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From ducks to vegetables, the confusing world of confit

Well Preserved

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You don't want to be that guy. You know, the one who has to break down and ask the server what that strange word on your menu means. The thing is, there are probably other people at your table who don't want to be that guy either. In a world where chefs and avid home-cooks are consistently trying to out-complicate one another, lots of words are suddenly appearing or metamorphosing in the foodie vernacular. That's a good thing — it means that we're all becoming more aware and creative with our food. But sometimes it's hard to keep up. Periodically, we're going to tackle food terminology that leaves more than a few of us scratching our heads. We'll be that guy.

This week, we start with confit. It's a go-to "wow word" for modern chefs, who seem to want to confit everything from meat to mangoes. So what is it, exactly?

You've probably stumbled upon confit (pronounced con-FEE) many times, used in lots of different dishes. It's both a noun (a duck confit, for example) and a verb (i.e., I want to confit that duck.) Meats, fruits, and vegetables can all be prepared in the style of confit. The word stems from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Confit is a traditional way of storing salt-cured meat which is slowly cooked in its own fat, then preserved in that same fat to keep it from spoiling. Once the meat is packed into containers and topped with cooking grease, the cooled fat hardens and creates a thick barrier against contamination. It's a mouthwatering creation born of necessity — before refrigeration, meats had to be preserved so that they could be enjoyed long-term. A confit of duck can last several weeks in a cool room or cellar, no refrigerator required.

Because it's said to have originated in the Gascony region of southwest France, native ducks and geese are common forms of confit. Birds were traditionally fattened in preparation for the big autumn slaughter, when farmers' wives would confit the meat to use in future cold-weather meals like soups and stews. The cooking style works particularly well with tougher cuts involving lots of connective tissue because it's the world's best tenderizer, mainly due to a clever balance of fat, temperature, and time.

Deep-frying, pan-searing, stir-frying, sautéing — all of these methods pair fat with high temperatures and relatively short cooking times to cause the food to lose water and essentially dehydrate. The food's expulsion of water is what yields crispy, crunchy textures, and the heat generates something nifty called the Maillard reaction, which is what turns foods golden brown and flavorful.

Confit is a different story. It's cooked for hours at much lower temperatures, during which the fat will get hot enough to break down connective tissue, but not hot enough to boil or evaporate water. As a result, meats don't brown much, don't lose moisture, and keep all their flavor in that unctuous bath of fat — tenderizing to the point of melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

If you've seen confits of fruits or veggies on menus, you're probably wondering: how the hell do they cook a plum or a mushroom in its own fat? The answer is, they don't. With fruits, a heavily sugared syrup serves as the cooking liquid because very high sugar content inhibits bacterial growth and, once cooled, congeals. Food-science writer Harold McGee points out that confire also can mean "to candy," and confit was commonly used in medieval times to refer to these sugary preserved fruits — hence, the word "confection." With sweet, creamy confit vegetables, the cooking liquid is pure fat that can come from any source — duck fat, lard, even olive oil. (And, if we're being honest here, not all chefs today are confiting meats like rabbit out of pure rabbit fat, instead using other, more accessible animal fats or olive oil as the cooking medium.)

Nowadays, the confit you're enjoying probably hasn't been sitting in a cellar for weeks. In fact, it probably hasn't seen much in the way of storage at all. Since we now have ample means of refrigeration, confit as a preservative technique has all but died out. We've kept it around for one vital reason: because the result is so very luscious. To get a taste, try Tattooed Moose's Mike's Famous Duck Club ($14.50), Minero's Green Chorizo taco with confit potato ($4), or Short Grain food truck's chicken confit ($10).

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