Roast Duck is one of the great triumphs of Chinese cookery – all those lovely bronzed birds hanging up in the windows of local restaurants. But it’s one of those dishes which is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at home – certainly not something where the payoff matches the effort compared with just buying a takeout from the local.
Despite this, western cook books are full of attempts to re-create the Chinese roast duck in a form that can be attempted at home. I have fond memories of seeing Ken Hom on the BBC in the 1980s demonstrating his method for a roast Peking duck. But they were never as good as you can get from a restaurant.
Rather than follow this forlorn path, we return to one of the classics of western duck cooking: the South West France dish of duck confit. Confit is really a method of preserving rather than a conventional recipe but it can give the twin delights of very tender flesh allied to wonderfully crispy skin. For a period, people were worried about the fattiness of ducks and the possible health implications. But the type of fat in ducks seems to be have been rehabilitated and, in moderation, this is a wonderfully tasty dish.
Note confit takes some time – a minimum of one day to prepare although the actual time you’ll be working won’t be very long. And the taste is better if you can leave the duck for longer, once preserved.
You can buy in your own duck legs and duck fat but that’s not as easy as it might be here in Hong Kong and it’s certainly not cheap. For the more economical approach, for which you can also pat yourself on the back and say it’s more holistic, look at the separate post on Duck Butchery.
In this recipe we are going to confit 6 legs, the yield from three ducks together with the fat we rendered – see the duck butchery post for how to do this, a discussion of how to source the duck and alternatives for the fat.
You can do the recipe with as many or as few legs as you like but there is a certain amount of effort involved in the confit process and, as a preserving method, it works best when you make a good batch and then use what you need, keeping the rest preserved. Also the logistics of making sure there is enough duck fat to cover the legs during the confit process means that it seems to work better with more rather than fewer legs although that partly depends on the shape of your cooking container.
The confit process is actually quite simple once you’ve sourced your legs and fat. Essentially there is a curing phase followed by the cooking itself and then storing. You’ll want some flavorings to add to the curing salt and that’s about it until you’re ready to re-heat and serve.
Remember you are working with raw poultry so need to be scrupulously clean in dealing with knives, cutting boards and anything else that comes into contact with the raw duck. Later, the hot fat is dangerous and there’s a lot of it so, again, be careful handling it.
If you are going to keep the duck confit for some time, you need to be careful with the storing phase. You have to use scrupulously clean equipment, avoid any contact between the legs and the air or any dirt and make sure they are completely covered in fat. If you are going to eat them within a few days, you don’t need to be quite so paranoid – they will keep well in the fridge. I used an oven-proof glass storage container which I sterilized in a low oven (110C) for 20 minutes.
- 6 legs (see duck butchery for sourcing)
- About 1 litre of duck fat (or alternatives – see duck butchery)
- Salt – about a tablespoon
- Five spice powder (optional)
- 6 Garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 whole star anise (optional)
- In a non-reactive container (e.g. glass, stainless steel or plastic – I used the non-stick container I would later use for cooking) lay the duck legs in as few layers as possible, covering each layer with a good sprinkling of salt and fresh pepper.
- I like the taste of five spice powder with duck so added some of that. Traditional recipes would add thyme leaves or maybe bay leaves or nutmeg here.
- You then need to cover the container and store in the fridge. Recipes vary on how long – anywhere from about three hours to a couple of days. In my case, I left the legs for a day and a half – longer than I originally planned because if got waylaid by something else. Longer is probably better.
- You then need to wash off the curing salt and dry the legs to reduce the amount of moisture going into the confit process. Some cooks (like the Stellar guys) leave the legs uncovered in the fridge for a while to accentuate the drying process but I didn’t bother with this.
- Lay the legs in a cooking container and throw in the crushed garlic cloves and the star anise if you are using it.
- The norm would be a heavy based saucepan that is big enough to contain the legs and enough fat to cover the legs or in an oven tin but it’s difficult to sustain the right low temperature, especially in the oven.
- The legs are going to be cooked slowly and I find this is one of those recipes which benefits from a specialised slow cooker (or a rice cooker with a slow cook function) which can achieve a fairly consistent temperature some way below boiling point. If you have one of these, you want to cook the legs for at least three hours. I did it for 5 hours on the low setting and they were very tender at the end, possibly even too tender as the skin broke very easily. I’d do it for 4 hours next time.
- If you don’t have a slow cooker, then about an hour and a quarter just barely simmering on the stove-top should be fine - check the legs are cooked through and tender with a knife in the thickest part of the thigh.
- Remember the skin at this stage will be soft – it will only get crispy when we do the final re-heat.
- Transfer the duck legs to your sterlised container being as delicate you can, not to break the skin.
- Carefully filter the hot fat into a heatproof jug and pour the filtered hot fat over the legs once again to cover them. It’s important to cover all the legs fully.
- Allow that to cool, cover and store in the fridge.
- Remove from the fat – you can take out as many as you need but be careful to leave the remaining legs covered with fat.
- Scrape off any excess fat and then heat. You can either do this in the oven or in a frying pan. I prefer the latter.
- Get a heavy-based pan and heat the legs, skin-side down, on a medium-to-high heat until golden.
- Heat a little on the other side.
- Serve with a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Remember, these are already cooked; you are applying just enough heat to crisp the skin up and warm the meat through.
And the final bonus?
When you’ve finished the last of the duck, you can still use the fat for cooking – the best ever medium for roasting potatoes and the trendy choice for french fries.