A Winter Project: Making Duck Confit and the Best Potatoes
Making confit is a three-step process: first duck is "cured" with salt and seasonings. Then it is slowly cooked in duck fat and refrigerated. Finally, it is reheated and served as the classic confit de canard.
Before refrigeration was commonplace, duck was cured and "poached" in its own fat, then transferred to ceramic crocks, covered with the same fat it was cooked in and set aside during the winter -- the longer the better, as it was said to improve with age.
Today, confit is most likely to be served on the bone alongside roasted potatoes and a frisée salad, or shredded into a hearty cassoulet (a rich dish of white beans and various meats).
There are dozens of variations on the seasonings for this classic. This simple cure, similar to many recipes from the southwest of France, accentuates the mild duck flavor. The recipe is easily multiplied.
Adapted from "Simple to Spectacular" by Jean-George Vongerichten and Mark Bittman (Broadway, $45).
4 Moulard duck leg portions (may use either drumsticks or drumsticks and thighs)
About 1/4 cup coarse sea salt
10 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
10 sprigs fresh thyme
About 4 cups rendered duck fat*
To cure: Rinse the duck and pat completely dry. If desired, trim any excess skin and fat that is not covering meat; discard the excess skin and reserve the excess fat for another use or to render and add to the additional rendered fat you will need (see "A Word About Duck Fat" on Page F5).
Have ready a large rimmed dish or pan large enough to hold the duck legs snugly in a single layer. Add enough salt to the dish to just barely coat the bottom. Scatter 8 cloves of the garlic and 8 sprigs of the thyme over the salt. Place the legs on the salt, skin-side up (meat-side down), arranging them so each duck leg has maximum exposure to the garlic and thyme. Sprinkle the skin sides of the legs with the remaining salt, garlic and thyme. Cover tightly and refrigerate for 12 to 18 hours.
To cook: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the rendered duck fat until it melts and begins to simmer gently. It should register about 200 degrees and no higher than 220 degrees on a candy thermometer.
Meanwhile, remove duck legs from the pan, reserving the garlic. Quickly rinse the legs under cool water to remove the salt and thyme. Pat dry.
Transfer the duck legs, skin-side up, to a baking pan or dish that will accommodate them in a single snug layer. (A metal pan is preferable to glass.) Add about half of the reserved garlic to the pan. Carefully pour the fat over the duck; the legs must be submerged. Cover the duck with parchment or wax paper cut to fit the pan. Carefully transfer the pan to a rimmed baking sheet.
Cook the duck, checking the temperature frequently, until the meat is tender and practically falling from the bone, 3 to 4 hours. For the first half-hour, check by looking through the parchment to ensure that the fat occasionally bubbles but does not steadily simmer or boil. Do not touch the duck legs until the end when checking the meat's tenderness. Remove from the oven.
Using tongs, carefully transfer the duck to a container that can accommodate the leg portions in a single snug layer. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Strain the used duck fat into a saucepan, discarding any solids. Gently simmer the duck fat over medium heat until all of the duck juices suspended in the fat evaporate. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool slightly.
Strain the duck fat again and pour it over the duck. Cover the container tightly and refrigerate for up to two weeks.
To serve: Remove the container from the refrigerator and set aside at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. (This allows the duck fat to soften, resulting in easier retrieval of the duck legs.)
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Place a plate next to the container. Using tongs, carefully transfer the duck to the plate, scraping as much of the duck fat as possible back into the container. (May reserve the duck fat for another use.)
Heat a large oven-proof skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. If desired, lightly sprinkle the skin sides of the duck legs with salt. Carefully add the duck, skin-side down, to the skillet. Beware: duck fat will splatter. Sear the duck legs, without moving them, until crisp and browned on the skin side, about 3 minutes. (The skin will initially stick to the skillet but once the meat is properly seared you will be able to turn the legs over.) Using a metal spatula, carefully turn the duck, then transfer the skillet to the oven. Heat the duck until warmed through, about 15 minutes.
Alternatively, you may warm the duck in the skillet, then cool slightly. Remove and discard the skin and shred the meat. If desired, return the meat to the skillet and crisp over medium-high heat.
* Note: The amount of fat necessary may vary depending on the size of the pan. Always err on the side of extra fat: You will need enough to submerge the legs completely. See below ("A Word About Duck Fat") for recipe on rendering duck fat or sources for buying rendered duck fat.
Approximate per 3-ounce serving (note: the sodium and fat content will vary): 170 calories, 20 gm protein, trace carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 140 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
Following are departures from the traditional recipe for curing the duck.
Julia Child's Duck Confit
Sprinkle both sides of each duck leg with coarse sea salt and ground allspice. Adapted from "The Way to Cook" by Julia Child (Knopf, 1989).
