moking, curing and drying have been used to preserve food supplies since prehistoric times. Before eating seasonally became a trend, it was a necessity. Game meats were only available in season, and domesticated animals were slaughtered before winter came, to save on feed and to fill the larder. So a method to preserve meat before the days of refrigeration was a vital development in culinary history. Which brings us to confit; the process of slow cooking and storing food in fat. Most often used with duck or goose legs, it can also be applied to other foods, even vegetables.
Confit is the past participle of the French verb confire, "to preserve." In this method, meats are cooked in fat for a long time, sometimes days, at a low temperature. This renders tough cuts, like duck legs, more tender and palatable. The meat that has been through this cooking process is also called confit, as in duck leg confit or confit of goose.
Once cooked, the meat is placed in a jar and covered with the rendered fat. In the days before vacuum packing, confit meats were placed in crockery pots or jars filled with duck fat, then covered with pork fat and stored in a cool cellar. This impenetrable top protected the confit throughout the long winter and on into the spring.
In the southwest region of France, Gascony, you’ll still find many small jars filled with confit of all kinds stored in the cellars. Duck leg confit is a favorite in that region, and is a vital ingredient in the classic cassoulet. Because it is so tender, duck confit can be shredded and served over salad, in stews or on bread. But confit can be made from any part of the bird. Legs, breasts, giblets and even foie gras can be salted and simmered, then preserved in fat.
Another secret of Gascon cooking is garlic confit. The slow simmer in duck fat takes the punch out of garlic, rendering mellow and flavorful cloves that are delightful when spread onto bread or whipped into potatoes. They add flavor in any savory dish, and can replace fresh garlic in many recipes.
A popular method of preserving summer’s bounty is tomato confit. In most cases, tomatoes are sun dried (or slowly roasted in the oven), given a brief dip in boiling vinegar, packed into jars and then topped with olive oil. While the tomatoes are not cooked in the oil, packing them in the oil still places them firmly in the confit camp. It’s an effective method for tomato preservation that’s been used in Europe for generations.
“A Gascon will fall to his knees for a good confit,” goes an old saying. And it’s true that confit meats will add a dimension to any dish in which they are used. Many feel that cassoulet cannot be made without some confit in it, and garbure, a regional stew, usually contains confit.
Confit trivia: When Henri IV, who hailed from Gascony, was king of France he sent for whole barrels of confit from home, since nobody in Paris made it!