LET THEM EAT CONFIT
We break down the classic French technique.
Eating season is upon us. With cooler temperatures comes a primal desire to fire up our kitchens, and this time of year, few recipes warm the bones and help us weather the coming days of winter quite like confit.
Here on the Chesapeake Bay, we start thinking about this dish when, suddenly, the cacophonous chorus of waterfowl arrives on the nation’s largest estuary. From now until spring, the air fills with the whistles, chatters, hoots, honks, and outright quacks of ducks and geese who make themselves at home and, a few times a season, if we’re lucky, end up our tables, too.
Confit de canard (duck) and confit de oie (goose) are two classic variations of the traditional French technique—pronounced “kon-FEE” and derived from the verb confire, which simply means “to preserve.” Almost any food can be confit’ed—meat, fish, vegetables, even fruit—and yet it remains an intimidating process for many home cooks. For that, we’re here to level the playing field, especially because it makes the perfect pairing with cast iron.
To begin, let’s look at the origins of confit. The age-old preservation technique dates back to as early as the 15th century and is thought to hail from the southwest of France, in the region of Gascogne or Gascony, which is also revered for its foie gras and duck fat and has been dubbed by The New York Times as possibly “the most delicious corner” of its home country. (Apparently hand-written signs advertise farm-made confit along the roadside—BRB, checking flights…)
But in the age before refrigeration, French hunters and cooks turned to confit as a way to extend the shelf life of their harvests and market hauls to last them through the lean times. In essence, meat was salted and then low-and-slow cooked in its own fat which protected it for months-long storage. It was a practice born out of necessity, but just so happened to be delicious.
So how does this work, exactly?
When it comes to meat, common cuts are usually legs of poultry such as duck or goose, and the first step is the salt cure. A generous portion of salt is mixed with aromatics, such as black pepper, thyme, bay leaves, juniper berries, or, per one Julia Child recipe, allspice. The mixture is then rubbed over the meat, which is then sealed in a container or dish and left to sit for at least one hour or, refrigerated, as much as overnight or even a few days. Outdoorsman Hank Shaw of Duck, Duck, Goose cookbook fame recommends using kosher or sea salt, at a rate of no more than two percent of the meat’s weight to avoid oversalting. Salt ultimately draws moisture out of the meat, making it less likely to spoil, while also concentrating the flavor.
The second step is the fat. Removing the meat from its salt cure, rinsing it clean, and patting it dry, it is now ready for bath time. The meat is then submerged in fat—again, duck or goose fat are best, but chicken fat or olive oil will also do—and if you’re feeling fancy, you can throw in some garlic and rosemary, too. The fat-covered meat is then cooked low and slow, with many modern recipes calling for a 200-degree Fahrenheit oven and at least three hours of cooking.
Traditionally, this was done in an earthen crock, then later, an ovenproof dish like a cast-iron pan or casserole. Even more recently, vacuum sealers and sous vide machines have made the process all the easier. Ultimately, the fat creates a protective barrier, sealing out oxygen that bacteria need to grow, while also sealing in flavor and moisture. Meanwhile, the cooking method helps break down connective tissue in typically tough cuts, yielding an especially tender end product.
Speaking of end product, what do you do with confit once it is, well, confit’ed?
Once cooked, confit will only get better with age, and it can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dark place – aka your fridge’s meat drawer – for up to several months. From there, it is often scraped clean of excess fat and incorporated into traditional dishes, such as cassoulets or rillettes.
You can also mix it into sauces, stuff it into raviolis, or shred it over nachos or into tacos (traditional carnitasis essentially the confit of Mexico). We personally like to pull the meat, crisp it up in a cast-iron pan, and serve it over frisée aux lardons salad with a jammy egg.
We also like to confit those other things we almost overlooked: vegetables. There might be nothing better than a bunch of spring alliums—like garlic or onions—or summer nightshades—like tomatoes or eggplant—swimming in a warm pool of olive oil and herbs, then smeared over fresh sourdough, perhaps with a dollop of ricotta.
But for the next few months, in our neck of the woods, if we’re lucky, it’s all things duck confit.