Five Spice Duck Confit
Sprinkle both sides of each duck leg with coarse sea salt and five-spice powder. Adapted from "Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef" by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman (Broadway, 1998).
Asian Duck Confit
In a large bowl, combine the following ingredients: 1 1/2 cups coarse sea salt, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 bunch fresh thyme, 1 bunch mint, 1 bunch cilantro, 10 sliced shallots, 10 sliced cloves garlic, 1/2 cup five-spice powder, 1/4 cup black peppercorns, 8 coarsely chopped Thai bird chilies, 5 stalks crushed and chopped lemon grass and 1 large skin-on, chopped ginger root. Add the duck, turn to coat completely, cover and refrigerate. Adapted from a recipe by Ming Tsai, as found on the Food Network's Web site.
Cafe Atlantico's Duck Confit
In a medium bowl, combine the following ingredients: 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup coarse sea salt, 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 2 teaspoons lightly toasted and coarsely ground anise seeds, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/3 bay leaf, crumbled. Adapted from a recipe shared by chef Christy Velie of Cafe Atlantico, originally from Jose Andres, chef of Jaleo and formerly of Cafe Atlantico.
The World's Best Potatoes
(Makes 2 to 4 servings)
One you have completed your duck confit, you will have rendered duck fat remaining. As it turns out, any merger of potato and duck fat results in something worthy of praise. For absolutely smashing results, however, try one of the following methods:
For roasted potatoes that are light and airy inside, crisp and greaseless on the exterior, use russet (Idaho) potatoes and the roasting method below.
For dense, creamy, skin-on potatoes reminiscent of grandma's home fries, try fingerling or red potatoes (preferably new potatoes) and use the sauteing method given below.
About 3 pounds potatoes (see introduction above)
2 to 4 tablespoons rendered duck fat, at room temperature
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Halve the potatoes if small or cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Add the potatoes to the boiling water and parboil until slightly but not completely fork-tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water. Set aside to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 hours.
To roast Idaho (russet) potatoes: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the duck fat and garlic, if using, in a baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in a single layer. Add the potatoes and toss gently to coat with the fat. Roast, stirring every 15 minutes, until crisp and cooked through, 45 to 60 minutes.
To saute red potatoes: Heat the duck fat and garlic, if using, in a skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook for 3 minutes. Continue to cook, stirring only occasionally, until cooked through and crisp on all sides. Stirring too often will result in soggy potatoes.
To serve, transfer the potatoes to a brown paper bag to drain. (Paper towels will cause the potatoes to reabsorb some fat.) Immediately season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 350 calories, 6 gm protein, 68 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 104 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber
The Do's and Don'ts: Patience and Fat Are Required
In recent months, more than 45 pounds of raw duck fat has crossed my kitchen counter. (Rather, my boyfriend's kitchen counter. For a while, he was barely speaking to me. That was when the duck-fat odor was wafting out of his apartment and down the stairs -- and, according to one friend, into the back alley. Or maybe it was his hand slipping off the coffee maker -- as well as off every other kitchen surface that had duck fat on it. Or maybe he was miffed about the the sacks of very unattractive frozen duck fat sitting in his refrigerator.)
That's more than $135 on duck fat alone. This is far more than any recipe demands -- in fact, it's sufficient for more than 20 recipes, among them almost every "quick" confit recipe I could find.
Then why bother? I'm here to tell you that duck confit is a simple technique. But it demands the appropriate ingredients and attention to detail.
Most recipes are vague and few offer all of the important details. Two exceptions are the one included above from Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman and David Rosengarten's rendition in "The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook" (Random House, 1996).
Here are some of the lessons I've learned along the way.
Duck Fat It is essential. It does, however, have a pungent aroma. (Trying to rid the air of the aroma with mulled wine and incense will make the kitchen reek of mulled wine, incense and duck fat. You're better off with just duck fat.)
Sufficient Duck Fat The duck must be submerged when poaching. The key is to use a snug-fitting pan to minimize the need for vast quantities of duck fat. A trick from Bruno Feldeisen at Sen5es in Georgetown is to cover the duck with wax or parchment paper cut to fit the poaching pan. In "A New Way to Cook" (Artisan, $40), Sally Schneider suggests tightly enclosing duck legs in foil and roasting them to render the fat in the leg, thus negating the need for additional fat. Not true. Her rendition tastes of tough, overcooked duck. The flavor smacks of bad pastrami, since the recipe requires various strong flavors, among them juniper, thyme, bay leaf, allspice, coriander and grappa (grappa!)
Rendering Duck Fat If you're buying your own duck fat and rendering it, don't hurry it. Rendering the fat at too high a temperature results in a brownish (not clear) result with a faint burnt flavor.
Quick Confit It doesn't exist. If it isn't cured, it isn't confit. It may be a flavorful roast duck, but it isn't confit.
