Duck confit (preserved duck) is, similar to chicken, beef and veal stock, something that I don’t like to be without. Not that we eat it often but, like stock that’s perfectly happy to sit in the freezer–duck confit (pronounced “con-fee”) is perfectly happy to wait in the refrigerator until someone in the house gets a hankering (usually that’s me).
To make confit (to “confit” anything) is to simmer something completely submerged in fat and then store whatever you’ve cooked in the fat used to cook it. Fat is non-porous so, once congealed, the food cooked (protein or vegetable) is much less susceptible to oxidation (which causes spoilage) which is why making confit is an Old-World form of cookery, used often when refrigeration wasn’t possible.
So, you might be saying to yourself “there’s no problem with refrigeration these days, Lauren, so why, in such health-conscious times would anyone want to cook with all that duck fat?”
It’s simple. Because anyone with a discerning palate knows that duck confit is one of the most delicious and satisfying foods in the world. And, by the way, most of the fat stays on the outside–it just bathes the meat, keeping it succulent throughout cooking and keeping.
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First you need to order duck legs (raw) which is actually the most challenging part! Getting your hands on fresh duck legs is difficult, even when shopping online. Although I get my duck fat at D'Artagnan, they don't sell raw duck legs. (You can get duck legs already cooked in fat, but that's not at all the point of this blog which is to teach you how to make a FAR better version (in both taste and texture) than what you can buy (trust me, here...). I'm lucky enough to have a fabulous butcher (Dom) who orders them for me.
Although you can make a small batch of duck confit, since they stay so well in the fridge, I suggest making a larger batch (8 to 12 legs at one time). You'll also need plenty of duck fat, so either get this from your butcher or order it online, which is easy.
Once you have the duck legs, the first step is to cure them for 1 or 2 days in the refrigerator (I usually do it for two days). This imparts deep flavor into the meat and skin.
Once the legs are in your possession, rinse and dry them. For 8 to 12 legs, assemble the Curing Group of ingredients (for a smaller batch, just halve the ingredients).
Mash the minced garlic with some of the salt, using the blade of a chefs knife until it’s paste-like. Add this to a nonreactive bowl and combine with the minced thyme, pepper, shallots, onion powder and remaining salt. Place the duck legs in a nonreactive dish or bowl and rub the seasoning mixture all over both sides of each leg. Cover and chill for 1 day or up to 2 days.
You'll need 14 to 16 containers of duck fat to accomodate 8 to 12 legs. Here's what the container looks like...
I really do mean, you'll need at least 14 containers for 8 to 12 legs...
I usually keep mine in the freezer until it's time to make duck confit. Then, the night before, I thaw it in the fridge.
Take legs out of the refrigerator 30 minutes to 1 hour before simmering. Then, using paper towels, wipe off most of the seasoning mixture. Melt the duck fat in an 8 to 10-quart, heavy bottomed pot (for a small batch, using 4 legs, melt the fat in a 12-inch, deep-sided skillet), over medium-low heat. Add the duck legs, the whole garlic cloves, the crushed pepper flakes, peppercorns and sprig of each, thyme and rosemary. The fat should cover the duck legs completely. Attach a deep-fry thermometer to the side of the skillet so the bottom of the mercury tip rests above the bottom of the pan, about half-way down the depth of the fat. (I actually use two thermometers, just to make sure the temperature is accurate.) Reduce the heat to very low.
Over low heat, bring the oil up to 190F, uncovered (which will take at least 1 hour), then continue to cook, uncovered, for 2 to 2 ½ hours, trying to maintain a temperature of 200F and never higher than 210F. (I like mine to stay between 190F and 200F.) The fat should only produce the smallest amount of movement. If bubbling, the temperature is too high which can make the meat stringy.) If you don't have serious control over the heat generated by your burners, you'll need to use a flame tamer.
As the duck cooks, impurities will rise to the surface of the pot. Use a skimmer to remove this, occasionally.
Although you can wait until the end of the cooking process to remove this film of impurities, because it acts like a skin on the top of the fat, this becomes quite insulating and can cause the temperature of the fat to rise abruptly--so it's best to occasionally pull this stuff off the top using a fine-mesh skimmer...
At this point, the duck meat should be very tender. Pull the pan to a cool burner and allow the duck and fat to cool to just warm.
Then, lift out the cooked duck legs and place them in a large rectangular plastic container (one that comes with a tight fitting lid). Strain the fat through a fine-mesh sieve into another large bowl, trapping the solids and stopping before you get to the duck juices at the bottom of the pot. Dump out the solids (although I usually save the garlic which is amazing spread on crusty bread. Strain the fat once more directly into the container holding the cooked duck. Shimmy the fat and legs gently, making sure they are all completely submerged...
Once cool, attach the lid and store in the refrigerator. Once cold, this is what it looks like inside.
To retrieve the duck, you'll need to let the fat soften a bit (about an hour at a comfortable room temperature), then pry through the fat, being careful not to break up the meat. Use your clean fingers to feel your way around and take out as many legs as you want. ...
Then, smooth the fat out, so that it looks as it did before...
Now--to the best part--Crisping the duck!
Heat a dark, heavy pan until hot, over low-medium heat (a shallow, seasoned cast iron fajitas pan is best). Sear the duck, skin side down, and sear slowly, allowing any excess fat to render out. Carefully pour this fat into a heatproof bowl (this is why the shallow pan is best, so you won't have to tilt the pan at such a deep angle--which makes it more likely to make the legs fall out!--if all you have is a deeper cast iron pan, remove the legs to a tray, then dump out the fat and put the legs back in the pan). Turn the legs and brown on the other side. Turn again, skin side down, and place a lid over the top to heat through. Uncover and turn again, skin side up. Dump out any more fat from the pan. When the meat is hot and the exterior is golden and crisp, it's time to eat!
Since duck confit is rich, I like to serve it with a main-dish salad or with some stewed sweet and sour red cabbage and roast potatoes (roll some halved red potatoes in some of the melted duck fat and roast at 400F until the interiors are tender and the exterior golden and crisp).
If you've lasted this long, reading all the way through this process, I figure you're someone that might actually make duck confit at home. I hope so. Let me know!