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Cold-Smoke and Confit

If you knew me before I and everyone else went absolutely batshit over David Chang's Momofuku (its volume of incredibly fun recipes are certainly the most used in my home at the moment, and for good reason) you knew I already had and still have a close relationship with smoked stuff. The real stuff. Meat stuff.

A short time ago, I was gifted rather serendipitously - and most generously - a solid offset smoker from Tom and Carla of Hoperatives after they switched to a Big Green Egg (Tom, I haven't forgotten about those beef ribs, I am just incomprehensibly indolent). Overnight, my smoking capabilities quadrupled. Weather permitting or not, I use it frequently for everything from fucking up brisket, to making sausages and bacon, and, when I have a spare hour, cold-smoking a huge batch of chicken to confit.

The cold-smoke is a fantastic way to introduce delicate smoke flavor to meat while leaving its texture completely unchanged. During hot-smoking, the meat gets a gentle wave of radiative and convective heat from an indirect heat source - a small fire of lit coals and/or few chunks of wood - so the meat succulently cooks at the same time as the smoke passes over it, albeit over several hours. Cold-smoking, however, doesn't cook the meat at all. Usually this means simply placing it in a smoke-filled chamber in balmy or ambient temperatures - the source of the smoke simply a few smoldering chips inside - but as the name suggests, it can and often does take place in a refrigerated environment set as low as 32 degrees, during which one would usually pipe in smoke from a separate, connected firebox.

Understandably, hot-smoked meats can have much more smoke flavor than cold-smoked, but cold-smoked can be more nuanced. As Harold McGee (or God, as far you're concerned) puts it: "Smoke vapors are deposited onto the meat surface as much as seven times faster in hot-smoking; however, cold-smoked meats tend to accumulate higher concentrations of the sweet-spicy phenolic components and so may have a finer flavor." Smoke itself also has certain compounds that slow down fat oxidation and inhibit spoilage; ever since we've been salting, curing and fermenting, we've been smoking. And smoke is a great addition to chicken confit.

For the sake of those unfamiliar with confit, you'll be pleased to know that the word can be confusingly thrown around now and again as a term to mean anything poached in fat (such as pork, tomatoes, onions, etc.) and even for some sugar-cured products such as lemons. I hold no antipathy towards this usage and gladly encourage it, I just want to pedantically clarify: by classical definition, the only "true" confit is duck or goose meat poached in duck or goose fat and then stored in that fat for long-term usage. You ask for simply "confit" in southern France in the early 1900's, you'll get duck or goose. Everything else like chicken or pork is supposedly "in the manner of confit". The reason for the gradual variation in definition is the same as many other things in food history - butchering your neighbors' recipes. I respect tradition. But when pork belly is oven-poached in fat until tender, chilled, and then sliced and grilled? I'm calling that pork belly confit, and you should too. However if some ascot-brandishing popinjay snottily proclaimed that it wasn't true confit, from a historical context they'd be correct. Does it matter? No. Not really. Moving on.

There are a few steps to this technique, but they are actually pretty easy. You brine some chicken cuts, to season and lightly cure them upfront. Then cold-smoke them briefly. Then poach them in flavorful fat gently until very tender. Then chill and store them until you're ready to do the most important step: ravenously eat them. Make one batch and feed a couple people, or make a few batches and have it on hand all week.

Regarding lard - don't get the hydrogenated stuff from the grocery store; visit a butcher and get real lard for the same price or often cheaper. You can also use chicken fat is you're feeling fancy.

If you live in an apartment or don't have access to an outdoor area to smoke, Chang says you can tuck in a few pieces of smoky bacon into the pot during the confit step to get a similar effect. I have not tried this, but it sounds like a waste of good bacon to me. I'd skip the smoke altogether - just brine and confit. Either way, the resulting product of this multiple-step multiple-day process is a dish that, once served, will be lucky to survive more than a few minutes. It is my absolute favorite way to cook and eat chicken.


Ingredients:

Plenty of salt and sugar
3-5 lbs chicken - whole wings, thighs, or drumsticks

2 quarts rendered lard or chicken fat

Equipment Needed:

A smoker, some charcoal and some wood chunks or chips, and/or a grill if grilling
A lidded pot or other oven-safe high-walled vessel that will hold all of the chicken
Patience

The brine - I'm making 16 cups of 8 percent solution; a fairly strong brine. Add aromatics as you'd like. Get your brining container and fill it with 8 cups of ice water. Measure out 10.25 ounces of kosher salt (about 1.25 cups Morton's or 2 heaping cups Diamond Crystal) and a cup of sugar into a large saucepan and add 8 cups water. Heat it on the stovetop until the sugar and salt completely dissolve, then pour the solution into the container with the ice water. It should be cold. Drop the chicken to the solution, cover, and put in the fridge for about 2-4 hours. Take the chicken pieces out of the brine and set them in the fridge until ready - up to a day - to dry out the skin a little. Dump the brine.

