In its simplest terms, confit means meat that has been preserved by cooking and storing in fat, usually its own. The word comes from the French word “confire” which means to conserve. (“Confiture” is the French word for jams, jellies, and the like, just as English uses the word “preserves” for fruits prepared for long-term storage.)
In the days before refrigeration, other methods were required to store food, including salting, drying, fermenting, and preserving in fat. Nowadays we use these methods more for flavor than necessity, although there are folks reviving these traditional methods, which are too good to be forgotten. Moisture and air are conducive to the growth of undesirable microorganisms, so traditional preservation methods are designed to reduce or eliminate them.
A general description of the process to make confit follows. It works best with naturally fatty meats like pork, duck and goose, although other meats can be used. First, the meat is cured briefly – anywhere from 24 to 48 hours – by salting, to draw the moisture from it. If desired, the meat can be seasoned with herbs and spices before salting; this is optional. The meat can also be flavored with onions, shallots, garlic, and/or fresh herbs, but this is done after the salting. After the curing period, the meat is wiped dry and cooked.
The fat used is usually a rendered animal fat such as lard, duck, goose, or chicken fat, either alone or in combination. There are exceptions, such as the Italian method of poaching tuna, which uses olive oil. The confit is either cooked on the stove-top – a bit messy because of spattering – or baked. Using the oven allows the meat to cook evenly and gently while the cook is free to do other things. When the meat is thoroughly cooked, it is cooled in its fat bath and covered with additional fat if necessary to entirely cover it. In France, the traditional vessel is an earthenware jug-style with a narrow neck, which also reduces air exposure. Then it can be stored in a cool place for up to six months, perhaps longer under ideal conditions.
The French dish which immediately comes to mind is cassoulet, a rib-sticking white bean casserole which calls for confit d’oie (goose) or confit de canard (duck); then there are rillettes, shredded pork with its fat from France and Canada. Mexico has carnitas (literally, little meats), pork cooked in this way; Italy has the aforementioned tuna, and the British have potted shrimp in butter.
Whichever country’s confit I’m thinking of, it sounds delicious. Fat is a preservative, but also a wonderful carrier of flavor. This time of year, ducks and geese are easy to find at the grocery store – why not buy one, look up a recipe, and experiment? Let me know how you make out!