A perfect 2-for-1 adventure, why pay the extra money for buying breasts and thigh/leg meat separately for different days when you can just get the whole poultry and do both? Costs less AND you now get the wings, neck, giblets, and the whole carcass (bones and all) for your own stock.
I LOVE Duck. Besides the fact that it’s, well, delicious, the big bird is FULL of fat-thick skin (I mean just look at the huge overhang flap from the neck) for amazing rendering. That, and this dish actual holds a bit of nostalgic importance to me. When I was in culinary school, Pan-Seared Duck Breast was the first recipe and technique I was able to really nail; it was the first technique I was able to take pride in. But enough about mislaid attempts at justifying myself, let’s talk about the actual food!
What’s become viewed as a specialty of Southwestern France, the art of Confit started, as many recipes featured in my giant Garde Manger cookbook have, as a way to preserve food. Yes, despite what the history books may say, people didn’t always have electricity and refridgeration, nor any access to gathering ice, difficult or non (or maybe I just had really shitty history books in my school…). Many a meat from days hunting needed to be able to last a long time, both to stretch out meals and simply on those times they couldn’t eat it all in a few days time.
So methods were developed to “cure” these proteins for the long months ahead. Smoking over fires, drying in the air, storing it in the ground with loads of salt (very popular with fishies), and the method we’ve come to know a “Confit,” the past tense form of “confire,” to preserve. After rendering off gobs of fat from the animal in question, usually very thickly-skinned birds like goose, a large cooking pot (traditionally copper) would be filled with cuts of partially salt-cured meat and the detached lipids (…. fat). This would be heated to cook the meat through, then transferred to a clay crock, covering the meat in an even, thick layer of the skimmed and clean oils. Stored, this coating of solid fat would keep out anything, both good and bad, that tried to get in; providing a rusticly air-tight seal on the now stable cooked and cured meat, protecting it through long winters and up to the spring, when hunting was easier and farmed animals were mature enough.
There was another benefit to this, of course; the meat tasted amazing. It is said a “Gascon will fall to his knees for a good confit,” it being a favorite technique of the region and showing just how tasty this tender, succulently prepared preservation can be. And its melding from a technique to survive towards finer French cuisine was assured.
Up and throughout this point, it was tradition that the entire animal would be used; with Duck being considered purely for confit in the south, its parts were all indefinitely stuck in the delicious but thick swamp that was its fat. It was only until a couple centuries ago, when restrauters served portions of the “magret,” or Breast, of the duck in the traditional country style: grilled, skin side first. The fat melts, the skin crisps up, its thinning layers insulating the delicate yet flavorful red chest meat from quickly overcooking, rendering a final product that’s tender, juicy, and full of all the flavors that have encapsulated the heart of every duck lover.
Duck: There’s not much I can say for quality duck. It’s not that easy to find it fresh; I WAS able to figure out a place that I could get a whole duck fresh. Sadly, it was really out of my way, cost an extra $2 per pound, could only get it on a certain day… it was just easier to get a frozen one. It’s relatively available in a lot of markets, I’ve even gotten whole ducks from Cub (better ones from smaller meat markets or co-ops though). And after all that confit-ing (is that a word?), especially if you’re using most of it for dishes like, oh I don’t know, cassoulet, then I think it’s acceptable to take a SLIGHT loss in quality just this once.
As far as substitutes go, there really isn’t many worth it. Chicken tastes absolutely nothing like duck, game birds are usually tiny and, again, barely resemble it. The few things that do, namely Goose and some Pheasants, actually cost MORE. So just get duck, unless you wanted a higher quality/local bird version.
Skin: The two main factors in the final product of our magret lies in how cooked the meat is and, more importantly, how crispy we can get the skin. I.e., how much fat we can cook out of it. If left to “traditional” or “proper” senses, this basically means taking ALL the fat out, which I will be doing for this particular circumstance.
