Thirty pounds of duck legs, 25 lbs of duck fat, and countless hours spent cooking, it’s been quite a series of experiments. Though, I have probably tried making duck confit more than 6 times in the past 2 years I must say that it was my latest effort that has left me palpably giddy with gastronomical glee.
The first time I attempted this method of meat preservation was through a recipe from Judy Rodger’s Zuni Café Cookbook. That time I did not understand the importance of having enough fat to submerge the duck and I simmered it stove top. The resulting duck legs were barely edible.
Then I started this blog to further my uhm…obsession in this particular realm of duck preparation. That time my references were Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. The ensuing duck confit were delicious but not quite as tender as I wanted them to be and the required cooking time of 8 hours or more were simply not acceptable to my life style.
I finally decided to give the Balthazar’s cookbook recipe a try, after all it was the picture of their duck confit that caused me to swoon and be fixated about it in the first place. And I preferred the ingredients listed on their recipe – cloves, star anise and cinnamon.
Their set temperature of 225F for cooking the duck confit caused my duck fat to boil. The lovely gams almost fell apart and the skin got too thin and was difficult to crisp. That confit, though tasty, was on the greasy side.
Believe it or not, even if the legs are cooked in their own fat they should not be greasy.
Now for a little tweaking
So I do have a base recipe to work with. All that really mattered now was the cooking temperature, which upon further research, was definitely a key component of successful confit. I have found that Paula Wolfert’s treatise on the subject of preserving duck legs in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France” a priceless guide in my pursuit for the elusive flavor I have developed in my head. Though I have tasted Balthazar’s duck confit in New York last year –which was very good by the way – I wanted something more and what that was controlled what spices and herbs I used as I continued the next iteration of my trials.
For a time I would experiment with two duck legs, playing with the dials of my stove top and the knob of my oven – I was even convinced that my oven was flawed. Just to give you an idea of how this quest has totally consumed me, I have three oven thermometers sitting at different parts of the oven cavity – none of them agree with each other within a twenty-degree range – that drove me crazy. I finally started measuring the temperature of the fat itself with an infrared as well as an immersion thermometer.
Last year, I was pretty close to what I considered a success. But it turned out I was too timid with the salt so I put the rest in a cassoulet, which injected more flavor into the duck legs – and that was incredible!
I was all set to make my adjustments and make this again, but my macaron adventures sidetracked me.
Last October, I decided it was time. I needed to get back on track and give this culinary journey some closure.
Lessons learned so far:
Salting – I have played around with this quite a bit. Wolfert’s recipe is 2 teaspoons per pound, Balthazar’s 2 teaspoons per duck leg – so I kinda stayed in the middle. Last year, I was using Maldon salt that is flakier and that threw off my calculations. This year, I am sticking with Diamond Crystal, which was what Paula Wolfert used in her book.
Temperature – I will preheat the oven to 200F. I will slowly simmer the pot stovetop until the fat reaches a temperature of 190 F and then I will transfer to the oven.
Spices – I love star anise and want it to balance the clove and the garlic. Aside from being part of the salting mixture, I will put it in the simmering duck fat. Cinnamon does not come through from sticks alone; it is better to use the powder to evenly distribute the flavor.
Duck legs – I have used Moulard Duck legs exclusively in all my experiments. I find them to be meaty and flavorful and very suitable for the preservation process. For my duck fat I find the ones from Maple leaf farm very aromatic. They come in 3.5 lbs tub.
Below is the recipe for Duck Confit that I have tweaked over the years.
6 Moulard Duck legs (around 5 lbs.)
6 tablespoons of salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
4 sprigs of rosemary, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
4 heads of garlic
4 star anise, broke up into pieces
4-7 lbs. of duck fat
Rinse duck legs and pat dry. Combine salt and cinnamon and pepper and rub evenly on the duck legs, taking care to cover every crevice. Take the first two heads of garlic and crush with a mallet and sprinkle over the duck legs. Lay the rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and ¾ of the star anise pieces on the legs. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Put the duck fat into a pot and melt over warm flame. Take your legs out and run cold water over them to wash away the spices. Pat dry and lay them on the bottom of the pot –no more than two layers.
Carefully ladle the melted fat until the legs are completely covered. Cut the tops off the two remaining heads of garlic. Insert a clove and the remaining star –anise pieces into each garlic and add to the duck and fat.
Turn your stovetop on to low heat and slowly bring the duck fat to a temperature of 190 F. This process should take about an hour. Any quicker than that and you risk turning your duck legs stringy.
Pre-heat your oven to 200 F.
When the duck fat reaches a temperature of 190F, transfer the vessel, uncovered to the oven. Cook for 3 hours. The duck leg is done, when a knife easily pierces the leg, and the fat is clear. This means that the duck has rendered all its fat.
After cooking, it is important to let the confit cool down before storing. Carefully lift each leg and put them in a container. Spoon the fat over until the legs are completely covered.
Store for about two weeks before consuming, any sooner than that and the robust, husky flavor that is the trademark of a true confit will not be attained.
Crisping the confit
Two hours before preparing the confit, take your container out of the refrigerator to allow the fat to soften. Preheat oven to 400F. On a non-stick skillet over medium heat, carefully brown your duck legs – about 8 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish, skin side up and finish crisping in the oven.
Duck Confit is not hard to make but it does take time and patience. Do not be daunted by my list of ingredients, you can make confit just by using salt. Before I cook the confit, I usually snip a little piece and cook it to check my salting. If it is too salty, I rinse the duck a little more. The fat really needs to be gradually brought to 190F. In the oven, you must monitor the temperature of the fat, if it falls below 190 F, increase the oven temperature for a bit (maybe to 210F) and then drop it down once you’ve restored it to ideal temp. The time of 3 hours is approximate; I usually like to see some of the bone exposed at the base of the leg before I pull out my confit. I have also read that you can cook confit in a slow cooker but I have not tried this method.
I will not even pontificate about what the hallmarks of a great confit are. All my experiments do not make me an expert. But I must say, this last batch made me feel like I have won a lottery of sorts.
Starting with perfectly crisped skin yielding to tender succulent meat that pulls away effortlessly from the bone – not one flavor overpowers, all were one cohesive unit in its assault on my senses which were actively savoring the perfect balance of all the herbs and spices. I had to slow myself down, chewing with purpose and taking in each bite even as I watched my piece of duck leg disappear before my very eyes. Even with just the bone left, I held the carcass in my hand and continued to suck the flavor out of the bone until my brain told me to stop this madness and to accept that it was all gone.
I had an image in my head about how the skin rides so sexily up the duck leg. I couldn’t resist imagining it in heels. And Ximena of Lobstersquad, in her intuitive drawing style, was able to put my strange thoughts on paper.
A question came up between the “Hungry” Hubby and myself: Who were we going to invite for a duck confit dinner? We looked at each other and with a conniving smile on our lips, the answer was clear: No one. The duck confit was for us and us alone.