As with many French classic dishes, duck confit (confit de canard) is an incredibly decadent treat that is unfortunately a huge hassle to make. Confit means to cure in salt & cook in its own fat (or in its literal definition, "to preserve"). Duck confit are traditionally made by curing duck legs in salt & spice and submerging them in large amount of duck fat, slow cook in fat & aromatics at below boiling temperature for extended period of time, for a soft, buttery texture. It's like oil poaching on steroid. The dish generally needs to be then chilled over night so that the falling-apart tender meat would firm up enough for that final sear, for that signature crispy skin that really makes the dish perfect.
Time consuming aside, what makes this dish borderline prohibitive for home cooking is that duck fat isn't easily accessible, and even when you can find them, they aren't cheap. Naturally this makes the sous vide method an appealing alternative. Because duck legs are basically covered by skin & fat, when vacuum sealed & submerged in water bath, it basically mimics oil poaching without all the fat.
One thing I get asked all the time is if people can cook sous vide dishes without having to buy a sous vide cooker. The good news here is for this particular recipe, the answer is yes! As long as you have a slow cooker - instant pot or crock pot. Make sure you're using the "Low" setting, which is usually kept around 170~190F, just the right temperature range for confit duck legs. You can cure the legs overnight in spiced salt, and rinse/wipe off excess salt before cooking, as traditionally done. I tried both curing overnight and cooking directly, the curing probably contribute more to texture than flavor, but overall the difference isn't huge, so if you don't want to bother, feel free skipping it altogether.
You can sear the sous vide duck legs immediately after slow cooking. If they're too tender to handle, just dip the sous vide bag in cold water to cool down quickly. I haven't needed to do that though. I find the legs hold together better than the traditional method, probably because they are cooked while tightly wrapped in vaccum.
You will get some rendered fat & meat juice when you retrieve the legs from the bag. I recommend chilling them to save both for other uses. Once chilled you will get two clear layers, of solid duck fat, and gelatinzed duck broth. The duck fat will keep indefinitely in the freezer. Make these a few times and you might collect enough duck fat for the traditional poaching method! Duck fat is also excellent for roasting potatoes and other vegetables. The gelatinized juice is great as a soup base for ramen or soba, and also wonderful for soup dumplings, which calls for precisely this type of gelatinized broth.
- 2 duck legs
- 1 tbsp coarse salt
- 1/2 tsp juniper berries
- 1/2 tsp dry minced onion or garlic
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- fresh thyme to taste (or 1/2 tsp dry thyme)
Grind salt with juniper berries, dry onion or garlic, and pepper, with a mortar & pestle until the spices are broken down & mixed into the salt, and you have a medium-coarse curing mix. Sprinkle the salt mixture on to the duck legs; be sure to get all sides & corners. - You will have extra salt left. If you're not curing & rinsing off the salt the following day, don't bother using up all the salt, stop when meat is thoroughly covered in salt mixture. Add the legs into a quart size temperature resistant zip bag. Submerge the bag in a pot of water to push out the air & form a vacuum seal. Fill a slow cooker with hot water (170~180F). Add in the vacuum sealed bag. Cook on low for 3.5 hours, or until the meat pulls away from the bone. Test with a skewer to see if the meat is tender. Add time in half hour intervals as needed. Pan sear or broil the legs to crisp up the skin just before serving. Serve with light sides - green vegetables or plain boiled baby potatoes with some butter. Enjoy!