Which I just think is so bull. Every single damn time I see a cooking competition where a judge complains that there’s still fat on their duck… that’s the point! Come on! It’s delicious and amazing! Of course you don’t want this thick, barely cooked layer, but get rid of like half of it, have that full brown crust over the surface and a soft ¼” of fat underneath , and that’s just a slice of heaven isn’t it? Eat it and tell me I’m wrong.
Rant aside, no matter how much fat we need to cook down, we need to be able to control it. And besides heat application, that means one thing: Scoring. Carefully pricking or slicing through the fatty skin in evenly distributed lines, opening the insides up to better release the fat. How deep or thin it’s cut will determine how much comes out during cooking, simple as that.
Pan-Cooking: When I originally learned this technique, I was given the opinion that it was the only way to do it right. Get a pan searing hot, pop the duck (skin side down) for a bare minute or two and turn it down to medium-ish for a LONG time, like 15 minutes, before finally flipping onto the other side for one last minute.
Apparently that’s not the only way anymore. There are some that apply the exact opposite idea, starting in a low (if not cold) pan and gradually increasing the heat. Some have it on the flesh side for half the time and quick-melt the fat later. However the actual method one chooses works, so long as you’re able to find one that works and is comfortable for you, then do it.
But try mine first.
Doneness: There’s a bit of a debate as to what a properly cooked duck breast should look like in the center. I’m firmly footed in the camp that it should have a nice, even pink, sort of like a medium-rare steak, while there are many others who like it completely “grey” (often it’s still able to retain moistness and has flavor, unlike a fully cooked steak, but still grey). And then there are betweens.
I can’t say what specific stage is “proper” and “best,” because I don’t know. What I CAN tell you is what you DON’T want. First, there should NEVER be any still raw meat, even a small spot; it can still be pink but actually “firm” and cooked (don’t worry, you’ll know when it’s under). On the opposite end, it should never be full-blast, dark grey, DRY, noticeably overcooked. The whole technique of cooking it on its (very thick) skin side for most of the process and VERY briefly flipping over to the flesh is meant to keep either of these from happening. Giving enough heat to the delicate underside to push it through without having been blasted over the border throughout the hot process.
Resting: Those familiar with meat cookery know that the meat should rest soon after leaving the heat before it’s sliced, otherwise the delicious juices inside “burst” and flood everywhere before gathering back in the center. I will say, though, that doesn’t mean keep it on the counter for 6-10 minutes, because even with the best intentions it’ll get cold on the plate, and likely you’ll STILL have some blood leaking out onto the board. What I’m clumsily trying to say is that finding the “perfect resting spot” for these duck breasts is difficult as hell if nigh on impossible; to keep warm, you’ll have to let go of some of the juices. But luckily it won’t affect the final plated meal at all; look how much I lost and mine was still succulent.
Fat: Duck fat is obviously the traditional lipid of choice, and you can get it too! I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to find in stores, but with how much skin and fat is on a whole duck, rendering your own is a simple task. Just cut off as much of the skin from the bones, wings, and excess breast and leg fat that you don’t need, and as described in my post on Coq au Vin, start rendering. A little bit of water in a pan, on medium-low, adding more until enough fat has melted out to cook the skin the rest of the way.
It’s okay if the pan is crowded; these guys will shrink down a LOT as time goes by. Which WILL take a while though, especially compared to how fast the chunks of salt pork rendered out. And when done, you’ll have yourself most of a cup of your own amazingly delicious fat and a couple handfuls of the best duck cracklings in the world.
Sadly, there’s a good chance this won’t actually be enough for the confit, unless you were cooking JUST the legs in a pretty small/tight pan. If you need more, I suggest first looking for other rendered fats; I made sure to keep my leftover chicken skin and salt pork stuff from previous projects, along with a nice bunch of bacon fat that had yet to find a purpose.
