Duck confit came about centuries ago because of a practical need to preserve meat for long periods of time without refrigeration. While modern society has mostly lost the need to preserve meat for months, it has not lost its taste for duck confit; in fact, the dish has been elevated from practical peasant food to high-end, gourmet fare.
Cooking duck legs in fat makes the meat incredibly succulent but not oily. There is no chance it will dry out and become tough and you are pretty much guaranteed amazing flavor. It’s also really easy to do, especially if you have a slow cooker.
So then why not confit the entire bird, you ask? While the flavor and texture of the tough dark leg meat (and even the wings and gizzard) improves with long cooking time, duck breasts are much tastier after a shorter cooking time. The flavor of breast meat doesn’t improve and the texture can actually become stringy if you try to cook it “confit,” which is why chefs stick with searing, grilling and roasting the rest of the duck. But the legs, boy, are they good when cooked long and slow in a bath of their own fat.
The first step, curing the meat, (translated, confit means “to preserve”) is technically optional if you plan to eat all the meat immediately, although it does add flavor so you should do it anyway. Curing the meat is necessary if you plan to store the cooked duck for weeks or months. To cure the meat, each duck leg should be sprinkled with coarse salt (like kosher salt) and then refrigerated for 24 hours. Throw some garlic, herbs and spices in with the salt before you rub the bird down if you like. Thyme, pepper and garlic are the most traditional seasonings for duck confit, but you can add whatever you like.
After curing, brush each leg with a cloth to remove as much salt as possible and any other seasonings. Some recipes advise rinsing the leg in water to remove the salt, but then you’re adding moisture back to the meat, which defeats the whole purpose of curing.
Next, place the legs in a deep pot, rimmed baking dish or slow cooker. Now here’s the most important part: submerge the duck legs completely in fat. Ideally, the duck is cooked in duck fat but this can be expensive if you buy the fat already rendered and time-consuming if you render your own. Although a French chef would shudder at the thought, you can make delicious duck confit by submerging the duck legs in a combination of duck fat and olive oil or lard.
Cooking the duck in the oil requires low heat and time. In an oven, exactly how much time and at what temp is up for debate. Some swear by a very low temperature (about 180 degrees F) for a very long time (10-12 hours) but most recipes up the temp and cook the duck for only 2-3 hours. The easiest and most fool proof method (but least traditional) is cooking the meat submerged in oil for 3-4 hours on high in a slow cooker. Either in the oven or a slow cooker, the oil should simmer and bubble gently, not rapidly. Whatever your cooking method, the goal is to have meat that falls easily off the bone. In fact, one sign that the duck is done is that the meat has pulled away on its own and revealed the leg bone.
Once the meat and oil cool after cooking, store the meat completely submerged under the fat in the fridge (or in a dark, cool cellar if you have one). The meat will keep for months and can be pulled out to make an amazing last-minute dinner, an appetizer for unexpected guests or a tasty snack. You can carve the meat right off the bone and eat it plain or throw it into a salad. You can sear the meat first to crisp up the skin or warm it up with a quick sauté and serve it with vegetables. Really, the only thing difficult about duck confit is that if you know it’s in the fridge, you’re going to want to eat it right away instead of saving it. And that’s fine, too. Either preserved or eaten immediately, duck confit is delicious.
This recipe can easily be increased – you just need to have 1/2 tablespoon of salt per leg and enough fat to completely cover the meat.
Spread the salt evenly onto all sides of the legs. Cover and place in the refrigerator to cure at least 12 hours but ideally 24.
Brush the legs with a cloth to remove as much salt as possible. Place in a deep dish or slow cooker and completely cover with melted fat. Cook at a simmer in the oven or in a slow-cooker until the meat is tender and pulls away, exposing bone.
Oven: 225 degrees F for 2-3 hours.
Slow-cooker: High for 4 hours, unless the oil starts to bubble rapidly, then turn heat down to low.
After being cooked, the meat can be served immediately or stored in the fat, refrigerated, for weeks or months.
The oil can be re-used for cooking or for making salad dressing.