I have a thing for ducks: whenever I see duck on a menu, I order it. Duck lovers will know that confit duck is when the fowl is at its finest. I’ve only rarely tried to make it at home, and when I have, I realized that my kitchen chops were insufficient to do it justice. It’s easy to overcook, and the meat can turn gray and unappealing. The skin is best when crisp and caramelized and inviting and pert, and mine is inevitably limp and flaccid. Either duck is tricky, or I’m not much of a cook (or possibly both). But I’m determined to improve, because duck is an underrated, insufficiently home-cooked specialty.
My memories of magret and confit de canard are from childhood summer trips to France. I specifically remember eating duck in Pau, a lovely Gascony town at the foot of the Pyrenées Mountains. These wonderful dishes were inevitably served on a bed of lentils, studded with pearl onions, and I could never get enough, even as a four-year-old (I was a weird kid - while my peers ordered spaghetti with ketchup and Fanta to drink, I’d hit up the confit de canard with tonic water). How hard could it be, right?
Originating in Gascony, the confit process is certainly centuries-old, possibly far older. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, any technique that could preserve wholesome food for extended periods of time was embraced. Whether that process enhanced the taste was a secondary matter. During our refrigeration era, we can enjoy the flavor benefits of preservation techniques without worrying about the longevity of the product.
The Confit technique
Confit is, initially, a salt-curing process. Pieces of raw meat are rubbed with salt (for flavor and as a preservative), as well as thyme and garlic. The spices are rinsed from the meat prior to cooking. The cooking vessel should be deep enough to contain the rendered fat - a terracotta Dutch over, for example, is ideal. The meat is then poached at a low temperature (around 100 degrees celsius is considered perfect), for at least four hours and as long as ten. The result is that the meat oozes off the bone, and the fat is rendered into pools around it.
The confit technique is best for the fattiest cuts, like duck and goose, because the rendered fat is the key element. Once the meat is cooked and cooled, it must be transferred to a very, very (did I sufficiently emphasize “very”) clean container. Back in the day, this would have been a vessel of waxed wood or terracotta. These days, metal or glass is most hygienic. And here’s the trick. The rendered fat must be poured over the meat, submerging it completely. When the fat solidifies, it encases the meat and acts as a barrier for oxygen. No oxygen, and the meat stays good for weeks certainly, and as long as several months (this is when made at home, but canned confit can even last years).
The initial salt-curing is important, as the fat-preserved meat lasts much longer if it was first salt-cured. So the confit system is a double means of keeping flavorful meat fresh throughout the year. When you’re ready to eat, you open your container, skim the top-most part of the solidified fat and dispose of it (this is the part that was in contact with air and might have grown funky), and you’re left with the low-and-slow-cooked meat and lots of yummy fat. The fat can be thrown into a pan to fry the meat lightly, browning it to serve. And the fat is also ideal for frying potatoes, greens, or any other side you might have in mind.
In Gascony, the best-loved duck is the Moulard variety, and the way they are cared for is in keeping with a millennia-old tradition. Prior to the Roman conquest of Gaul (roughly modern France) by Julius Caesar, Romans took notes on the care of ducks in Egypt. Egyptians kept their ducks and geese in pens, feeding them by hand three times a day, with nuggets of cereals and dried figs. What the animals that we eat ate ends up being what we eat when we eat them, so happily-fed ducks mean happily-fed humans.
Homemade Confit Duck
Since I like a challenge (provided it doesn’t require too much washing up afterwards), I decided to try to confit a duck. But to confit something, like fermenting, is a dangerous game. If your vessels are not 100% spotless (and more importantly, bacteria-less), then not only will the resulting dish be a disaster, but it can give you serious indigestion. Fermentation and its cousin techniques are the Russian roulette of gastronomy. One wrong move, and ouch.
This process sounds less intimidating than I’d originally feared. I mean, I can sufficiently clean a container to avoid giving my family food-poisoning, right? I also felt an increased confidence in that the cooking process is pretty passive - slow-poaching the meat requires time, not technique. When it came to making the confit, all went according to plan, aside from the gratuitous spraying of fat throughout my oven and cooking surfaces. Spray-fest began in the oven, where the poaching was in full swing.
I uncovered the Dutch oven to see how things were going after hour 5 (of a total of 7), and got a face-full of duck juices (I somehow thought there would be no splatter at such a low temperature). Then, in my enthusiasm to brown the duck legs and sauté potatoes in the duck fat, I inserted said fat in a pan of insufficient depth, and at too high a temperature. The result was a Jackson Pollock-like shower of delicious duck-ness throughout my kitchen. Ah well, at least no one was poisoned, and the result certainly tasted good!