According to my estimates, duck confit happens in home kitchens at most 0.25 times a year. I am talking about experienced home cooks here. The kinds that find making dinner in the end of a busy work day relaxing, and who don't blink an eye before attempting a multi-hour cooking project on a weekend. Still. After talking to my students, I can't see duck confit being cooked much. Of course, you can buy it, but from my experience, the store bought stuff is pathetic compared to the home-made version.
Pst -- I'll tell you a little secret. Last time I made duck confit was 2 years ago. Is it hard? No! I've never heard of someone's duck confit not coming out even if it was their first time. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes! It all boils down to working with a bucket of duck fat. I am not talking about the calories. I am talking about the logistics. Handling large amounts of fat at home is not fun. That's why I never deep-fry. In theory, duck fat is easily obtainable and recyclable material. You roast a couple of ducks and you'll get yourself enough fat to confit 4 duck legs. There are two problems however: 1) I hate whole roasted ducks because they don't do the bird justice -- the breast is never medium-rare and the legs are never as tender as in confit. 2) if you want to keep that fat in usable form, you have to strain it and separate it from the juices -- doable, but messy.
There is, of course, the option of buying duck fat instead of rendering your own. But you'll have to pay about $12 for 4 cups of fat to cook 4-6 duck legs. When you are done, there is still the ordeal of filtering the fat and separating it from juices if you want to freeze and reuse it.
While developing recipes for my chicken/duck class, I was wondering if there was some way to achieve the same meltingly tender duck flesh and crispy skin without all the fat. Turns out I was not the only one tortured by this questions. I found a couple of New York Times articles about how to make duck confit without the fat. The concept seemed so straight forward I didn't bother printing the recipes or book marking them. You salt the duck 24 hours in advance, like you would for confit, then cook in the oven at low temp for about 2.5 - 3 hours. I got myself some duck legs, gave it a try and it was perfect. The only problem was how to do this in class when you only have 3 hours total and need the oven for other dishes at a higher temperature? I was also wondering if salting the ducks 24 hours in advance was necessary. That would be tricky since I was planning to have the students take the ducks apart in class.
In the last 2 months, I cooked more duck legs than I am willing to admit. I messed with temperature and duration, with curing and lack there of, with adding aromatic vegetables in the bottom of the pan, with poking the duck skin to help fat render. No matter what I did, the results were much drier than my first successful try. Even though I was only cooking 2 duck legs at a time to minimize the amount of experimental duck we had to consume, I was reaching the point where the very idea of duck legs was making me nauseous.
I decided to retest the original successful idea, but after so many attempts I forgot what exactly I did the first time. It seemed so easy, I didn't bother writing it down. What was worse, I couldn't remember which exact article inspired the successful attempt. Finally, I found it. It was an article by Regina Schrambling from 2002. This time, instead of skimming it, I read it very carefully. The answer was right there in front of me:
The trick to this no-fat-added confit is packing the legs tightly into a baking dish, one that is about three inches deep, and sealing it with foil so that the meat essentially simmers in its own juices over several hours.That's what was different. The first time, I cooked 4 duck legs and they sat in the skillet very tightly. On all the subsequent tries, I cooked only 2 duck legs which gave them too much breathing room. The fat they were rendering wasn't enveloping them at all, and the results were significantly drier even after I returned to low temperature and a long cooking time. I couldn't remember if I covered the dish the first time or not, but I decided to stop messing around and <gasp> follow directions. Well, almost... since I stupidly trimmed the extra fat of my remaining two duck legs the previous day, I thought I should add a bit more fat in. I had some pork fatback in my freezer. I cut a few slices and added them to the dish. I arranged the legs as snugly as possible in a much smaller dish and covered it with foil. 3 hours later, the legs were meltingly tender and all I had to do was crisp their skin. I tried the broiler, and non-stick skillet options. The skillet won by a huge margin, producing evenly brown, shatteringly crisp, and not at all chewy skin.