And in the case of no other rendered fats or still needing more, it’s okay to use commercial oils; Olive Oil is the best suited (I’ve found some pretty awesome recipes that use it), and Vegetable Oil will work too. I suggest adding your other fats first, waiting for them to melt in the oven, and topping the rest off with the other oil to ensure you only use JUST as much that’s needed. It can feel wasteful (I had to use quite a bit), but think of it this way; when you’re done with all your duck, you now have a whole bunch of your own ducky, aromatically, salty fat goodness that you can use in place of veggie oil or butter in any recipe. Just make sure to strain it first.
Oh, speaking of which, NO BUTTER. Good chances of burning, plus there’s the whole separating milk solids. Maybe if you clarified it first it’s okay, but at that point I’d prefer it for poaching fish and seafood over confit.
Confit: Though the general procedure for confit is basically the same no matter where you go (lightly salt/cure duck, cover in fat, cook for long period of time, store), cooking temperatures seem to abound. I’ve seen ones that cook a 300F+ for 90 minutes, 200F or so for 3+ hours, and 180F cooking that lasts a whole day. Classic French recipes say to “simmer” while some procedures leave the fat perfectly still, and others blitz it at the end to actually try and crisp/brown the skin in the fat. It makes it hard to tell which you should actually use, so ultimately I say it’s up to your opinion and what sort of constraints you have.
All I advise is that, at whatever temp, the duck cook until it is tender and soft through and through; a paring knife should slide in easily. I myself stuck to 200F for 4 hours or so, took one leg out early to eat with the meal and left the rest in there for another 5+ hours just for the heck of it.
Sides and Sauce: Doing a bit of research online and in my big Larousse Gastronomique book (after I made the whole dish, of course, gah), I’ve found there to be quite a few different sauces and sides that can be traditionally served with either of these duck preparations. There are not too many things in common here and there, other than a couple factors IF you want to consider them (I was mainly focused on cooking the proteins, as neither entry in the 44 placed importance on what they were served with).
Potatoes seem very popular as a side, usually in a whole or chopped/sautéed fashion; I myself chose to go the opposite route and mash mine, take advantage of using those ever so soft cloves of fat-roasted garlic and onions. The sauces themselves are all pretty French, and sometimes use Capers; I just kept to a very simple and traditional French Pan Sauce using a demiglace from homemade Duck Stock.
Magret de Canard avec Confit de Canard
1 pair Duck Breasts
Salt and Pepper
Duck Leg and/or Thigh Confit (recipe follows)
- Heat a large, thick bottomed sauté or cast-iron pan to Medium-Hi, practically smoking.
- Carefully score the skin of your duck breasts however desired, making sure not to injure the flesh.
- Lay skin-side down in pan, letting sear hard on the high heat for 1-2 minutes, and season the flesh side liberally with salt and pepper.
- Turn heat down to Medium-Low, allowing the duck breast to gently heat and render the fat for 10-18 minutes depending. Note: if using an electric stove, may need to turn heat down immediately.
- Lay your desired cut of Confit, skin down, into the hot fat about halfway through cooking, letting it caramelize as it heats up.
- When skin is properly rendered and crisped to your desired, quick flip over and cook on the flesh for 1 minute.
- Move onto the cutting board to rest, pouring the fat from the pan to make your Pan Sauce (recipe follows) as it does so.
- Slice Magret on a bias and serve with whole or shredded Confit, a potato-based side, and French sauce.
Confit de Canard
Duck Legs, Thighs, and other Miscellaneous Parts
4-5 Tb Salt
½ Head Garlic Cloves
½ Head Red Onion, Chopped
2 Bay Leaves
1 Tb Peppercorns
3-5 Sprigs Thyme, dry or fresh (preferred)
Rendered Duck Fat
Other Rendered Fats and/or Oils (Optional or if needed)
- Prick the fatty skin of whichever Duck pieces one is using, particularly the thicker fat layers, to better melt out while cooking.
- Combine with Aromatics in pan, rubbing them down with your salt (may need to add more; looking for the area between “heavy seasoning” and “thick cure”).
- Cover, leave rest in the fridge, at least overnight and preferably over 24 hours.
- Remove Thyme Sprigs and Bay leaf, lightly rinsing the meat if it seems needed, making sure to drain off any fluids/juices in the pan.
