Confit de canard is one of the great classics of French cooking, yet it stems from a very pragmatic centuries-old method of preserving food. While the technique originated in Gascony, it was quickly adopted by the rest of France. The technique was born of necessity, but has changed little over time, and the textures and flavours it produces has Francophiles the world over rapt in its sublimely salty, meltingly tender qualities.
Duck legs, which are almost always sold as the drumstick with the thigh attached, are cured for up to a day and a half in a mixture of salt and garlic (we also include golden shallots and thyme for extra flavour). This draws moisture from the duck and adds flavour. An approximate ratio is 50gm salt to 1kg duck legs. The salt is then brushed from the meat, which is patted dry and placed in a deep roasting pan just large enough to fit the legs snugly.
The next step requires quite a lot of duck or goose fat – enough to completely submerge the duck legs. In a classic household or working kitchen situation, this fat would have been accumulated over time by rendering it down from whole birds. To render fat yourself, heat pieces of duck fat in a saucepan with two to three tablespoons of water until the fat melts and becomes clear. If you’re buying the legs on their own, though, you’ll also need to buy canned fat. Duck and goose fat are typically imported from France (though some shops sell locally made fat) and are available from good delicatessens. Even if you do use a whole duck, Australian birds are less fatty than the French, so it’s likely you’ll need to supplement the rendered fat with canned product.
Long, slow cooking is essential to produce the tender meat you’re after. Some cooks like to do it on the stovetop, but it can be difficult to maintain the steady low temperature required. A more reliable method is to cook it at the lowest temperature your oven will go, ideally 90-100C. When the meat draws back from the bone, the duck is ready. Remove the duck legs from the fat with a slotted spoon and place them in an earthenware or cast-iron casserole. Sprinkling a little salt inside first will prevent the meat juices from becoming sour when they settle to the bottom. Ladle the clear fat over the duck legs, ensuring they’re are completely submerged by at least 2cm – it’s the fat that acts as the barrier against air and spoilage – then refrigerate for up to a month.
When you want to use the duck, warm the casserole gently until the fat softens enough to remove the pieces you need, then crisp them in a heavy-based frying pan over high heat until golden and warmed through.
Traditionally the fat left over from one confit is used to make the next, adding depth of flavour, but it has other, far tastier uses too. You can use a little duck fat to brown a joint of meat before roasting or braising, imparting extra flavour. Or toss robust root vegetables in some duck fat heated in a roasting pan for the best roast veg you can imagine – think Jerusalem artichokes or thick wedges of pumpkin.
A traditional accompaniment to confit de canard is pommes de terre à la Sarladaise – sliced potatoes crisped in hot duck fat until golden brown. Potatoes cooked in this manner are seriously good eating, whatever you choose to serve them with.
For a lighter take on duck confit, toss it warm through a salad, as we have here. Crisp bitter greens and a mustard-spiked vinaigrette cut through the rich fattiness of the duck, while earthy baby beetroot and fresh young green beans mean you can kid yourself into thinking it’s even good for you.
And there’s the rub with confit – it’s rich and it wouldn’t get a tick from the Heart Foundation, but we love it just the same. A little goes a long way and life has to be about moderation – so channel a little French joie de vivre, pour yourself a glass of good (anti-oxidant-packed) red and tuck in.