Duck, Duck, Chicken? Pay no attention to any recipe instructing the reader to use chicken thighs instead of duck. Moulard duck is essential (see Page F5).
Worry-Free Confit There's nothing worse than going through the labor of making confit, only to notice that the duck is sitting in pink juices at the bottom of the container. Guests are about to arrive and you're left wondering if the duck is safe to consume.
After poaching and cooling the duck in the fat, strain the fat into a saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until duck juices in the fat have boiled out.
Pay Attention Most confit recipes state that when you are poaching the duck, the fat should begin at a boil, then simmer at (pick a number between 200 to 300 degrees). In fact, a hefty simmer tends to result in a slightly burnt flavor. The appropriate temperature is roughly between 200 and 225 degrees. Tom Colicchio, in "Think Like a Chef" (Clarkson Potter, $37.50), aptly conveys what to look for as "just an occasional bubble." Confit demands nearly constant monitoring during the first hour and occasional peeking throughout the cooking time. A metal pan works best since it retains the heat less efficiently than glass.
Timing The cure is somewhat flexible and can be varied from six to 24 hours, though 12 to 18 hours tends to work best. After the duck has been cured, it is important to brush the seasonings and salt from the duck and to rinse the duck legs under cool water. If you allow the duck to cure for too long or fail to rinse it thoroughly, the duck may taste wretchedly of salt and nothing else. Roast the duck too long, and the meat may just disappear.
Appearance The duck meat will inevitably shrink lengthwise, exposing the bone of the drumstick. This is normal. Focus on the flavor, not the looks.
Patience Monitor the fat to be sure that it doesn't boil or even simmer too urgently but leave the duck alone. You may begin to worry that it does not appear to be tender. Don't worry. The duck will eventually become tender, but it happens at the very end of the cooking time, after 3 or 4 hours. Trust me.
-- Renee Schettler
And Finally, a Word About Duck Fat
The nutritional profile of duck fat may not be that of olive oil, but duck fat has about 30 percent less saturated fat and some 50 percent less cholesterol than butter. Really.
Pristine and crystal clear, rendered duck fat imparts a flavor that is slightly sweet with an overwhelming richness. No matter how you prepare potatoes with duck fat, they will invariably be deemed The World's Best Potatoes (see recipe above). It's also great when used to baste chicken or sear sea scallops.
Some chefs and cookbook authors would have us believe that any hot-oil treatment will magically imbue cured duck with the correct confit flavor, be it duck fat, goose fat, lard or extra-virgin olive oil. Others insist that poaching the duck in a bath of fat is outdated, fussy and unnecessary; just wrap the duck in foil and roast it and, they claim, the fat beneath the skin will do the trick.
Don't believe them.
Only duck fat should be used for duck confit. Goose fat and lard overwhelm the duck. Olive oil gives the duck an Italian flair that is at odds with its French roots. And foil-roasted duck tastes like nothing more than foil-roasted duck.
Rendered duck fat is available locally at some specialty stores. It is also available by mail order. You will need 2 to 3 pounds of rendered fat for the recipe above.
D'Artagnan $5.50 per seven-ounce container or $3.85 per pound (available in 10-pound containers) plus shipping. Call 800-327-8246 or see www.dartagnan.com.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras $12.50 per two-pound container. Call 845-292-2500 or see www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com.
Joie de Vivre $7.50 per two-pound container plus shipping. Call 800-648-8854 or see www.frenchselections.com.
More Than Gourmet $16 per one-pound container plus shipping. Call 800-860-9385 or see www.morethangourmet.com.
Know that rendering duck fat is not for the faint-hearted, but if you are intent on making large quantities of confit you will find it more economical to buy raw duck fat and render it yourself. First, find a butcher who can get the fat for you.
Rendered Duck Fat
(Makes about 5 cups)
Duck fat's potent and pervasive aroma should not be underestimated. Plan to open the windows and live with it for a few days.
5 to 7 pounds raw duck fat (from 6 ducks), cut into pieces
2 tablespoons water
Rinse the duck fat thoroughly.
In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, bring the raw duck fat and water to a steady simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover partially and simmer gently until all of the fat is "rendered," that is, when the water has evaporated, the volume of liquid no longer increases and the solids of the fat have shriveled and darkened slightly. Depending on the size of the pot, this should take from 45 to 90 minutes.
Remove from the heat; set aside to cool slightly. Strain the duck fat twice, discarding the solids or reserving them for cracklings (julienne the solids and sear in a skillet over medium-high heat until crisp).
Transfer the fat to a resealable container and use it in a duck confit recipe or refrigerate it for several weeks or freeze it for several months.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 115 calories, 0 gm protein, 0 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 0 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
The Washington Post Wednesday, January 9, 2002