I have always loved duck. Peking duck has always been my favorite. The crispy skin folded into warm thin Chinese pancakes garnished with hoisin sauce and green onions has always been the top of my all time favorite meals. And of course, there was always the regular Pato Tim (duck stew) and roast duck that my Dad prepared regularly at home. But let’s not get away from the subject of duck confit.
I first encountered duck confit in Balthazar Cookbook, the famed New York brasserie of the same name; and if it is possible to fall in love and be obsessed about a dish just by a picture well, this is it. The skin on that duck looked so temptingly crisp and the meat so palpably succulent, I could imagine myself taking a bite through the skin, feeling the crunch until I taste the flavorful meat underneath. I read a lengthy description of the confit process from The Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers. The recipe called for cooking it slowly on the stovetop. Aside from not having enough duck fat to fully submerge the duck, I think I poorly regulated the heat and it might have been hotter than it seemed. After 2 weeks in storage I tried the confit and it turned out to be a stringy mess. Full of disappointment, I gave up for a year but now I’m trying it again and this time I will try and figure it out until I perfect it. Duck Confit is not a quick meal to make but is not an overly complex procedure. Of course I may recant this statement after this second attempt fails again but I’m optimistic that it will be better than the last one. So what have I changed? I did more reading and came across several more books that contained more information about this Southwest France delicacy. The first one is Bouchon by Thomas Keller. The second book is Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman. I will use Keller’s “green salt” salting guidelines. Both books suggested cooking the confit in the oven at a very low temperature which on average is 180°F to 190°F. It is cautioned not to exceed the 200°F temperature to avoid getting a tough duck confit.
Day 1: Salting the duck
I took out my 4 moulard duck legs, rinsed them under cold running water, patted it dry and proceeded to pull the visible fat from the flesh. I am experimenting with 22 grams of salt per 450 grams of meat (or approximately 1.5 tbs to a lb). The total weight of my 4 duck legs amounted to 1470 grams so I measured out around 71 gms of salt. I think the rest of the ingredients will be up to personal preference of flavor. The following are the rest of the ingredients I used.
71 grams of sea salt
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
1 Tbsp chopped thyme
2 TBS Italian parsley packed
½ tsp black peppercorns
I ran all ingredients through a food processor and rubbed it into the duck, taking care to make sure that every nook and cranny gets an even salting. I then covered the duck and placed it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Day 2: Cooking in Fat
For those of you have cholesterol issues or have an aversion to fat, it might be best to stop reading now. I took out my 3 lbs of duck fat and started melting them slowly in a saucepan. Meanwhile, I set the oven temperature to 180 °F. I took out my duck legs and rinsed them under cold running water and after patting it dry proceeded to fit them snugly in a heavy bottomed pot. When the duck fat was all liquidly I transferred the melted fat to the pot containing the duck legs. I proceeded to heat the fat further along and then I transferred the pot to the oven.
TIP: A 10 hour cooking period is a given. Since hubby would not let me leave the oven on unattended, what am I to do for 10 hours? Well, watch “24” or any heart- pounding series will make the time pass quickly… very quickly in fact.
I checked at the 6 hour mark and saw that the skin at the base of the leg has not separated from the bone yet but the juices seem to be collecting at the bottom of the pot. This is known as the “confit jelly”, a very tasty by-product of the confit-ing process. When you confit meat and bones, they release juices and flavor and collagen and what you have is a very concentrated , tasty gelatinized heaven that can be used in vinaigrette or served with the duck .
I checked again on the 9th hour. I think I’m going to end up with stringy duck legs again. My duck legs appear very slow to cook, I don’t see much of the exposed bone that all the books are saying nor does it appear that it is even close to falling off the bone. After 11 ½ hours in the oven I decided to call it a day. The duck does not look meltingly tender to me. I transferred the duck legs to a glass container and transferred enough fat to cover the duck entirely. I will try the confit in the next few days to see what this weekend endeavor has yielded.
Day 3: Cooking the confit
I took the confit container out of the refrigerator a few hours before I was to prepare the confit to let the fat soften so it will be easy to get the leg out without damaging the confit (although as tough as it looked it seemed nothing will break it apart). Preheating my oven to 400 °F, I proceeded to heat a nonstick pan on medium high heat. When the non-stick pan was hot enough I lay the duck leg skin side down and proceeded to brown it. After I was satisfied with the browning of the duck’s skin I transferred the duck to an ovenproof casserole, skin side up for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, I prepared the side dish which in French is called “Pommes ala sarladaise”. This is simply diced potatoes fried in duck fat and tossed with chopped parsley and garlic. I followed the recipe in The Balthazar cookbook although I used less fat than suggested. It’s a very easy side dish and very tasty, I could post the recipe of this later if anyone wants it.
Moment of truth; after plating the confit and potatoes, my husband and I could hardly contain our anticipation to taste this nicely browned duck leg. My fork pierced through crispy skin and surprisingly tender meat. As I tasted it though, the flavor was there but the juiciness I was expecting appears to be missing. I was not totally disappointed because this was a vast improvement from my previous endeavor. In fact it only makes me want to try it again.
And the saga continues…
I will not post any succeeding blow by blow account of any Duck Confit that has not yielded anything short of the promise land. I feel this will be tedious for the reader to follow all failed experiments but I will publish the winning confit process once I have attained it:
a. It appears that the temperature at which the duck cooked in its fat was very low. This might account for the lack of bone showing in the duck leg as it was finishing its cooking in the fat. The skin did ride up the bone when I was reheating the confit in the 400 °F oven. Temperature appears to be the main culprit for undesirable results in confit. Therefore, it is important to check the temperature with an oven thermometer at all times. I could have hit myself on the head on this one since all the books I’ve read said to do this but I showed too much faith in my oven.
b. I also failed to heat the fat sufficiently on the stove top before transferring to the oven. I think this is important to kick start the duck’s own fat melting process.
c. I don’t think my pot was the right one for the confit. I now have bought myself an enameled cast iron cocotte.
d. Dealing with duck fat could be very messy. I think I will lay out saran wrap on counter surfaces to avoid finding greasy spots days later after cooking the confit.
e. I will continue testing with just 2 duck legs instead of the regular 4 given in most recipes. I will be using less fat and it will take up less space in the refrigerator. (Although it can be countered that it takes up the same amount of energy since it will end up cooking as long)
f. Although I believe slow cooking is the way to go, I will attempt The Balthazar cookbook method. I am trying this recipe because I find I like the ingredients in this more. I am also currently reading The Cooking of SouthWest France by Paula Wolfert , she has a very interesting topic on confit.