If you’re planning a festive event for New Year’s Eve—or even if you’re just planning a quiet dinner at home—why not take some time to enjoy your last carefree meal before your New Year’s resolutions kick in on January 1st? There’s still time. Eat some beef that’s been slow-cooked in fat. Make Brisket confit. You won’t regret it.
Confit of beef brisket is a sumptuous, meaty, gem that sticks to your ribs and is perfect for a cold winter night. It adds just the right touch of indulgence to the last night of the year. Take a twist on tradition and shred it onto a salad, or do one better and go main-course with this hearty polenta underneath it. The new year will look more promising with this dinner under your belt; and with a good thermometer, you can be sure your results will make for a memorable night.
- What is confit?
- How to make meat confit
- Recipe: confit of beef brisket with goat cheese polenta
Confit: what is it?
“Confit” is a French term that has taken on the meaning “preserve.” It comes from the old French confire, to prepare (and, by extension, to preserve), and refers to the origins of this method of cookery. “Confit” was a means of preserving foods in an age before refrigeration. The most famous of confits, duck confit, was made by slowly cooking lightly cured duck legs in rendered duck fat, and then storing the cooked legs in the fat. The congealed fat would create an oxygen and bacterial barrier that would allow the duck to be kept for months, if not longer, before spoiling.
Today, people make confit more often for flavor than for preservation, but it is still nice to remember where this dish comes from and carry some of that weight of history into our cooking.
Why cook in fat?
Some may look at the confit method and wonder if cooking slowly in fat is necessary. It is.
Melted fat, or oil, provides a constant-contact medium for heat exchange that is nonetheless unable to absorb any water-soluble flavors or juices from the meat. Flavor is retained in the meat, rather than sucked from it (which happens when meat is boiled). But the method doesn’t just preserve water-soluble flavors, it also adds a benefit in regard to oil-soluble flavors: the thyme, pepper, and allspice, all have oil-soluble flavors that will mingle with and permeate the oil bath, creating a potently seasoned cooking pot for your food.
Isn’t this just deep frying?
Why don’t we just call this deep frying? For the same reason we don’t call barbecue grilling: this is a low, slow procedure intended for well-done yet still-tender results. One of the main goals of deep frying is dehydration—crisping up a batter or an external layer. In the confit method, we are looking for water retention, not evaporation. Maintaining an oil temperature well below the boiling point helps us retain as much moisture as possible, and a good thermometer is key for maintaining those temps over time.
How to make meat confit
Thermally speaking, the confit process is very similar to barbecue. The low, slow heat is ideal for melting collagen into gelatin, and the moisture-sealing properties of the oil help the meat stay juicy (if the oil doesn’t get too hot). In addition to the qualities of the method itself, everything that makes brisket into amazing barbecue will make it into amazing confit: flavor, collagen that can break down, fatty goodness. It’s a recipe for deliciousness. So, you generally want to choose meats like goose, duck, pork shoulder or, in this case, brisket that are rich in connective tissue.
The fact that oil is really important to the confit process doesn’t mean that you have to go full-traditional and cook your food in the fat of the same animal, if that idea bothers you. Any rendered fat or oil will do. But keep in mind the flavor of your desired end product. I don’t recommend using rendered beef fat for pork confit! But lots of flavors work well with each other; Bon Appétit even gives a recipe for olive oil chicken confit.
While Escoffier famously made confit of potatoes, we will limit ourselves in this post to meat. And the first step in making a meat confit (be it duck, lamb, beef, etc.) is to cure it. A simple overnight salt cure will do. This prepares the meat for preservation by starting to work on the bacteria on the surface of your meat. Salt kills bacteria with great efficiency, so salting meat was an important first step in preserving it.
But beyond the preservation aspect of salting, curing adds a lot of flavor. In addition to salt, our cure can have a mixture of seasonings, spices, and herbs according to our end-flavor goals. Thyme is often used, bay leaves, and allspice, too. Fresh garlic is a great addition to any confit cure. All these are used to coat the meat as it is left in the refrigerator overnight to cure. The next day, it is lightly rinsed and then braised in fat.
Slow cook it
When the meat is done curing, melt fat—or pour oil—into a Dutch oven or other large pot that can accommodate all the meat. If you’re cooking legs of fowl, use something that can hold them all in one layer, but chunks of other meats can handle some stacking.
When the oil reaches 200°F (93°C), add the meat and maintain the temperature of the oil in the range of 180-200°F (82-93°C) for several hours while the meat becomes tender. An accurate and easily readable thermometer is key for this part of the operation, like our ThermaQ® Blue. The high accuracy of the type-K probes combined with the easy-to-use free app that puts the temperature readings and alarms right on your phone (available for iOS or Android) make tracking the temperature of long cooks a breeze.
