Exploring French Cuisine: The Delights of Confit de Canard

By | 22 April 2024

A wine lover’s guide to the classic French duck dish.

By Joanna Simon

Joanna Simon explores the history and preparation of confit de canard, before picking out the best wines to drink with this classic dish from South West France.

“In some ways confit is less a recipe than a way of life.” So wrote Paula Wolfert in 1983 in The Cooking of South West France (published in 1987). Two decades later, Recettes Paysan du Lot (Les Editions du Curieux, 1983) begins its Gastro-Préface with the simple announcement “Au commencement était le canard…” (“In the beginning was duck…”).

Times have undergone a vast change: lesser households persistently prepare their personal confit de canard, and even lesser confit d’oie (goose). Meanwhile, ready-prepared duck confit — available loose, in cans or vacuum-packed — can be spotted around every market, tiny grocer and charcutier, in every large supermarket, and almost every restaurant and café menu, if not daily then at least once each week.

Confit, particularly of duck, persists as a lifestyle, not confined merely to Gascony, which advocates it as its own, but consistently across the South West, ranging from Périgord (primarily the Dordogne department) down to the Pyrenees. The perception of Gascon claim seemingly hinges on the basis that Henry IV, French King from the period between 1589 to 1610 and a Gascon by birth, requested the governor of Béarn province to dispatch a dozen of the bulkier salt-cured geese he could locate, “of the kind that bring honour to the country.” Salt curing acts as an indispensable initial phase of the confit procedure.


Originally, Confit—originated from the word confire, which signifies ‘to preserve’—was discovered as a method to preserve poultry and pork during the seasons of plenty in order to endure during the seasons of shortage in the period before refrigeration was known. The meat, once salt-cured, was slowly cooked within its personal rendered fat, and then entirely capped with identical fat for its preservation.

The technique not only saves meat from spoiling but also brings forth a richer, more robust taste and a softer texture, which clarify its ongoing appeal today, as reflected in traditional dishes like Gascony’s garbure and cassoulet. Moreover, while confit de canard is often purchased, it’s still commonly made at home. After all, it’s pretty straightforward.

While the method requires time and attention to the cooking heat, it only requires three ingredients – fresh duck, salt, and a large portion of duck or goose fat. Alternatively, you’ll need just two if you’re in South West France and have access to a duck specifically fattened for foie gras that will yield adequate fat. Other curing ingredients are optional, but most chefs include some herbs, typically thyme and bay, some crushed pepper, and often some juniper berries (I always include some of the berries I gather in South West France).

Whereas every part of a whole bird is utilized in the region’s farms, most other chefs buy only duck legs for confit. Nevertheless, if you’re roasting a goose for Christmas, it’s amusing to confit the gizzard and heart. You also have the option to confit the liver, but I’d rather quickly fry it.

Giving precise amounts of salt and fat can be tough. The amount of salt is contingent on the duration of the cure (such as eight, 12 or 24 hours), whether you rinse and dry the duck or merely wipe off the moisture, and the type of salt used. Most recipes instruct to use “coarse rock salt,” but their taste and potency vary considerably (I usually use Tidman’s Natural Rock Salt, available in both the US and UK).

Raymond Blanc’s website suggests using 30g of coarse rock salt for a 12-hour cure for four duck legs, which are then rinsed and dried. In contrast, Pierre Koffmann Memories of Gascony, the renowned Gascon chef, calls for ten times as much salt for one force-fed duck and wipes off “the excess salt and salty juices” instead of rinsing. It should be noted that over the past decade or so, ready-made confit de canard, like many other foods, has become considerably less salty.

In terms of the amount of fat required, it’s critical that the legs are submerged, but the exact quantity will depend on the size of your pan, Dutch oven, or cassernole. For four legs, I typically need around 700g. Raymond Blanc utilizes 800g, whereas a recipe on the Great British Chefs website calls for 1 liter.

Cooking times and temperatures can also vary greatly. Raymond Blanc recommends 2.25 hours at 85º–90ºC (185º–194ºF). Some advise 110ºC (230ºF) for 3.5 hours. Confit is typically prepared in the oven, but I sometimes cook it on the hob (for 2.5–3 hours), as it is simpler to control the temperature (an effective extractor fan is needed).

Once cooked, the confit is chilled in the strained fat, in the same container in which it will be stored. Despite the fact that confit originated in the pre-refrigeration era, it’s prudent to keep it in the refrigerator. To use the confit, scrape off the excess fat, and then reheat and crisp the duck on the hob or in the oven, starting with the skin-side down.

Within the South West, it’s served in a plethora of ways depending on the season, the occasion, or the specific location in this vast expanse. The most representative side dish, disproportionately originating from Périgord, is the modest yet scrumptious pommes de terres sarladaises. These are moderately thinly sliced waxy potatoes cooked in duck or goose fat. Chopped garlic and parsley are added during the last minutes of the preparation process. If you’re fortunate enough, they will be topped with fresh Périgord black truffle when in season.

The wine that parallels pommes de terres sarladaises in the confit de canard context is Madiran. It is a unique, weighty, dark-fruit flavoured wine, blended with Tannat, from Gascony. Depending on your preference, it can be majestic or rustic. However, it does mesh perfectly with the rich, robust flavours of duck confit. I would recommend Madiran with a few years of bottle aging. At the moment, my choice would be Famille Laplace Château d’Aydie 2017. I’m optimistic that other appealing options await you in WFW83.

There is another less recognized Tannat based Gascon wine, St-Mont, that offers a slightly more adaptable style. For instance, Château Sabazan 2018 is currently pairing excellently with confit de canard.

Another distinctive dark wine from the South West, Cahors, made from Malbec, is a natural pairing. However, it’s not as sauvage as Madiran. Ideally, this should also be a wine that has evolved over time. Allow me to suggest a few notable producers: Clos Trotteligotte, especially its K-Lys Malbec, Clos Triguedina, Fabien Jouves Mas del Périé, and Château du Cèdre.

Argentine Malbec also presents opportunities, especially wines steered by high-altitude terroir rather than the ripeness of the fruit or use of new oak. I have recently enjoyed Zuccardi Q Malbec, which is aged in concrete and used untoasted oak barrels, with confit.

Another favourite is mature St-Estèphe, its richer, more robust style having the edge over other Médoc appellations. Seek out Château Meyney if you can, ideally 2015, 2010, 2009, or 2005.

Pinot Noir, often so good with duck, can be too ethereal and sweet-fruited for confit, but I would try a Marsannay, such as Château de Marsannay Les Longeroies, even if the 2018 recently tasted is not quite ready, or a mature Pommard.

Other notable pairings over the years have been with Aglianico del Vulture (Italy’s answer to Madiran, or vice versa?), red Priorat, Xinomavro, and Barolo.

While it might appear to be a broad statement, I personally do not enjoy pairing white wines, irrespective of whether they are off-dry or dry, with confit de canard. However, other individuals often recommend wines such as the Alsace Pinot Gris, Riesling, Marsanne, or Roussanne. Despite this, I see a place for orange/amber wines due to their textured and interesting skin-contact.

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