Succulent turkey legs, bathed languidly and luxuriously in duck fat, are the answer to a dark-meat lover’s prayers on Thanksgiving Day.
No guests feigning politeness as they watch others lunge for the juicier, less-plentiful option on the platter; a single confited leg yields about seven ounces of meat, and more than twice that when the thigh is attached. The leg also offers a generous amount of skin, crisped and bronzed in high heat just before serving. Whoever first borrowed a page from the French confit playbook, where duck and goose have been treated this way for centuries as a method of preservation, deserves a silver spoon.
Preparing an extra turkey breast in advance is often the way to augment the bounty of a modest 12-pounder. It comes with issues, though: White meat can dry out easily when it’s reheated. Make-ahead, whole-roast turkey recipes call for the bird to be then broken down into parts; the breast is sliced and held in some sort of flavorful liquid, which sounds like a reverse brine (buh-bye, pure turkeyness).
“Duck fat has a noticeably cleaner mouth feel than chicken fat,” says Samuel Kim, who put turkey leg confit on the Thanksgiving Day menu at 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown when he came to head the kitchen last year. For a high-volume operation — the restaurant will serve about 700 on the day — the make-ahead flexibility and consistency of the confited turkey is a boon, he says. Kim’s crew will pull the leg and thigh meat and serve it with sous-vide turkey breast and turkey-skin chips.
Fresh turkey legs cost about a buck per pound, but the couple of quarts of duck fat they need to be completely submerged in can set you back more than $50. (Look for it at the butcher shop or in the meat department of your grocery store.) So plenty of turkey leg confit recipes resort to olive or canola oil instead. The meat becomes tender, but oil does not impart anything close to the savory, silky quality of that liquid gold. Casa Luca executive chef Erin Clarke warns that some olive oils tend to be bitter; she suggests cutting the duck fat with cleanly rendered bacon fat.
“Everybody has loads of it,” she says. “It’s going to lend a bacony flavor, but there’s nothing wrong with that!”
Fortunately, the post-confit duck fat can be strained, kept in the freezer and reused — a culinary boon for up to a year or more of more confit, some duck-fat-fried potatoes, perhaps a batch of duck-fat-enriched matzoh balls and even a ramped-up Yorkshire pudding.
Legs headed for duck-fat poaching are first treated to an overnight cure. Traditionally, that was done to help preserve the meat, but modern cooks have come to understand how necessary the step is for flavor. In the accompanying recipe, salt, sage, thyme and crushed black peppercorns are rubbed in and nestled around the legs. Leaving the legs uncovered and exposed to refrigerator air helps form a skin that will crisp up in the end.
There’s something so knight’s table/Renaissance festival/ye olde about grabbing a cooked turkey leg. The meat of, say, a braised turkey leg threatens to slide off the bone. But a confited/crisped turkey leg can be brandished without fear of dismantling — at least when it’s kept away from a hungry table companion.
“Confiting the legs makes a lot of sense,” says Bonnie Moore, culinary adviser for the Willowsford community in Aldie, Va. “What a great way to refine and celebrate American cuisine.”
Another strong selling point: The turkey legs can be confited a week in advance.
This is the smart, make-ahead approach to satisfying dark-meat lovers at the Thanksgiving table. The method of poaching the turkey legs in duck fat is also a flexible one; cooking them even an extra hour won’t hurt them.
The original recipe called for legs with thighs attached; feel free to use those if that’s what’s available.
MAKE AHEAD: The turkey legs need to be seasoned and refrigerated overnight. The confited turkey legs can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The duck fat that was used to cook the turkey legs can be strained, cooled and frozen for up to 1 year.
Consider the amount of duck fat used here as a kitchen investment. It can be reheated over low heat, then strained, cooled and frozen for reuse for up to 1 year. Find it in the meat department of your grocery store or at your favorite butcher shop.
Adapted from Evan Kleiman, host of “Good Food” on WCRW in Los Angeles.
6 turkey drumsticks (may substitute 3 or 4 turkey legs with thighs attached)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons crushed black peppercorns
12 fresh sage leaves
6 fresh thyme sprigs
9 cups duck fat (see headnote)
Season the turkey legs all over with the salt. Arrange them in an ovenproof pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Sprinkle the crushed peppercorns over them, and tuck the sage leaves and thyme sprigs under and around them. Refrigerate (uncovered) overnight.
Bring the turkey legs to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Gradually heat the duck fat in a pot over low heat. Once it has liquefied, carefully pour it over the legs until they are completely covered. Place the pan of turkey legs and duck fat over one or two burners on the stove top; heat over medium heat to just below a boil.
Carefully transfer the pan to the middle oven rack. Slow-roast, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, until the legs are cooked through; the skin on the lower part of the drumstick should appear to be crisp and pulling away from the upper part of the drumstick. During that time, check occasionally to make sure the duck fat is not boiling. (If it it is, reduce the temperature as needed.) You might see some tendons exposed when the legs are done; pull them out and discard them.
If you’re making the turkey leg confit in advance, let the legs cool in the fat, then cover and refrigerate (for up to 1 week; remove them from the duck fat and bring to room temperature before the final crisping step, explained next.)
If you’re serving them within an hour or two, increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Use tongs to transfer the legs to a rimmed baking sheet. If desired, use tweezers to remove any exposed thin white cartilage; make sure the legs are turned wide side up. Roast the legs for 15 to 20 minutes or until the skin has crisped and browned.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; e-mail questions to email@example.com