If you have ever been to a French restaurant, you may have seen Duck Confit on the menu. If you ordered and eaten it, you know it is a special dish. My husband cooked the other night and made an absolutely delicious Rabbit Confit. If you think you do not like rabbit, you have probably never had it this way. Just what does “Confit” mean? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, the word “confit” comes from the French verb “confire” and the Latin “conficere” meaning “to do, to produce, to make, to prepare.” This book goes on to explain that it was first applied to fruits cooked and preserved in a sugar syrup, honey or alcohol during medieval times. Later it was applied to vegetables pickled in vinegar, olives in oil, meats under fat and various food in salt.
Confit is not really a dish but a method of cooking. It is said to be a specialty of Gascony, France and to have derived from an ancient method of preserving meat where it is salted and cooked in its own fat. The meat was then packed into a crock and covered in its own cooking fat, which acted as a seal and a preservative.
Today, it is generally used to describe anything that has been cooked slowly and gently in fat to a wonderful consistency and flavor.
There are three basic components to this process.
- A salt cure – salt is rubbed into the meat and then allowed to age for at least an hour or even up to 3 days. This draws out moisture, which then allows that water to be replaced by oil. This results in a very tender and flavorful product.
- The fat – very common fats include duck, goose or chicken fat. An oil such as olive or vegetable can also be used. The food item is submerged in this fat.
- A slow cooking process – after submerging the food item in the fat, it is cooked at a low temperature (~200-250°F) for a few hours. Often herbs and spices are added to infuse flavor.
Although you can eat the meat as soon as it is done cooking, there are those that say that it is not true confit unless you then store it submerged in the fat for two weeks. During this storage period, muscle and connective tissue continue to break down and tenderize the meat.
When stored properly, confit can be kept for several months. This means that it is fully covered in the oil without any air and it is kept cool, <40°F. Without this, there is a risk, albeit small, of botulism. This organism can grow in a low-oxygen environment. The meat is often salted again before storage to decrease this risk. Nitrates are also occasionally added.
You might ask how this is different from deep fat frying. The answer is the temperature. Confit is done at a relatively low temperature (~200-250°F) while deep fat frying is done at a much higher temperature (325-450°F). This higher temperature leads to quick moisture loss and a crispy exterior. Deep fat frying is also done in minutes, not hours as in confit.