The confit files

Ah, the juicy bird

The holiday season is to the home cook what a howling blizzard is to the captain of a fully loaded 747 approaching O'Hare Airport. It's showtime; it's the time you earn your keep. While pilots are dealing with bad weather, home cooks are grappling with turkey — in particular, how to make it appealing, or at least presentable. The key factors here, moistness and flavor, are interrelated, since much of the flavor in a bird is in its juices. Turkeys, despite their monstrous bioengineered breasts, are famously lean, and did I mention it isn't just a blizzard, it's 30 below with gusty winds, and the landing gear is stuck?

For the past few years I've flirted with the idea that turkey might respond to the confit treatment: slow, gentle cooking while immersed in fat. The usual confit subject is duck, which is actually a self-sustaining fat ecosystem: enough fat can be rendered from a duck to cook its meat in. Turkey, on the other hand, requires a subsidy, either duck fat reserved from earlier confit operations, or reserved duck fat with lard.

Since I don't keep lard in the house and didn't feel like buying and butchering a whole turkey for an experiment, I began small, with a single turkey tenderloin, the pound or so of boneless flesh that stands in so nicely for pork in so many roles. I seasoned the tenderloin, let it stand in the fridge overnight, rinsed it off, immersed it in duck fat in a small heavy pan, brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, and then put it into a 200-degree oven for about three hours.

Although I had no particular expectations about the result, the result was nonetheless startling. The meat seemed to have contracted in the fat — Seinfeld–ian shrinkage — and when I cut the tenderloin open, it had become dense, almost like chilled fudge. At the bottom of the pan lay a shallow layer of extruded juice, whose departure no doubt had contributed to the meat's collapse. I sliced the tenderloin into pâtélike slices and served the heated juice (captured with a gravy separator) over the top as a salvage-operation sauce, but all of this fuss only partly concealed the unusual deadness of the meat.

Next time (if there is a next time): meat on the bone will have to be involved. That's the brainstorm of the moment.

Paul Reidinger


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