- Top with Rendered Duck and/or other Animal Fats and move to oven, turning it onto 200F.
- Once melted, top off with additional cookable lipids if needed to fully cover the meat.
- Cook Minimum 3 hours (after heated) until tender, when a small knife is able to insert and pull out cleanly and with ease, skimming the “skin” stuff on the top if desired (it is nummy).
- If one desires to brown the skin while cooking, turn oven to 375-425F after it’s turned tender, leaving to “simmer” under the heat about 20-40 minutes (again, depending).
- Remove, let cool on counter, cover, and store in fridge until needed. Ideally it should sit as long as possible, months even, to develop flavor.
- Add to recipes or enjoy as is by heating up in oven or sauté pan.
1 ½ – 2 cups homemade, thick Duck Stock
¼ cup Wine
Thinly sliced preferred veggies (optional)
2 Tb Seasoned Garlic Compound Butter, chilled
- Reduce stock to ¼-½ cup thick, gelatin-like Demi.
- Turn recently empty, still hot cooking pan to Med/Med-Hi heat, pouring in wine to deglaze the crispy Fond on the bottom.
- When reduced by half, add in your prepared Demi and any Veggies, Capers, or other garnishes one desires.
- Once bubbling, remove from heat and toss in your Compound Butter (butter mixed with salt, pepper, and the confit-cooked garlic), quickly stirring to emulsify as it melts.
- Pour over Duck or other desired cooked protein.
Now this is why I love duck; that juicy, sorta-red meat but also a bit porky-game bird-y flavor, with that tender chew that you just love biting through over and over. Though the color was a bit darker than I usually try to make it (you should see it when it’s perfectly pink in every single slice), it still tastes damn good, thus proving the incongruity of the “right level.”
I still think that, at the end of the day, I much prefer my skin to have a good, even, noticeable layer of that awesome fat on top. It’s already hard enough getting it “properly” crispy after practically rendering ALL the fat off, so why bother? Save some on the meat for your own guilty pleasure; plus it helps control the temp even further.
And the Confit was delicate, tender and tasty; I can’t wait to see how it tastes after sitting in the fridge for over a week. I’d be curious to try out some other cooking temps for it, like heating it up at the end; “luckily” for me it seems there might be more than one other 44 dish besides cassoulet that requires the fat-cured protein. Might just have to revisit it then.
Oh, yeah, and that confit garlic and onion make some pretty damn good mashed potatoes. All it needed was some of those small, crunchy cracklings I made on top… if only they were able to last an hour after making them…
Primary Pairing – Junmai/Honjozo Sake
Another instance where, while thinking and searching for the most desired wine to go with this week’s adventure, my mind decided to sidetrack itself towards something different. I think what probably struck the embers on it this time, besides Surdyk’s pretty damn good selection of sake, was a craving for that perfect mouthfeel to go along with that oh-so-important chew factor of cooked duck. Not to mention it does draw me back to Peking Duck….
And I do love pairing sake with non-asian recipes, really show its versatility in mirroring similarly desired factors in wine. It’s a great substitute for the naturally earthy flavors of a French red; and much like I wouldn’t look for a big, deeply tannic red wine here, I also want the particular musky characters of sake reduced, but still present as a major character. So Junmai-level seimaibuai (how much the rice is milled down) gives that perfect median amount, often carrying with it a rich enough body and more rice character to emphasize the similar weight in the food. It’s not too difficult to find one with enough acid to match the fatty richness.
Where junmai is a little stronger, but muted/even tone in flavor and aroma, great for underlying and supporting the flavors of the dish, the Honjozo (made by adding alcohol in after fermenting to change aromas) provides a wild aromatic aspect of those mushroomy, barky, only slightly floral/fruity notes to celebrate with this duck. So whether you’re looking to celebrate the Duck or the Sake as the main aspect, the choice is yours (Junmai is a great style for those not yet into sake, for this or other instances).
