I started cooking Christmas dinner today. I should have started sooner, but even so it will be plenty tasty come December 25th.
Yes, you read that correctly and yes, I realize that it is only December 2nd. I’m starting this early because I’m making duck leg confit.
According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, humans have been preventing meat from spoiling using various preservation methods for at least 4,000 years. Before the invention of canning and refrigeration, these methods consisted of “physical and chemical treatments that make meat inhospitable to microbes.” Drying (bacteria can’t survive where there isn’t enough moisture) and salting (actually dehydrates the microbes themselves, effectively killing them) are two common low-tech methods that we still use today for foods like jerky and bacon, respectively.
Confit is another old technique that, after salt and heat kill existing microbes, relies on an airtight seal of fat to keep new microbes from getting to the meat. Mmm, delicious fat.
(I should note that McGee adds, “Though the cooking presumably kills all bacteria and inactivates all enzymes in the meat, there will certainly be biochemical changes to the meat over time, and the fat will oxidize. A slight rancidity is part of the flavor of a traditional confit.” Mmm, delicious rancidity.)
To make traditional duck confit, cure the duck legs overnight by coating them in a mix of salt and spices. The next day, submerge them in fat (duck fat is traditionally used, but olive oil works just as well and is less expensive) and cook them at a very low temperature for a very long time (seriously–mine went into the oven three hours ago and still have at least three more hours to go). Once the cooking is done, store in the fridge for up to a month OR for up to six months if you add another layer of salt to the meat (the longer you let it rest, the better it will taste, which is why I started today on something I’m serving three weeks from now). When you’re ready to eat your confit, heat the legs in the oven until the skin is crispy and serve over salad or legumes.
I hope that sounds pretty straightforward and simple, because it is. It’s a long process but requires very little actual labor on the part of the cook, with incredible results. Thanks, salt and fat!
If you want to try making duck confit yourself, I recommend this recipe from Michael Ruhlman. Feel free to play with the spices in the cure; I added crushed coriander seeds and juniper berries to mine. As with any preserved meat, do be careful to follow directions so that you actually preserve it rather than starting a botulism farm.
Click the photo below to see more pictures from this morning and from when I made duck confit back in July!
An “amuse-bouche” (which literally translates to “mouth-amuser”) is a complimentary morsel to start the meal, a tasty little gift from the chef. We hope you enjoy these edible tidbits.