Not really confit cooking

Duck and goose confit are rich, delectable dishes. I rarely get them and almost never make them because duck fat and goose fat are, well, expensive and somewhat hard to find. Fortunately, I know the secret. (grin).

I need to chase two threads before we get into some cooking recipes – or at least guidances – so bear with me please. I’m going to discuss poaching, then a bit more about this thing called confit, and then bring it together.

Poaching is rather critical to the process. For the one or two who don’t know, poaching is not boiling though it appears that way to the casual onlooker. Poaching is cooking your item in a liquid that is hot but not boiling. There are two very important things about poaching you should know.

The first is that whatever liquid you use for poaching – or any flavorings you’ve added to the liquid – will infuse the object you’re cooking. Poach in salt water and the object will pick up some salt. Poach in wine and you will taste a bit of that wine in your object. (Hint – poach a fish in water that’s had salt and lemon added to it. yum. Of course, fish poached in dry white wine can be fine as well.) The effect is similar to that of brining though the mechanics of the process are a bit different.

The second, very nice thing about poaching is that whatever you’re cooking won’t exceed the temperature of the bath. What THIS means is that it’s an ideal way to cook something for a meal with an uncertain start time. So if you have your liquid at, say, 150 degrees F and put your fish in it, the fish will sit at 150 F as well. It won’t get hotter, which means it won’t bind up the proteins and become tough. It gains fluids as fast as it loses them due to the transfer process mentioned in the previous paragraph.

OK, you got that? Now let’s take a step back and chase (briefly) the other thread – confit. Confit is not a method of cooking, contrary to popular opinion. Confit is a method of preparing food for long-term storage. Not any food, however. No, you can confit fruit and you can confit meat, and the method of each is wildly different in the detail.

To confit fruit, clean it carefully. Then soak it in sugar water (simple syrup). Every day to week or so replace the syrup with one which has even more sugar till you’re in about 50% sugar. The sugar is carried by the water to the very core of the fruit. You then dry them and you end up with what is basically candied fruit – but wholly carrying the fruit flavor (provided you selected good fruit with strong flavors). Bacteria don’t like sugar for some reason, and so once you’ve dried these fruit they’ll keep for, well, years if properly stored. But it’s not fruit which concerns me. Instead, it’s meat.

Meat confit is meat which is infused with and packed within fat – preferably its own fat – which has first been rendered. While duck and goose are long known for the process, it can be used on non-waterfowl as well. Now we get a touch of snobbery here – since it’s a French word the French get to tell us what it means, and (sniff) non-waterfowl treated to this process are not true confit. Yes, they can be herbed (I know, I missed that above, but we’re going to get there in a bit) and then poached in their own rendered fat or the rendered fat of a goose or duck but it’s not really confit. (sniff)

Wait. Did I say poached? heh, yes I did.

See, what really is going on is that the waterfowl is lightly cured then poached in its own fat, holding for long enough for total infusion (and a bit longer is fine). Then it’s pulled from the fat, packed in containers, and the fat is strained and poured over the top to cover. As with sugar, this is a preservative.

OK, a pause. A saturated fat is highly unlikely to go rancid. The fact it’s saturated with hydrogen molecules means there’s no room for the oxygen to bind, and consequently no oxidation. Bacteria can’t get a foot-hold, either. Well, bacteria CAN, but you can stop them with fairly simple prevention techniques like putting a lid over the fat. Just don’t let your fat melt. Melted, some of it partially unsaturates. Worse, it can uncover whatever was being protected. So, let’s go back.

What you get, then, is a meat that’s had a rich and flavorful fat interpenetrate the cells of the meat while cooking. It tends to be very tender as well. Storing it for a period of time allows the flavors to develop making for an even richer taste.

Now as I said earlier, duck and goose fat are fairly hard to get around here. For that matter duck is quite expensive. However, the technique – let’s call it faux-confit – can be done with another fat.

What fat? Butter. Or ghee if you’re planning to store it in the pantry instead of the refrigerator. What meat shall we use? How about a pork tenderloin – a tender meat already.

First: Clean any connective tissue and sheathing from the pork loin.

Second: cure it. Make a mixture that’s roughly 3 parts salt and 1 part flavors of choice. I’m going to recommend fresh thyme for the first run, though I’ve used garlic, rosemary, pepper, ginger, and a few other things. In a dish that will hold the loin put down about half the cure as a bed, put down the loin, and sprinkle the rest of the cure on top. Scoop any that’s left and pat it onto the sides so the loin is fully covered. Now put some plastic over the dish and put it in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.

Third: preserve it. More accurately poach it in its preservative fluid. Fill a dish with a couple pounds or so of butter or ghee. Sorry, digression time.

Ghee is clarified, unsalted butter. The loss of the milk solids create some significant changes. For one thing the smoke point goes up from ~350F to ~485F. Second, it doesn’t brown very well. Third, it will keep on a shelf indefinitely so long as it’s got protection against air. If you’re planning to keep this dish for a long time to develop flavors, consider using ghee. Let’s get back to the recipe.

Rinse the cure off the tenderloin and put it in the butter/ghee. If it’s not completely covered, add more fat. Now you want to keep the temperature between 150 and 160 for at least two and up to four hours. The meat will be done in about one hour, but the additional time will further infuse the meat and its flavors.

A sorta alternative is to go ahead and let the temperature get hotter, and don’t go quite as long. In this case you can use a crockpot (if it has a low setting that’s around 200F) or put it in the oven at the lowest setting you can manage (which may be as low as 175F).

Take the meat out of the butter, cut it into two or three lengths, and pack it into a small jar (pint if you really only have one tenderloin. If you got both from the pig, you’ll want a quart.) Strain the butter or ghee through a cheesecloth to remove most of the solids, let it sit over low heat till the remaining solids settle, then ladle the clear (ghee) over the meat till it’s well-covered. Let the jar cool so the fat at least partially solidifies, put some plastic against it to protect it from air, put on a lid, and put it in the refrigerator or pantry as you see fit. (Me, I always use the refrigerator. I know it’s supposed to be safe in the pantry but I’m a touch paranoid.)

Fourth: Serve. At any time – including fresh out of the butter poach – you can serve this up. Slice medallions of half to 3/4 inch thick. Place them in a hot skillet to brown – about 2 minutes each side (your mileage may vary).

You can also serve it cold, though I’m not quite as fond of it that way.

Now you can do this to just about any meat you want. You can also use other fats. For example, you could save the fat that renders from chickens, then “confit” another chicken. The key, of course, is to have enough fat to fully cover the bird while it’s cooking.

Oh – if you pack the meat in a snug enough container you’ll have fat left over. I’ve been told you can use it two or three times before you need to go to fresh – just add enough new to cover the next bird.

The butter poached loin that’s been allowed to develop for a week is a delight. Extremely tender with a (sorry for the pun) buttery texture and taste. It’s also extremely rich – it will make a meal for several people (or several meals for a few people). Give it a try.

And sniff right back at the snobs who think the only confit is waterfowl.

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