Oh, by the way, no serving it hot. Step away from the microwave!
So happy I ended up picking this bottle, it ended up as practically THE perfect sake to have with the meal; always remember how risky choosing sake can be if you know nothing about the specific bottle or brewer.
Good, solid undertones of the forest with such a refreshing body and creaminess, refreshing my palette while standing up to the softer weight of the meats. Light herby characteristics tie in to the French aspect of the meal, with just enough tannin from the rice to take care of the protein. Though that’s just the beginning; I found a few fun little surprises in store.
Duck always works well with fruit, particularly stone and other tree fruits like peaches and apples; with a little punch of something reminiscent of apricots and Japanese plums, this little pleasure is still enjoyed. I actually forgot about the sweetness factor when choosing; the sake is a bit off-dry, if not sweeter, which worried me in offering it in terms of balancing the food. Luckily, this actually turned out to my benefit, as my highly reduced Demi Pan Sauce provided a noted salty character, begging to be cut by a bit of sweetness (this aspect would be even more perfect if I had the duck cracklings on top). Finally, the starchy rice flavor sprinkled throughout ate perfectly with the mashed potatoes.
So if you want a sake to pair with this or similar food and aren’t sure what to get, this is a good bottle to zero in on.
Secondary Pairing – St. Emilion and Satellites
I think this is the third dish in a row where the wine pairing suggestion was Cab Sauv or Cab Sauv dominated by Buzzfeed… at least this item’s suggestion was partially right, but at the same time oh so wrong.
There are two things wrong with listing “Red Bordeaux” as a pairing. First off, unlike Burgundy where the whole region’s red is characteristically made with one grape, Bordeaux is a region of blends. Not only that, but the actual style of that blend and the final balance varies hugely and very distinctly from one section to the next. Most people aware of Bordeaux know the concept that “Left Bank” wines are very big, rich, Cab dominated with some smooth Merlot, while the “Right Bank” are much gentler, softer Merlot based blends with little or no Cab Sauv (they use the highly floral and aromatic Cab Franc instead).
Which brings me to my Second point; where it can be clearly seen even from this description that a Right Bank wine WOULD work well, thus lending credibility to the idea of “red Bordeaux,” the fact is when most people DO generalize it’s always concerning the COUNTERPART. The big, overly bodied and overly tannic Cabernet-dominated blends. Which I’m quite sure of are Buzzfeed’s initial assumptions on the style.
Let’s get back to where they COULD have been right though; being a southwestern/bordelaise dish, both confit and magret have affinities for certain reds of the region. And I can’t quite think of a regional wine better than one of the simpler, fresher St. Emilions. With a base that sticks traditionally around 85% Merlot and 15% Cab Franc, we have a wine very similar in body, acid, and tannin level to a Pinot Noir, great for matching the structure of these dishes.
At the same time, the unique qualities of the grapes brings a smoother lushness from the Merlot, the importance of the mouthfeel that I also found in sake. Cab Franc helps emphasize the super ripe and tart fruits and brings accompanying flowers of red and pink, bolstering the aromas nicely like the Honjozo.
But you want to stick with the simpler bottles in the right bank; Pomerol and quality Crus of St Emilion make amazing wines, but along with their depth they bring in added body, tannins from ripe grapes and oak, and other aspects which can skew it away from the ideal pairing. Not to mention price of course; St. Emilion Satellites (regions surrounding it that are allowed to append their name) come in at so great price deals for the quality of the wines, and can bring in that nice refreshing aspect I find.
Other options, if you can find them, are Fronsac or Blaye wines (other less-notable regions along the Right Bank). And personally, I’m tempted to ignore Bordeaux all together and hitch a ride to Loire to pick up one of their Pure Cabernet Franc-based red wines. Ah, screw the merlot, give me all those aromatics, small but tight tannins, and that stony taste of graphite and tart fruit down my gullet. That’s how you drink with duck right there.
Don’t forget to stay tuned in a couple weeks when I turn all my leftovers into Cassoulet!