By Chef Marli Roberts. Photographs by Andreas Eiselen

One of the best ever meals I have eaten was in Chicago on my first trip as part of the national culinary team. I had met Suzanne 2 years prior whilst studying at the renowned Culinary Institute of America, and not only was she a great help with a whole lot of the logistical issues we faced whilst competing in Chicago, but she and her partner treated me to one of my most memorable dinners ever.

Following a wonderful, bone-dry French Rosé Champagne (another first) was this starter, “Dégustation de Canard”. It featured a magnificent trio of rillette de canard (duck rillettes), confit de canard (duck confit) and a perfectly cooked slab of foie gras with toasted brioche – heart stopping but utterly sublime! So with heartfelt gratitude to you my friend, for introducing me to so many wonders in the world of food and wine and to taking me places where my Rand never would have reached. Thanks to you, we will be exploring the depth of flavour when cooking with fat for the garde manger kitchen.

Let’s quickly have a look at the importance of cooking with fat in the kitchen. Since humans made their first fire, fat has been an important cooking medium. Cooking without fat makes cooking very difficult. Fat keeps food succulent in the heat of the oven and prevents it from sticking to the pan. Fats that can be heated to high temperatures are indispensable for frying; they make our food appetizingly brown, adding caramelized flavours and a crusty exterior.

Fat is also critical to the flavour of our food. Without fat, meat has little taste of its own. Many aromas and flavours are soluble only in fat. Fat adds, carries and helps us experience flavour.

One of the most well known and best liked dishes cooked with fat is undoubtedly confit. Confit is a speciality of Gascony, France, and is an ancient method of preserving meat, usually goose, duck or pork. Confit of goose (confit d’oeuvre) and duck (confit de canard) are usually prepared from the legs of the bird. The meat is salted and seasoned with herbs, and slowly cooked submerged in its own rendered fat, in which it is then preserved by allowing it to cool and storing it in the fat for up to 6 months. Meat confits are a specialty of the southwest of France and are used in dishes such as cassoulet, rillette and terrines.

Confit preparations originated as a means of preserving meats without refrigeration. Today of course, refrigeration makes this method of preserving unnecessary, but confit is more popular than ever because of the tenderness and flavour that this cooking method yields. In the case of ducks, legs are usually made into confit, while the boneless breasts are reserved for pan-frying and serving rare. A special breed of duck, the moulard, with a large meaty breast, is used for foie gras production – it is this duck whose legs are traditionally made into confit.

Confit basics

To extract and reheat confit:

  • Remove the container from the refrigerator and place in a pan of barely simmering water. After 20-30 minutes the fat will be soft enough for you to pull the legs out in one piece. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Place the legs still slicked with a very thin layer of fat, skin side down in a heavy frying pan. Cook the legs in the oven until heated through for about 15 minutes. Turn the legs skin side up and grill under the salamander until the skin is nicely caramelized and crispy.

To render duck fat:

  • While you can buy rendered duck fat, it is cheaper to render your own. To do so, save your trimmings and loose fat from duck. Store these in the freezer until you have enough to make it worthwhile. When ready, add them to a stockpot with 250ml – 750ml of water and leave to simmer over a low heat. When the fat has melted, pour the entire mixture into a heatproof container and leave it to cool. As it cools, the fat will separate from the water and can be easily skimmed off. Another option is to simmer the duck fat until all the water has evaporated – and the only ingredient left in the pot will be glorious duck fat!

Confit duck recipe

Prepares 6 whole leg portions

60g Robertson’s Atlantic sea salt
5g Robertson’s whole black peppercorns
2 Robertson’s bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
zest of two oranges
5 garlic cloves, whole and peeled
6 duck leg portions
duck fat, rendered, as needed

  • Mix together the sea salt, peppercorns, bay leaves, fresh thyme, orange zest and garlic cloves. Coat the duck with the mixture and place in a container. Weigh down lightly and press the duck overnight.
  • Rinse off the excess seasoning mixture and pat dry the leg pieces.
  • Heat the oven to 150°C. Place the leg pieces in an ovenproof dish and cover with melted duck fat. Cover with tin foil or a tight fitting lid and cook in the oven until the duck meat is very tender, about 2-21/2 hours.
  • Remove from the oven, place in a clean container and cover with the strained hot fat. Kept covered in the refrigerator, confit will keep for up to 6 months.

Confit Garlic

Poultry and meat are not the only foods that can be cooked in fat. Garlic also makes an ideal candidate. Poaching garlic in duck fat removes some of its pungency and makes it creamy and silky. It is preferable to cook garlic confit on the stove top since it only takes about 30 minutes to make – the recipe below comes from Marco Pierre White. Another option is to add the unpeeled cloves to the duck confit during the last 30 minutes of the confit preparation.

Confit garlic keeps for about 1 week if refrigerated and much longer if buried in fat. Serve it as a snack, or use it to garnish duck confit, terrines and meats. It can also be squeezed out of its skin and spread on toast or made into Beurre de Gascogne.

For about 24-30 pieces.

2 heads garlic
2 Robertson’s bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
500ml duck fat, melted

  • Break the garlic head into individual cloves. Place the un-peeled cloves in a small, heavy saucepan in a single layer. Add the bay leaves and thyme and cover with the duck fat.
  • Place the pan over a very low heat. Once the fat begins to bubble, reduce the temperature and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes.
  • After 20 minutes test the garlic by pressing it with your finger. If it yields to the pressure, it is done, if not cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Leave the garlic to cool in the fat. Once cooled down, strain the fat, discarding the bay leaves and thyme. The fat can be used again. With its mild garlic flavour it will be great for cooking potatoes.

Duck rillettes

Rillettes refer to meat, usually pork, but also rabbit, duck and goose that is slowly cooked in seasoned fat and then pounded or pulverised (along with some of the fat or Beurre de Gascogne) into a paste. This mixture is traditionally packed in small pots and covered with a thin layer of fat. Rillettes can be stored for several weeks in the refrigerator provided that the fat seal is not broken. This mixture is served cold, usually as an appetizer with on thin toasts. It can also be incorporated in various other applications, to fill profiteroles or as a canapé for instance. Rillette toast is also wonderful when served with Vichyssoise.

Makes about 500g (all ingredients should either be room temperature or slightly warmed)

500g duck confit, removed from the bone and shredded
50g Beurre de Gascogne
5ml confit jelly, or as needed

  • Mix the shredded meat with the paddle attachment until it disintegrates into pieces. Slowly add the fat and confit jelly until a spreadable consistency is produced.

*Cook’s Tip – confit jelly

When confit is cooked, juices are released from the meat and settle in the bottom of the pan. Make sure to separate these juices from the fat before covering the cooked confit with fat as they can initiate spoilage. When preserved in the refrigerator, these juices solidify to a strongly flavoured jelly, a bit like a demi-glace, that can be added to sauces, stews, beans or vegetables for extra flavour. Because of its high salt content, use judiciously.

Beurre de Gascogn

This “butter from Gascony” has nothing to do with actual dairy. Instead it is a mixture of duck fat and garlic. Traditionally added to dried bean dishes, it can also be stirred into mashed potatoes, cooked cabbage, lentils, duck rilettes or spread on bread.

Makes about 50g

50g duck fat, rendered
10 confit garlic cloves (see recipe)
15ml parsley, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season

  • Place the duck fat in a small bowl. Squeeze out the soft garlic from its skin and add to the fat. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper.