There are lots of ways to make rillette. You can use rabbit, duck, pork, and maybe even deer (if you use pork lard as your fat source). You can go super fancy with lots of herbs, expensive ingredients, precision techniques on how to chop and cook the meat or incorporate your fat, and store it in fancy flip top jars. Or you can go for easy and use what you have on the homestead – which is my preferred method.
As I mentioned in my last blog posting, The Tale of the Short, Complicated, but Meaningful Lives of Meat Ducks at the reLuxe Ranch, since the wings are not a super saleable commodity, I keep those as my compensation for raising ducks and use them to make rillette. I also keep the leftover bits of fat and skin (that don’t get packaged with the breasts, legs, and carcass cuts) to render as lard and gelatin stock.
Now, as I am sure you can guess, I am not one of those people who will spaz out if I find…Gasp! Egads!…a stray feather on my hand-plucked carcass. And I am not even remotely finicky about those impossible to remove fine hairs that are usually burnt off by torch in industrial duck packing facilities. When making rillette, lard, and gelatin stock, these kind of details just don’t matter because they have no impact on the texture or flavor of your cooked products. In short, the duck parts I save for myself are not nearly as pretty or well-plucked as what I sell at the market and in my opinion, this is how it should be.
Trying to perfectly pluck a duck by hand is an exercise in futility. It is not only impossibly time-consuming, but if you cook homestead style, it’s also entirely unnecessary. The closer you live to your food supply, the more you realize all these things we’ve been habituated to think of as “normal” – like buying a feetless, headless, totally naked carcass in plastic packaging from a grocery store – are subliminal tools designed to make food seem more complicated than it is. It also seems to cause naturally inclined carnivores to become squeamish about eating anything that remotely resembles a previously live animal. Such an instinct, in any place other than an artificial environment, would result in the end of our species and is only made possible as a result of disconnection from our food supply.
Coming to terms with the fact that all of our meat results from the sacrifice of a once living animal is one of the most important mental transitions new homesteaders must make. Once you accept this and stop trying to make your pasture-raised, outdoor-slaughtered meat look like they do on the completely unnatural, environmentally detrimental supermarket shelves, the less time you’ll waste on silly stuff.
After that sidebar into the ethics of homestead plucking – now back to your regularly scheduled instructional…
Once I’ve carved up my money cuts and have a nice bowl of extra fat and skin bits, I just throw the bits onto a cutting board and chop them into inch-sized pieces. Then I toss them into my crock pot with a cup of water. I put the setting on high, stir periodically for about the first half hour – until I am sure the skin isn’t sticking to the pot – and then go do other stuff. A few hours later, when all the skin is curled into tight little pieces and floating at the top of liquid that looks a whole lot like clarified butter, I turn off the crock pot.
Next, I pour the stuff in the crock through a fine sieve, into a bowl, to separate the solids from the liquids. I put the solids in a container in the fridge for later and let the liquid sit on the counter for a few minutes so it can settle out. This few minute wait allows the pure fat to rise to the top of the bowl and any residual water and gelatin to sink to the bottom of the bowl. Maybe 5 minutes later, I grab my ladle and scoop out the liquid from the upper few inches of the bowl into a jar. By scooping the stuff on top first, I can get mainly fat into my first quart jar and then I’ll just put what’s left in a second quart jar.
The fatty/skin bits from 9 ducks gave me about quart and a half of lard and a litte less than a 1/2 quart of gelatin stock. Obviously this varies based on how much fat and skin that goes into crock pot and how long it cooks, if excess water is not boiled off, etc. If you are used to working with quart and pint jars for canning and fermenting, then you tend to get pretty good at knowing how many jars you will need just by sight. But, if you want to be totally precise about separating your fat, you can also put the bowl in the fridge, let the fat set-up into solid form, then scrape the fat into a jar or into a saucepan so you can melt it again and then pour it into jars.
Personally though, I don’t mind if I end up with a little fat in my gelatin jar, particularly when I am making rillette. That’s because I am going to use all of my gelatin and about a half quart of lard as my cooking medium for my wings. Below you can see what my gelatin/lard jar looked like after it spent a few hours in the fridge.
See all that pretty gelatin the skin makes sitting on bottom? Even if you are not making rillette with it, that super stock makes flavorful demi-glace for sauces too or you can warm it up and enjoy it as consomme, or as a general cure-all for minor illnesses.
