Although I am not one to choose favorites, if I had to choose a perfect meat it would be duck. It’s the perfect combination of red meat and poultry, incredibly savory but tender at the same time. Of course, not all duck is created equal. Duck breast, magret in French, is much preferred to the leg. So much so that it is twice as expensive per kilo in my local supermarket. The leg has a tendency to go tough and chewy, and is a little more particular than the breast.
But, luckily for the spending conscious, there is a way to elevate the humble duck leg, making it a meal to remember. Confit. It’s an old process, originating in the southwest of France and traditionally done with goose, to preserve the meat without need of refrigeration. The idea is to rub the duck (or goose or whatever you fancy) with salt and herbs, let it sit for a few days which both draws the water from the meat and allows the herbs infuse. You then cook it very slowly in its own fat, effectively replacing the water in the meat with the fat, preserving. When done traditionally, the duck can keep for months like this.
It’s so common here in France, that I actually hadn’t even considered making it at home until I saw a post on alexandra’s kitchen. She presented a quick way to get the tender, fat cooked goodness without the hassle of a multi-day process. Instead of giving it the salt rub treatment, she just coats the legs with generous amounts of kosher salt. In the place of duck fat (which can be crazy expensive outside France), she just used butter. Simple, accessible butter, which after the confit has cooked magically turns into your own personal supply of duck fat that you can keep in the fridge pretty much indefinitely. I was intrigued and tried it as soon as I could get my paws on some duck legs. The results were amazing. It is hands down one of the easiest “fancy” meals I’ve ever cooked.
Still, something nagged at me. I’m by no means averse to short cuts in the kitchen, but I also want to know how to do things the right way. More importantly, I wanted to know if it made any flavor difference in the final product. So a taste test began. One leg would be given the VIP treatment, rubbed with herbs and salt, and left to do its thing for a day or two. The other would be playing fast and loose, like Alexandra’s recipe, with just some salt thrown on before cooking. They’d both be cooked the same way, submerged in duck fat with garlic and thyme in a low oven, tightly covered with tinfoil, for a few hours, then crisped up in a skillet before serving. The garlic was added to give a little more flavor to the duck, with the added bonus that it emerges from the oven absolutely delicious, very similar to roast garlic.
The verdict? In spite of all the TLC the first leg received, we really couldn’t tell the difference between the two. They both tasted like delicious confit de canard. If the salt rub step does infuse any flavor, the difference is pretty negligible, so I would only recommend doing it if you actually want to preserve the duck legs for a few months. Other than that you can just go the quick route, which involves about 15 minutes of hands-on time, and produces one of the most succulent, savory, fancy dinners you’ll ever make.
This is going to sound very obvious, but I feel the need to warn you anyway: duck cooked in a vat of duck fat (or butter) is going to be very rich. Because we were in the mood to indulge, I served it with roast potatoes (cooked in the duck fat!) and brussel sprouts in a balsamic reduction, but a simple salad would certainly suffice.
Confit de Canard, Two Ways
Notes: as I said above, unless you’re actually planning on preserving the duck for several months, the extra steps involved with the traditional recipe are not necessary. I’m still including the recipe here because knowledge is power. Also, don’t be put off by the amount of fat used in the recipe, as Alexandra notes in her recipe only about 1 tablespoon per leg is actually absorbed.
2 duck legs
225g (1/2 lb) unsalted butter (or duck fat, if available)
1.5 tbsp kosher salt (traditional) OR 1/2 tbsp kosher salt (cheaters)
1/2 tbsp black pepper (traditional)
3/4 tsp thyme, divided (traditional) OR 1/4 tsp thyme (cheaters, optional)
1/2 onion, sliced (optional)
6 garlic cloves (optional)
Traditional: Mix 1.5 tbsp kosher salt, 1/2 tbsp black pepper, and 1/2 tsp dried thyme in a small dish. Rub the mixture evenly over both duck legs, place them in a pan and refrigerate, covered, for 1-3 days, pouring out the collected liquid as necessary. Rinse the legs thoroughly under cool water and continue with the recipe below.
Cheaters: Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). In a large pot, melt the butter or duck fat. When melted add the sliced onion, garlic cloves (still in their skins), and 1/4 teaspoon thyme, if using. Place the duck legs in a pan small enough to hold them snugly. Spread 1/2 tbsp salt over the legs (if using cheaters’ recipe), then pour the melted butter and accoutrements over the legs. Cover the pan very tightly with tin foil. I mean really tightly, ok?
Bake for 2.5 hours for both recipes. Remove from oven, let cool for a few minutes, and then remove the foil to let it cool completely. Once cool enough to touch, remove the duck legs from the fat. Strain the fat through a fine mesh sieve to remove the solids. Make sure to hang on to the garlic cloves, they’re great on toast.
If you’ll be using the duck legs in the next few hours, you can just keep them on a plate on the counter. If using in the next few days, put them in a storage container in the fridge, making sure to give them about an hour to come back to room temperature before cooking. In either of these situations, place the duck fat in a clean, labelled container and store it in the fridge. Use it the next time you make confit, and also for cooking like with roast or mashed potatoes.
If planning to store the duck for a few months (having done the recipe the traditional way), place the duck in a storage container and cover with the fat. Make sure all pieces are well covered, and it will keep for at least a month at room temperature. It’s like old fashioned magic.
To serve, if you’ve stored the duck in the fridge, preheat the oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Heat a skillet over medium heat. Once it’s nice and hot, place your duck skin side down and let it crisp up for a few minutes. Reposition the legs as necessary to ensure even crisping, for a total of 5-8 minutes. Crispy duck skin is what dreams are made of. If you refrigerated, place the duck in the oven for a further 8-10 minutes to heat through. If the duck has been at room temperature the whole time, just flip the legs and heat for 1 minute (no more!) to heat through.