There are a several cooking techniques that really seem like magic to me. The moment when egg whites and sugar become meringue. Broth and rice transforming into a risotto. Butter and flour marrying into a roux. Those are times when cooking feels like an art. Equally impressive, but requiring more patience, is the transcendence that comes with various slow-cooking techniques. Barbecue, beef bourguignon, pot roast, braised turkey. What requires even more time, yet promises great rewards, is the process of curing. A humble hog leg becomes prosciutto. A goose breast becomes spickgans. Mullet roe becomes bottarga.
What’s most impressive about all of the items mentioned above is how they almost always take humble ingredients and turn them into something amazing. So many ‘peasant’ dishes have become popular in recent years because they are so good at this transformation process. Among these is a technique I have recently begun experimenting with: the confit.
First off, let me say that there is absolutely no way to say ‘confit’ and not sound like an asshole or at the very least, less-than-manly. If you are like me and you have not evolved enough to ignore these kinds of things, you might want to leave the name out completely when you tell your redneck hunting buddies about this dish. Or maybe try an alternate name (seriously, if you have any ideas on that front, let me know).
I had eaten duck confit in a few restaurants over the years but never really understood how it was cooked. Always looking for an opportunity to elevate some of the wild game I am blessed with, I purchased the book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. Confit sounds a bit intimidating at first glance, but once you go through the process you realize it is a pretty simple dish. You can confit many different things, even vegetables, but it seems to work best for various kinds of fowl. Since I just happened to have a freezer full of wild turkey, duck and goose, this seemed like a great opportunity.
The basic technique of confit is to gently cook meat over a long period of time in some kind of fat, thus adding flavor and making the meat more tender. A confit has the added bonus of allowing you to preserve meat in the re-solidified fat for 1-2 months in the fridge. For this recipe I used the legs from a Canada Goose and an Eastern Wild Turkey. For the fat I would have loved to buy a big tub of goose fat but in the interest of time I used pork lard instead. The beauty of the confit is that nearly any fat can be used, including olive oil. I should also mention here that this is not exactly health food. As long as you aren’t planning on eating confit three nights per week, plan for an extra jog around the block and for god’s sake, LIVE IT UP.
For your confit, select the meat that you want to use and find an oven-safe container that will accommodate the meat and allow it to be completely submerged. A dutch oven works great if you have one. A deep casserole dish can work or you can even use a mason jar. Next, you will need to create a basic cure. While this process is recommended to aid in preservation, I am not convinced that it actually adds much flavor to the meat. For my cure I used 1 cup kosher salt, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon black pepper and 1 teaspoon of allspice. You can modify your cure to suit your own tastes so long as you use an adequate amount of salt. Generously cover the meat on all sides with the cure and then put this in the fridge in a covered container. Allow it to rest for at least 8 hours and no more than 48 hours. When you take it out you will see that a fair amount of liquid has been drawn out of the meat by the salt.
Wash the cure off of the meat with cold water and then pat the meat dry with paper towels. Put the meat in the container you are going to cook it in. Pictured below are the legs I was cooking, nestled into a ceramic crock.
Next you will need to prepare your fat of choice. If you are using duck or goose fat or lard put it on the stove in a stockpot on a low temperature. This will take a little while to completely liquefy but it is important to keep the temp low or you will begin to fry the meat when you put them together. Once the fat is completely liquefied, slowly pour the fat into the cooking container.
Cover the container and place in a 275 degree oven…and wait. Six hours should be enough for most meats. You can take a peak occasionally if you want. The fat should be a bit cloudy and gently bubbling. At the six hour mark, remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit. The meat will have firmed up quite a bit, but at the same time it should easily pull off the bone. You can see below what I ended up with.
Your next decision is what to do with the meat. I couldn’t resist tackling the goose legs right then so they didn’t last long. For the turkey, I allowed it to cool until it was safe to handle and then I stripped it from the bones. I ended up with enough to fill a large mason jar. I strained the fat through some cheesecloth and poured it into the jar, completely covering the meat.
Put this in the fridge and allow the fat to re-solidify and this should keep for at least a month. My wife and kids are thoroughly disgusted by this sight but I know the fat is still working its magic on the meat, adding additional flavor as it ages.
When you are ready to enjoy the product of your labors, the fat can be allowed to re-liquefy at room temperature or you can put it in a pan of warm water to speed the process. Remove the quantity of meat that you want to prepare and enough of the fat to give the meat a quick saute. Do this until it is slightly crispy and enjoy.
For the turkey meat I prepared I’m saving it until Labor Day when this will be taken to the farm for the opening weekend of dove season to enjoy as carnitas with a bit of avocado, peppers and onions. I urge the cooks out there to try this. Experiment with the meats you use, the fats and the cooking times. You’ll be happy you gave it a go.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.