The hardest part of making this at home is coming up with enough duck fat. The second-hardest is sorting through the thousands of recipes.
Okay, say it with me, in your corniest French accent– Cohhn-FEE. Now say it again, through your upper nose. Good. “Confit” refers specifically to meat preserved in fat. Confit of goose legs is sublime, but duck is cheaper and much more widely available. So– why should you bother making this? Because if I had to pick one item from the entire fabulous canon of French cookery that I could rightly describe as “French Soul Food,” it would be… duck confit. It is soothingly tender, complex and rich. It can be eaten by itself or combined with other ingredients to great effect. And although its preparation requires a measure of diligent “grease management” in the standard home kitchen, the results are cost-effective and greatly rewarding.
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Duck confit has become a staple in upscale restaurants, where it often appears atop salads, or perhaps drizzled with balsamic vinegar syrup or fruit essence. Chef Michael from my early restaurant days used to offer “Ragoût of Escargots, Wild Mushrooms, & Preserved Duck” as an appetizer. (Ragoût is a French stew, often hastily assembled rather than slowly simmered; the mushrooms weren’t really wild, but they were fabulous shiitakes; and the “preserved duck” was flaked pieces of duck confit… all unified with a rich red wine sauce.) In the most ambitious Upstate New York eateries, duck confit used to regularly appear in plates grandly called “Trio de Canard” or such, teamed with rare seared breast meat and Hudson Valley foie gras. In less formal “bistro” settings, duck confit might get star billing as an entree, right beside the de rigeur hanger steak and Trout with Almonds. It might also make an appearance in cassoulet, a country French bean stew whose true origins arouse the sort of fierce debates that complicate a serious foodie’s search for the truth.
While it appears on French-influenced menus (both upscale and rustic) year-round, duck confit is, in my judgement, winter food. And since it is presently January, let’s make some. First we need to scare up some duck legs, which you won’t generally find in your local supermarket. (You might, however, find finished duck confit for $18/leg. As you’ll see, we can beat that by a LOT.) There are numerous online sources, but I’ll stick to one that I’m especially pleased to share– Jurgielewicz & Sons Farm in Pennsylvania, doing business as the mercifully more pronounceable Tasty Duck. They sell them in packages of 4, 10, or 30. I opted for 10, and with shipping they cost me $7.60 each.
Now, about all those different recipes…
At its essence, making duck confit is simplicity itself– salt the legs all over, let them sit in your fridge overnight, prick their skin all over, and then simmer them in duck fat until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. However– many recipes call for sugar with the salt; many include seasonings such as onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, and/or juniper berries in the overnight cure. As is my wont, I keep it simple and just use salt. We can always add flavor later.
Most (but not all) of the recipes agree that we should simmer the legs in duck fat. (The few dissenters steer us toward sous vide or other alternatives that pretty much comprise the exceptions that prove the rule.) Duck fat by itself is quite expensive to purchase retail. Fortunately, I got mine for free, thanks to the Jurgielewicz boys– although they claim that their duck legs are trimmed of excess fat, I was able to trim off enough fatty skin from my order to render the requisite duck fat to cover my ten legs.
Ten duck legs trimmed, salted overnight, pricked, and covered with rendered duck fat. It is important to have the proper cooking vessel in mind before tackling this preparation. Also, note my circular slice around the drumstick– this helps the meat separate cleanly as it contracts.
From this point, wading through the competing recipes becomes quite a challenge, as they diverge widely– I found recommended oven temperatures ranging from the low 200’s to the high 300’s. I opted for low & slow and cooked these at 225ºF. I only found one recipe that offered a suggested “cook-to” meat temperature, and it was so low– 135ºF– that I suspect it was a typo. (The USDA recommends 165ºF for ALL poultry, including duck. This might be fine for the legs and thighs, but the meaty duck breast is closer to beef sirloin than the rest of the duck flesh and is commonly served and eaten quite rare.) The operative guideline here is tenderness– cook the legs until they are quite tender while keeping the temperature of the cooking fat itself below 225ºF so you don’t scorch them.
I took a cue from my smoking/barbecue experience and took my duck legs up to 185ºF, at which point they seemed perfectly tender. Then I let them cool in the fat, and after that I put the whole pot in a particularly cold fridge– my vintage Frigidaire, which holds a steady 27ºF. At this temperature I can simply dig out a couple of legs whenever I feel the urge, crisp them skin-side down in my iron pan, and then serve them as-is, as fancy finger food. Or I can pull the meat from the bones and use it as an ingredient. I like it mixed with sauteed red cabbage or– even better– with garlicky green beans. I would also recommend using it in a jazzy ragoût (à la Chef Michael) with the aforementioned shiitake mushrooms and some chopped-up leftovers from your holiday roast, your sauce or gravy included.
Confit by definition keeps for quite a while if stored in the fat, which protects it from the evils of air exposure. I once successfully kept goose confit in the back of my fridge for two full years submerged in its fat and covered.
A perfect wine to accompany duck confit is Syrah– a noble variety that yields world-class wine in multiple French regions as well as California, Washington State, and (as Shiraz) in Australia. Although Syrah is not as varietally distinctive as its noble brethren Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, it generally offers a delightful combination of powerful fruit flavors, non-fruity notes (ranging from leather to rose petals to bacon), and stylish structure. Duck confit is winter food, and great Syrah is definitely winter wine. So is Petite Sirah, a genetic descendant with more muscle and less finesse than Syrah.