Whether you use the word as a noun or a verb, it generally refers to slowly cooking something in fat so that the fat replaces some of the moisture, and then storing it in the same fat as a means of preservation. The word comes from the Latin, conficiere, meaning "to do" or "to make" and is the root of other familiar words like confiture and confection and can equally describe flavoring and preserving foods in other substances, as fruit in sugar, olives in oil, pickles in vinegar, or capers in salt.
When it comes to what we today know and love as confit de canard, we're using a method that was created in France pre-refrigeration to preserve duck, geese, pork and other meats from the fall slaughter of farm animals. Making confit and getting it to our dinner table takes three steps: One, salting to cure the meat. Two, slow cooking immersed in fat for several hours. And three, reheating or sautéing (depending on how the cooked duck legs are being eaten) the final dish.
When I make this recipe I cook 8 legs which lets me serve 4 at a dinner with friends. I then store the remainder, surrounded by solidified rendered duck fat, in a plastic container at the bottom of my refrigerator where they'll keep for a couple of weeks and become a treat for an easy weekday dinner.
If your experience in buying and cooking duck has been to buy single legs or small tubs of rendered duck fat by D'Artagnan, you might resist this recipe thinking that it is a big financial investment. Not so. While D'Artagnan produces and sells excellent products, I recommend you instead visit a butcher and buy both legs (actually the leg and thigh) and raw duck fat that you can easily render yourself in just an hour.
I buy my duck legs at Esposito's Meat Market located in Hell's Kitchen at 500 Ninth Avenue at West 38th Street. Eight legs cost about $18.00, which I think is a good value. You also need to buy duck fat, about 2 pounds for every 4 legs, which at Esposito's is about $8.00. Two pounds of raw fat produces about 1 1/2 quarts of rendered fat.
8 duck legs (this is about 4 pounds)
4 to 6 tablespoons coarse salt. Kosher salt is perfect for this recipe.
1 1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons black peppercorns that you have crushed using either a mortar and pestle or the back of a heavy fry pan or pot
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
1 sprig fresh thyme, chopped
6 to 8 cups rendered duck fat
1 whole clove
1 whole head of garlic, sliced in half crosswise
Making a complete confit de canard takes about two days from start to finish because the duck legs must be first cured for 24-hours. I used a recipe and method that is based on those in Paula Wolfert's splendid The Cooking of Southwest France.
- Rinse the duck legs and pat dry with paper towels. Pull off any obviously excess pieces of fat and add to the duck fat you've purchased separately.
- Trim any large pieces of extra skin that may be flapping off the leg. I use scissors to do this. Removing this extra skin makes it easier to cook and finish the legs. If you're a big fan of crisply cooked duck skin, you can simply save these pieces and cook them later as cracklings in some of the rendered duck fat.
- Place the duck legs in a large bowl and toss with the salt, shallots, chopped garlic, parsley, peppercorns, bay leaf and thyme. Make sure all the duck legs have some of each ingredient on them.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for 18 to 24 hours. Do not leave for longer than a day because the legs will become overly salty. This step is important as it cures the meat and helps remove much of the moisture in the meat, making it become more tender when it is finally cooked.
- While the duck legs are marinating, you can render the duck fat. This is done by taking all the fat, both that which you bought and any excess removed from the legs, and place in a large sauce pan or soup pot.
- Place on a medium low heat and slowly let the pieces melt into a clear liquid. This will take about an hour. Resist rushing this step as the rendering produces the best quality result when done at about 170º F.
- You can also do this in a microwave in about 15 minutes by placing the pieces of fat in a bowl that you cover with a piece of plastic wrap. If you're rendering a lot of fat, you may need to do the microwaving in several steps, using smaller quantities each time.
- When the fat has completely melted to be entirely liquid, strain it through a fine mesh sieve into a container. Remove and discard any debris or bits of skin. Be careful because the fat is scalding hot.
- Let the fat come to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate. As it chills it will become solid.
- Remove the duck legs from the refrigerator and rinse each piece under cool running water to remove the salt and other ingredients. Discard any liquid that will have collected in the bowl.
- Drain the rinsed duck legs and pat dry with paper towels.
- Place the rendered duck fat -- all of it -- in a large, heavy pot. The pot should be large enough to eventually contain all 8 duck legs plus the melted fat. A large 10 to 12 quart enameled Dutch or French oven is perfect.
Melt the duck fat over low heat until it is completely liquefied. It is important that the heat be low.
- Stick the clove into one of the halves of the sliced head of garlic and place both garlic halves into the melted duck fat.
- Add the 8 duck legs to the pot. The legs should be completely immersed in the liquid fat. Cook, uncovered, until the fat reaches 190º F (measure with an instant thermometer).
- Continue cooking with the temperature remaining in the range of 192º F to 210º F, but no higher, for another hour. The legs are done when the meat is completely tender and easily pierced with a toothpick or slim skewer.
- Remove the pot from the heat but let the duck cool in the fat for 1 hour.
The traditional way to serve confit de canard is by pan frying it on both sides until the surfaces become crisp and golden brown. In The Cooking of Southwest France, Paula Wolfert offers a simple method for doing this that she credits to James Villas's American Taste.
- Remove the duck legs from its storage container. Scrape any excess fat from the pieces back into the container.
- Add about 2 tablespoons of the confit fat into a large skillet or sauté pan -- one that is large enough to take 4 legs at once -- and one that also has a tight-fitting lid.
- Optional is to add another one or two tablespoons of peanut oil which will raise the burn temperature of the fat (peanut oil has among the highest burn temperature of all fats, which means you can cook at a higher heat without burning whatever you're cooking).
- Bring the fat to hot but not smoking.
- Add the duck legs skin side down. Cover tightly and cook over a high heat for 2 minutes. (You'll hear lots of spitting and spattering but don't peek.)
- Remove the cover, turn the legs over -- they should be brown and crispy -- and wipe off any excess moisture on the underside of the lid. Re-cover and continue cooking another two minutes until the legs are completely heated through.
Confit de canard is often served with par boiled potatoes that are then fried in duck fat (called Pommes Sarladaises). Other popular side dishes include braised red cabbage or simple green beans.
Once the duck legs have been cooked in the fat, it is completely ready to eat and use in other recipes. Other ways to use this tender, flavorful meat is to remove it from its bones and shred it to add to a salad, as a filling for ravioli, as an hors d'oeuvre by piling on top of a sweet potato gaufrette potato chip, making rilllettes (an appetizer made with shredded duck leg meat and duck fat), added to a pasta sauce, as the basis of a terrine, or the main ingredient in a soft duck taco.
- When you make a confit, what you're doing is poaching the duck legs in hot fat, not frying them. This is why the fat must remain at a relatively low temperature.
- If you have a slow cooker, it's perfect to use in place of the stove-top cooking. But still make sure that the legs are submerged in the rendered duck fat.
- If you're using larger Muscovy duck legs, you will need to cook them about an hour longer (close to 3 hours in the hot fat). The meat is done when a toothpick or slim skewer is easily inserted into the thickest part of a thigh.
- Have one or two large storage containers (glass or plastic) ready to take the cooked, cooled duck legs. Place the legs into the containers and cover completely with the fat, and then place the containers' covers and seal carefully.
- If you are going to store confit for more than ten days in your refrigerator, it's best to sterilize the storage containers in advance and air seal the legs by adding an extra layer of melted lard.
- Rendered duck fat can be kept refrigerated for up to 8 months or frozen for longer. If you want to keep small portions on hand for cooking potatoes or using in other recipes, transfer the fat into smaller containers, with covers, and store some in the refrigerator and others in the freezer.