Slow Roasted Duck Legs
- Total Cooking Time: About 5 hours but most of this is either curing or roasting.
- Servings: 6.
This isn't confit de canard, the classic French dish in which duck legs are poached in rendered duck fat and then perfectly pan-seared-to-unctuous-crispiness with a side of sliced potatoes. But a confit takes lots of time and multiple cooking steps over a couple of days, and for many city cooks, it's just too much fussing (and worrying about all that rendered fat).
Alternatively, duck lovers can roast a whole duck or pan sear duck breasts. But for some, a whole duck can be too fatty, and the breasts lack the complexity of the harder-to-cook leg.
But a couple of months ago in The New York Times Wednesday food section, Melissa Clark, one of my favorite food writers, shared a recipe she adapted from Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook for roasted duck legs. She called it "Really Easy Duck Confit," a slightly misleading title because most of the steps necessary for a confit, including all the rendering and poaching, are gone. Besides, just a word like "confit" in any recipe title can send a message that it's hard to make.
In fairness to Ms. Clark's title, this cooking method does produce confit's same tender, falling-off-the-bone duck with crackling-crispy skin, complex flavor and no greasiness. And this recipe is indeed, really easy.
Here I mostly use her method, but reduce the curing time from 24 to two hours. This wasn't initially intentional; I simply forgot to start the cure the day before but because I had promised a friend I'd make this for his dinner, I couldn't delay its cooking. But accidents can pay off and I discovered that curing -- i.e., refrigerating the legs in a seasoned salt rub -- for only two hours prior to cooking was enough time. I followed most of her other instructions but added the step of draining off the excess fat that had collected in the pan after two hours of roasting. By the time they were done, the legs had been cooked three ways over three hours: first browning on top of the stove, then covered and slow baked in their own fat, and then finishing with 30 minutes of roasting to get the skin crispy.
It's more effort than roasting a leg of lamb, but actually, not much more.
As my duck legs roasted I remember that I had some sour cherries I had canned last summer and in the last 15 minutes of cooking I scattered the cherries, without any juice, around the legs and let them heat through. The result was so exquisite it is enough of a reason to put up several jars of cherries this coming summer -- if only to make this again. Absent home-canned sour cherries, you could do the same thing with a drained can of apricots or peaches.
But cooked just by themselves -- the legs are exquisite.
In total -- including the two hours of curing in the refrigerator -- the duck legs took 5 hours to make, during which they need little-to-no attention. Too much time for a weeknight meal, but within reach on weekends or when cooking for company. And it's far less time and fussing than needed to make a classic confit.
You can cook as many legs as your oven can handle. I made six because my butcher sells duck legs in bags of six. If you're making more, you can do the initial browning in batches and then transfer all the legs to a large roasting pan and roast them all at once.
If you buy fresh or frozen duck legs from a good butcher instead as individually packaged pieces (D'Artagnan is an example -- a wonderful product but very expensive), their cost will drop significantly -- meaning close to the price of organic chicken. If you shop around, duck legs can be a reasonably-priced ingredient that when slow roasted, has a luxury flavor.
An important editor's note: based on feedback from readers who have made this recipe, it is essential to use larger duck legs and to leave all the fat on the legs. If the legs are too small or there's not enough fat, the duck legs will become very tough. It is important that the legs essentially poach in the rendered fat. If you can only find smaller legs, reduce the cooking time by as much as an hour; if the legs aren't fatty enough, buy a little extra duck fat and add this to the roasting pan.
I served this with a side of buttered noodles and a salad made with chopped escarole and rings of red onion I had briefly marinated in a red wine vinaigrette to which I had added a finely minced anchovy, just to boost the salad's personality to stand up to the duck's richness.
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 large or 2 small bay leaves, crumbled
- 6 duck legs (about 3 pounds in total, 1 leg per serving), rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
- Optional: 2 cups drained canned sour cherries or chunks of canned peaches or apricots
- In a small bowl combine the salt, pepper, thyme sprigs and bay leaf pieces.
- Place the duck legs in a large baking dish in which they can sit in a single layer. Rub the salt mixture over the legs on both sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours or longer, up to 24 hours.
- Pre-heat the oven to 325º F.
- Remove the duck legs from the dish and rinse off the salt rub and herbs. Pat the legs completely dry with paper towels so that they can brown, and not steam. Do not remove any excess fat -- leave it all on the duck legs.
- Place a large skillet or sauté pan on a medium high heat and add the duck legs in a single layer, at first skin side down, and then half-way through, turning them over to finish with skin side up (add no fat to the pan because the duck legs will immediately begin to render fat). If your pan isn't large enough to do this in a single layer, cook the legs in batches. Otherwise you won't get the careful and complete cooking. Cook the legs until the fat begins to render and collect in the pan, and the skin has browned, about 10 minutes. Don't rush this step because the fat that is rendered at this point will help the legs cook once in the oven.
- If you've cooked the legs in batches, transfer the legs and all the rendered fat to a large roasting pan, arranging the legs skin side up in a single layer. Otherwise just leave the legs, skin side up, and all the rendered fat, in the skillet. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven.
- Cook for 2 hours. Remove the foil, leaving the legs skin side up, and return to the oven and roast for an additional 30 minutes. If the duck legs are small, check for doneness and tenderness after the first hour of cooking.
- Remove the pan from the oven, and remove the legs to a large plate or sheet pan. Drain the fat out of the roasting pan (be careful -- it's hot) into a heatproof bowl, leaving about 1 tablespoon of fat in the pan. Return the legs to the roasting pan, again skin side up. Return the pan to the oven for a last 30 minutes of roasting to crisp the skin.
- If you're adding fruit to the duck legs, 15 minutes before the duck finishes cooking, drain the fruit and nestle its pieces between the legs so that the duck skin stays exposed and the fruit heats through.
- Serve immediately with noodles, spaetzle, or sliced potatoes that have been sautéed in some of the duck fat drained from the roasting pan, plus a salad or green vegetable.
Should you have any leftover duck legs, remove the meat from the bones and add to a salad or you can use it to make a fabulously delicious hash with potatoes and caramelized onions.