The smoke - The goal here is to just very lightly imbue a little smoke flavor to the chicken. It's completely foolproof. If you have an offset smoker, light just a few coals in a chimney or with a butane torch, and then place a few chunks of hardwood nearby the coals. If you have a grill, you can top a handful of chips with one or two lit coals just to keep them going; it's ok if you have to relight a few times. Either way, don't kill yourself. You won't be there long. Add the chicken, close the lid and just let it go for 30-45 minutes, making sure the temperature doesn't rise above 100 degrees. Remove the chicken from the smoker; if wings, cut off the tips and set aside and divide the wings in two at the joint, otherwise just proceed. Note. If you don't have  a smoker or grill, get creative: use a big cardboard box, one of those disposable aluminum pans and a couple wire racks and build one.

The confit - Preheat the oven to 225. Snugly stack the smoked, uncooked chicken in the pot you will use. Melt the pork fat in a large saucepan. When the fat reaches 200 degrees, pour it over the chicken until it is fully submerged. Put the lid on the pot, and put it in the preheated oven; an hour for wings, about two hours for thighs. It may take longer. What you're looking for is chicken that gives easily to a knife and looks like it's just cooked on the surface. Don't worry if it's not quite to temperature, because you're going to cook it again later. Take the pot out of the oven and leave on the stove until cool to the touch.

**The sauce** - If you're doing wings: remember the smoky, uncooked chicken tips? Use them now to make a fucking amazing yakitori sauce called taré. It's great on everything from pork belly to rice. You'll need 1 cup of good sake or dry white wine, 1 cup of mirin, and 2 cups usukuchi or light soy sauce. Heat up a little neutral oil in a pan until just smoking, then add the tips to the pan and fry, moving them around a bit now and then, for about 10 minutes. When the tips are very deeply browned, deglaze the pan: add a good splash of sake - careful, it will scream at you - and scrape up any browned bits still sticking to the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the sake, the mirin, and the soy sauce. When the liquid gets just to a boil, turn the heat down to low and gently simmer for 40 minutes - it will reduce slightly. Turn off the heat and, when the liquid is cool enough, strain into a squeeze bottle or mason jar. I've found the taré will keep in the fridge, sealed, for a month or so, but it's better to use within a week.

The chill - Letting the meat cool is an important step in this whole process. It greatly improves the texture by letting it come to a complete stop before firing it up again. Either put the whole cooled-off pot in the fridge, or transfer the chicken to a container and pour the fat over it and refrigerate overnight. If you end up wanting to store the chicken longer than a week: slide a butter knife around the outer edges, upturn the fully-chilled container and gently bang it down a sheet pan on your counter until the whole solid mass plops out; there will be a layer of "meat jelly" at the bottom. Remove as much of this stuff as possible and either discard it or, better yet, save it for a sauce. The chicken-and-fat mass should keep for months in the fridge, as long as it is kept airtight and the chicken is fully encapsulated in fat.

The cook - The only thing that needs to be accomplished at this point is crisping the skin and warming the chicken up to temperature. You can do this a few ways: you can sear the chicken wings or thighs in a very hot pan, or if you did drumsticks you could grill them over hot coals. I've even broiled them before, with great success. If you did wings, I would recommend searing them in a hot pan so you can saute them with the sauce. Or just be an animal and deep-fry them. It's your preference. To prepare the chicken, remove it from the fridge. Warm the chicken and fat in a pot on low until the fat is melted and you can remove the pieces individually. Set the pieces on some paper towels to drain and set aside for about an hour to acclimate to room temperature before searing.

  • To sear in a pan - Add a little bit of the smoked fat to a hot pan (cast iron works great). Add the chicken in a single layer without crowding. They will stick, probably; just leave them alone for a minute or two and they will release themselves. You can use a bacon press, a flat pan lid or one of those sturdy metal spatulas and press down on the chicken as it is searing to ensure good contact to the skillet. After they are very browned, about 3-5 minutes, flip the pieces and get some color on the other side, adjusting the heat as necessary and again pressing if desired, for a few minutes more. If you made the sauce, now's the time to use it: just before the pieces are done browning on the second side, tilt the pan and spoon out any excess oil, and add a generous squeeze of taré to the pan. The sauce will reduce quickly, so toss the pan to keep the chicken moving and to coat them. You can add other ingredients at this time, too: scallions, ginger, pickled chilis and garlic, whatever suits you. Serve immediately.

  • To grill - If you're using charcoal, make sure you get your coals very hot: 550-600 degrees. If you're using a gas grill, just turn all the burners up to high and preheat for 20 minutes with the lid closed. When your grill is thoroughly heated, add the pieces in a single layer and sear on the first side. Flare-ups from dripping fat is ok, but if things get too crazy, just pop the lid on the grill until it dies down. After a few minutes, turn the pieces over. You can use a long pair of tongs to work with the chicken, but just be careful not to squeeze the pieces or they may fall apart on you - especially if they were poached for a bit too long. Sear the other side nicely. When done, transfer to a sheet pan and let rest for a minute or two before serving.

Strain the pork fat and keep it in the fridge indefinitely. It will get better with each use.

Smoked stuff like this goes great with sautéed/stewed and acidic things. If you did thighs or drumsticks, finish them with some briny salt and serve up on collards, and have plenty of pickles on hand. Or spicy crispy hominy with some crumbly Mexican cheese and lime. It's also great chopped up on tacos. But in case you're wondering, it does not work with sunchoke and parsnip puree. Yuck.

Brioche