Maintaining a steady temperature in your oil is critical to your success. If the oil temperature drops, the collagen takes too long to break down. If you allow the temperature to spike even a little, the water in the meat can evaporate, leaving tough, dry brisket.
On my first attempt at brisket confit, I accidentally allowed the oil temp to spike up to 236°F (113°C). Much of the water in the meat boiled out in the few minutes it was above temp. Monitor the oil temp carefully, adjusting your stovetop controls as you go, and you will have good brisket. “Eyeball” it and risk failure.
Cook to tender
The small chunks of brisket will reach the temperature of the oil, around 190°F (88°C) in about 90 minutes, but the collagen in the brisket needs time to unwind into moist gelatin. Give the meat time to come up to temp, and then cook until tender, about four hours. You can set an alarm on a TimeStick® for four hours, and when the timer goes off, check the brisket to see if it is soft enough to shred with a fork. If not, give it another half hour and check again. Keep checking until it is fall-apart tender.
Store it (optional, but recommended)
The final step in confit cooking is storing. Allow the fat to cool and transfer the meat and fat to a storage container. Store the meat in your refrigerator or another cold place for up to several weeks. (If you’ve used a rendered fat, it will resolidify in the fridge.) It can absolutely be eaten as soon as it is done cooking, but if you have the time, store it for a day or two and try it then. The flavors will come together even more, and the preservation experience of it will be well worthwhile.
Recipe: Beef Brisket Confit with Goat Cheese Polenta
- 3 lb brisket, cut into 3″ cubes
- 4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp allspice
- 5 good sprigs fresh thyme
- ¼ tsp paprika (smoked, if you like)
- 4 bay leaves
- Pinch nutmeg
- Pinch dried thyme
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
- enough light olive oil or rendered fat to cover the meat, about 1 1/2 quarts—we used one block of lard with a quart of lite olive oil
- 1/2 cup dried polenta or cornmeal
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup half-and-half
- 4 oz fresh goat cheese (chevre)
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 2 tsp fresh minced parsley
- Salt to taste
Day before cooking:
- Cut brisket into short-rib sized chunks—about 2-3″ square.
- Combine salt and dried spices. Toss spice mixture, garlic, fresh thyme, and bay leaves together with beef.
- Place in refrigerator uncovered overnight to cure.
Day of cooking:
Make the confit
- Lightly rinse the excess salt and spices off the meat, reserving the bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and garlic to add to the oil with the meat.
- Heat the oil/fat in a sauté pan or dutch oven large enough to hold the meat comfortably.
- Use a pot clip to attach the High Temp Smokehouse Penetration Probe on your ThermaQ Blue to track the oil temp.
- Set a low alarm of 180°F (82°C) and a high alarm of 200°F (93°C). Adjust the heat to try to get the temp to stay in that range. This can be a rather tricky process. Keep an eye on the temperature on the app and when you see it approaching the high alarm, turn the heat on your stove slightly down so that the temperature will level off. If it falls too far without leveling off, turn it slightly back up. If you hit a temperature that holds fairly constantly in the target range, stick with it!
- Add the meat to the oil. If, after all the meat is added, the oil doesn’t cover the meat, add more fat or oil until the meat is submerged.
- Adding meat to the oil will make the temperature drop dramatically. Adjust the heat again to bring it into the temperature target range. Again, this will take some fine adjustment and attention.
- Start monitoring the temperature on the app. Set the timer on your TimeStick for 4 hours.
- Adjust your flame as needed to maintain the correct temperature.
- When the timer sounds, check a piece of brisket for tenderness. It should shred easily with a fork.
- If storing for later use, cool on the stovetop then move the meat and fat to a container for refrigerator storage.
- If using immediately, heat a pan with a little of the oil from the pot to sear and crisp the fatty side of each piece of confit before serving.
- If reheating stored confit, also crip the fatty side in this manner after warming it in the oven for about 30 minutes at 300°F (149°C).
Make the polenta
- When the confit is nearly finished, combine the half-and-half and water in a small saucepan.
- Add the salt and the cornmeal, whisk and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often.
- When the polenta starts to boil, turn down the heat and continue to stir, scraping the edges and bottom of the pan.
- When the polenta is thick and starts to pull away from the edge of the pan, turn off the heat.
- Add the goat cheese and the parsley and stir to combine.
- Add the butter and stir to combine. This will give the polenta a nice glossy sheen.
- Check for salt
Tom Colicchio, Duck Confit, on Epicurious.com
Claire Saffitz, Olive Oil–Confit Chicken with Cipolline Onions, in Bon Appétit
J. Kenji López-Alt, What the Heck is Confit?, on SeriousEats.com
Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, Charcuterie