Ok – so now that the duck lard and gelatin are rendered and stored in the fridge, it’s time to prepare the wings. When you slaughter at home, your meat is super fresh which means it’s not going to be the most tender. You need to age it in cold air for a bit before you cook it. In days gone by this might have happened in an underground root cellar in winter. Now though, we use our fridge.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got all sorts of science experiments going on in my fridge – ripening cheese, yogurt, kombucha, other ferments, etc. And I’m not so good about keeping it meticulously clean. So to age the meat without accidentally introducing some funky bacteria to the mix, I rub it with salt and herbs to act as a kind of cure. The general rule of thumb is that you want somewhere around 2.5 – 3.5% of your meat weight in salt. So if have a pound of meat, that’s in the neighborhood of a 1/2 ounce, a.k.a a tablespoon, of salt.
I often use chopped fresh herbs, but this time I had my dried “post-market mix”, which is made of the herbs I took to market, didn’t sell and so came home and dried. It included lots of savory, some rosemary, thyme, oregano, and a little bit lavender. For my 18 wings, it took about 3 tablespoons of salt and about two of the dried herb mix. If I was using fresh herbs, I would have doubled the herbs.
Massage all that cure into your meat until the salt dissolves and the herbs seem well-distributed. Then cover the bowl and let the wings sit in the fridge for 3 days. (Note: I threw some of my tenderloin strips from the breast in there too.)
After that, take your herb cured wings from the fridge, throw them into a turkey pan. Empty your fat/gelatin mix into the pan too and add enough warm water so that they are floating in a pool of greasy, gelatinous, goodness. Put the pan in the oven and cook at 250º F until the meat is easy to pick off the bone (a little over 5 hours for 18 wings this time). By keeping the meat covered with liquid and fat, it doesn’t get crispy. You’re going for soft, tender spreadable meat for rillette, so keep your meat covered in liquid the entire time it’s cooking.
When the meat is super tender, let it cool, strain the liquid from the turkey pan into a stock pot. Pick the meat off the bones into a separate bowl and put the totally picked bones into the stock pot with the strained liquid. I put the soft-cooked skin pieces from the wings into the rillette, but anything that feels dry or crispy goes into the stock pot.
When you have all your bones in one pot and all your meat in your bowl, go to your fridge and take out those skins you saved from the crock pot three days ago and add them to the stock pot. Cover all of that with water and a lid and boil it until the water reduces by half. Fill the pot with water again and boil until the water reduces by half a second time. Then strain the liquid into quart jars and use for anything that requires stock. When done, it will be salty, herby, and gelatinously wonderful.
While that’s boiling though, mash your duck meat using your fingers until the meat is fine and mushy. Add in a couple of tablespoons of your refrigerated duck lard and mix the lard into the meat until it has an almost creamy in texture. Taste. Add salt and pepper if needed.
Stuff the meat into jars or whatever containers you have. And finally, smear a layer of duck fat over the top to seal the container and let your rillette jars sit in your fridge for a few days.
When you can’t stand to wait any longer, open a jar, and spread toast with good mustard. Eat with fermented pickles, capers, or cornichon if you’ve got them.
I can never wait more than a few hours to have my first taste, so I always leave a little bit out in a small bowl and have it with my evening cocktails on the day I make the rillette. The texture of the rillette really improves with a little time in the fridge though, so it is totally worth waiting a while too.
Now for a quick recap and a little homesteading economics exercise. With time and simple coooking preparations, poorly-plucked, unsaleable duck wings and fat/skin bits become glorious duck lard that can be used exactly like clarified butter, duck stock that is delicious and loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and decadent rillette – a culinary delight sold at fancy food stores like Dean and Deluca for $17 for an 8 ounce tub. To put this in monetary terms, for about 30 minutes of actual kitchen work, and several hours of making sure the house didn’t burn down while I ran the crock put and then the oven, I ended up with $102 worth of rillette, about $16 worth of duck fat, and like $36 worth of duck stock – all products I used to buy at these prices before I started raising and processing my own.
Now I can’t sell these items since I made them at home, for personal consumption, but since I used to buy them at these kinds or prices back before I raised my own, this effectively increases the value of the each duck I process by about $17 each duck and helps make sustainably raising ducks to sell a worthwhile venture.
Oh, and those bones and skin strained from the broth, well, they can be trench composted, dried out and ground up to sprinkle in the garden, or fed to the pigs. So everything ultimately has purpose.
If you don’t raise your own ducks and still want to try this at home, duck wings are fairly cheap to buy (since mostly no one wants them) and if duck lard and stock are out of your budget, you can alway substitute in pork lard and bone stock made from whatever bones you have to make this process economical. They may not taste exactly the same, but they will still be delicious, decadent, and nutritious.