Lazy and Cheap Duck Confit
In traditional duck confit, the legs are submerged in rendered duck fat and cooked slowly for several hours. This can be both messy and expensive, preventing home cooks from attempting this preparation too often. That's a shame because absolutely identical results can be achieved without buckets of duck fat. You won't be able to store the confit for a month since you won't have enough fat to cover it, but now you might attempt this mouthwatering dish more often than once a year. If you ever cut up whole ducks, cut the skin into strips, put it in a zip lock bag and freeze for making confit. No need to render it, it will melt during the cooking process. If not, a cheap and wonderful alternative to duck fat is pork fatback. I usually keep some in my freezer for all my confit needs.
4 duck legs if using Long Island or small duck (2 if using Moulard or large duck)
Salt and pepper
4 oz scraps of duck fat or pork fatback, sliced into 1/6 inch thick strips 1 bay leaf, broken into 3-4 pieces
Salt cure (1-3 days in advance):
Trim excess fat from duck legs and reserve for cooking the legs later.
Sprinkle duck legs with salt all over (about 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt), cover and refrigerate.
To cook duck legs:
Preheat the oven to 275F.
Find an oven safe dish that is 3 inches deep and fits duck legs extremely tightly. It's ok for some parts of them to overlap, but it's not ok for there to be any space around the legs or they'll dry out. Arrange a few pieces of duck or pork fat on the bottom of the dish and top with pieces of bay leaf.
Sprinkle duck with freshly ground black pepper on all sides and arrange skin side up in the baking dish fitting the legs very snugly. Tuck strips of duck or pork fat around duck legs anywhere exposed meat comes in contact with the sides of the dish. Arrange the remaining strips of fat on top of duck legs. Cover the dish tightly with foil and place in the middle of the oven for 3 hours if using small duck legs such as Long Island (a.k.a. Pekin) or 4 hours if using large legs such as Moulard.
The duck is done when a wooden skewer goes through it with absolutely no resistance. The meat should be spoon tender. Cool the legs in fat for 15-20 minutes, then remove them to a paper towel to dry off on both sides. Remove any pieces of duck/pork fat or bay leaves that might be stuck to duck legs. The duck legs can be cooled completely at this point and refrigerated until you are ready to serve them (up to a week).
What to do with rendered fat:
You'll need 1-2 Tbsp of rendered fat to crisp up duck skin in the skillet, so save that. The rest of the fat can either be discarded or filtered and frozen indefinitely for future use. Do not pour the fat down the drain. I keep a disposable plastic container in my freezer labeled "fat to dump". Whenever I have any cooking fat I don't want to keep, I pour it into this container and when the container is full, I throw it away. To save the duck fat for future use, first put it through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of any chunks, bay leaves, etc. Then let it sit for about an hour until it completely separates from the juices (the fat will be on top, juices on the bottom). Carefully ladle the fat into a clean jar without disturbing the juices. Cool to room temperature, then cover and freeze.
If the duck legs just came out of the oven, all they need is a quick browning in a non-stick or cast iron skillet. Set the skillet oven medium heat and add about a tablespoon of rendered duck fat. When hot, place duck legs in the skillet skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Serve whole or tear up to serve in salads, pasta, etc.
If the duck legs were chilled before serving, warm them up in a covered non-stick skillet on medium-low for about 5-7 minutes flipping half way through. Then proceed to the crisping step above.
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P.S. Unless you teach cooking classes, you probably couldn't care less about how I am going to fit this dish into a 3 hour class without buying 3 sets of duck legs. But just in case you are curious, here is my plan. The first time I teach the class, I'll buy extra 4 duck legs (besides the whole ducks and chickens that students will be cutting apart). I'll cure these legs a day before class and will get them in the oven 2 hours before class. During class, I'll show students how to salt the legs they cut off the duck, how to pack them tightly into a dish with extra duck fat scraps and get it ready for the oven. I'll then disassemble these duck legs and freeze them for next class (so that I don't have to buy extra duck legs in the future). Meanwhile the confit that I would have started before class will be done, and I'll show them how to test it for doneness and crisp the skin.