Confit is an ancient cooking method with a very simple technique—salting meat then cooking it low and slow in a bath of fat until it's unctuous, rich, and falling off the bone. Traditionally this was done for food preservation purposes, but it lives on in the age of refrigeration because it might be the best way to cook anything that benefits from a long cook time to break down connective tissue. Confit is mostly used with duck and goose but it's a technique that can be widely applied to just about anything—fish, fruit, and vegetables are fair game as well.
When you’re confiting meat, you’re essentially just braising it in fat. The salting part is optional but very important if you’d like to get that traditional texture and taste. How much salt to use, what type of fat, what types of aromatics, and how you cook it is up for interpretation, but we’ll go over the basics here.
Salt Any traditional confit begins with salt. Because this technique was originally applied as a preservation method, a lot of older recipes will call for a large amount of salt and a lengthy cure time. Nowadays, we want to use just enough salt to draw out a little moisture. This will concentrate the flavors, season the meat, and lightly preserve it—but you don’t want to go overboard.
I like to treat the salting step no differently than I would a dry brine for any other wild game. I use the equilibrium brine method, which ensures that there is no worry of the meat absorbing too much salt if you leave it in the fridge for an additional day or two. All I do is weigh the meat I'm intending to confit and then calculate the amount of salt needed based on that weight. I find 1.5% to 1.75% salt by weight is a good starting point.
Leave the salted meat in the refrigerator for a minimum of 24 hours. You can let it go longer if you like—the meat won’t absorb any excess salt even if you let it sit for a couple days. You can adjust the amount of salt based on your tastes, but I find that using less than the recommended amount yields a wetter, less flavorful confit, and using much more salt will, unsurprisingly, make your confit too salty.
You could also use the more traditional saltbox method, which is exactly what it sounds like. Place the meat in a dish and cover it completely in salt. This has the benefit of being very simple, but you really cannot leave it for longer than overnight without risking oversalting it, and you must rinse off all excess salt.
You can also add nitrates to your confit as an additional preservation method. Using instacure #1 in the correct proportion (0.25% by weight) will help the meat retain some of its reddish color and give it a “cured” taste and texture. I use instacure when I intend to process the confit into dishes like rillettes.
Aromatics Other than the salt and nitrates, any additional ingredients are optional and intended to impart flavor. I like to add lemon zest, bay leaves, and fresh black pepper to most of my duck or goose confits. Other herbs, garlic, and seasonal ingredients like spruce tips can be added to further personalize the dish.
Whole garlic bulbs are a fantastic addition because they can be cooked in the same oil as the confit and you end up with soft roasted garlic and garlic infused duck fat when you’re done with the confit. Hearty, structured fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary are also a great addition, but delicate herbs like fresh basil and parsley don't hold up well in the oil. Dried herbs of all types work. Get creative, use what you want.
The Fat Traditionally, meat that you’re confiting is cooked in its own fat. The idea is to slowly render the fat from the meat and have that fat submerge the meat. Domestic ducks and geese generally have plenty of fat to render, which makes this possible on the first go-around. Wild birds, depending on their feed and time of year, will most likely need some help as their fat stores are generally not sufficient to render out enough to cover the meat. If you render and store your own waterfowl fat or have store-bought duck fat, you can add some to make sure the meat gets covered. If the meat is not covered with fat, the exposed portion may cook at a higher temperature due to the difference in thermal density of the air versus the fat, which will dry it out. When in doubt, add more fat.
In a pinch, though, almost any fat will work. Tallow, lard, schmaltz, olive oil, or seed oil will all work for confit, though the more flavorful fats with moderate saturated fat content are my favorites. I prefer traditional duck or goose fat for dark meats and olive oil for lighter meats such as rabbit, squirrel, and upland birds.
Regardless of what fat you use, I recommend straining the fat when you are done, cooling it down, removing the rendered liquids trapped under the fat (use this for sauces) and storing the fat in the refrigerator for future use. Olive oil infused with garlic and herbs makes a great base for a vinaigrette or for dipping bread, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason to toss out duck fat unless it is spoiled. Do keep in mind that the fat will gradually get saltier if you continue reusing it for confit, so just thin it out with fresh fat as needed for future batches.
Cooking Place the salted meat and aromatics in a non-reactive pan, cover and refrigerate. The amount of time will depend on the salting method used. If using an equilibrium brine, 24 hours is enough and longer will not change anything for better or worse. If you're using the salt box method, 12 to 24 hours will generally be the optimal window of time.
When the meat is done brining, pull it from the refrigerator. If you used the salt box method, now is the time to rinse it in cool water to remove excess salt. You don’t need to do this if you used the equilibrium brine. Place the meat in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan and lay the meat and aromatics in a single layer on the bottom. Cover with oil or fat. Be careful not to overfill your pan with fat; you don’t want to risk sloshing any when moving the pan in and out of the oven.
Cook the confit covered at 200°F on the middle rack of your oven. This low temperature allows the meat to cook slowly and evenly. If you raise the temperature it will fry instead of simmer, which will result in a tough or burnt final dish. Once the fat gets up to temperature, the cook time will vary depending on the size of the meat. Wild duck legs will cook much faster than wild goose legs, and their domestic counterparts will cook even more quickly. Check every hour or so until the meat is fork tender.
Another more modern way to make confit with a minimal amount of fat is to use a sous vide device and a vacuum-sealed bag. Because the fat that gets rendered from the meat is confined to the bag, the meat will be completely surrounded in fat and you won’t need to use nearly as much as you would with the traditional Dutch oven method. This is a great technique if you really want to make wild duck confit but don't have any additional fats available. Running the sous vide at 165°F for 24 hours will yield tender confit duck legs with a traditional “braised” texture. A lower temperature over a more extended period of time will lend a more “meaty” texture.
The Real Secret The salt, fat, aromatics, and cooking methods are all fundamental steps to making confit, but if there is anything that you take with you from this article, it is that you need to let the confit cool down in the fat.
Allowing the meat to slowly cool down in the fat is, in my opinion, the most defining step in making confit. This period allows the meat to essentially swim in the fat, soaking it up as it gradually cools. Similarly to allowing a roast to rest under a mixing bowl, the slower temperature transition yields a juicier final product. Confit pulled directly out of the hot oil and put in the fridge will contract rapidly, which squeezes out all the delicious fat and leaves it dry and flavorless.
Serving With meat cooked in fat for hours until it’s just about to fall off the bone, the world is your oyster. Leave the meat and skin on the bone and broil or sear for a classic French cassoulet or shred it and fry it for birria tacos. Whip it with fat for a decadent rillet or drop it in a deep fryer for a super crispy, salty, ultra-rich fried duck leg. Confit is a cooking technique that has stayed in fashion since its birth in large part because there aren't many simpler or more ingenious ways to cook duck legs than in their own fat.