When most foodies go on a trip to France, they bring back photos, or maybe a copper pot; some even smuggle a Camembert or saucisson in their luggage. Me? I bring back recipes. I lived in Paris for almost four years, so I’ve got plenty of recipes from those days. But my favorite, the one that transports me directly to the quatrième arrondissement, is cassoulet.
At its most basic, cassoulet is a hearty casserole of creamy white beans layered with meats, sausage, and (usually) duck confit, slowly baked until brown and bubbling. Not only is it the best pork and beans you can imagine, but it’s also a definitive dish of French country cooking—one that, to this day, stirs up fierce debate over what makes it authentic. Is it duck or goose confit? Salt pork? Mutton? That’s because for centuries, cooks in France have made it with ingredients available locally. In that spirit, my cassoulet includes whatever tasty sausage my butcher has, plus stewed pork and homemade duck confit, which gives it an incredible richness and depth of flavor.
For all its legendary appeal, cassoulet isn’t difficult to make; it just takes time. The trick is to break it into steps: make the confit, cook the beans and pork, prepare the vegetables, and assemble. Since you’ll need only about half the confit for the cassoulet recipe, check out the Test Kitchen blog for ideas on how to use the rest.
For me, spending a chilly winter weekend simmering and braising and baking up a cassoulet and then serving it to a group of friends is about as close as I can get to recreating the embrace of my old neighborhood bistro. If only my dining room had those perfect red leather banquettes worn supple by decades of chic Parisians sliding into their seats. And a cranky waiter, of course.
Classic Cassoulet Components
Make the Duck Confit
Prepare the duck confit at least one week before making cassoulet—the flavor and texture improve as it sits.
Tidy up the duck legs by pulling off any large bits of fat and trimming any skin that hangs way beyond the meat. (You can put the skin and fat in a small saucepan over low heat to render the fat; save this for confit or for another use.)
Sprinkle half the salt in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Lay out the sprigs of rosemary, the bay leaves, and half the garlic slices in 8 piles, put a duck leg on top of each, then press the thyme and remaining garlic on top of the duck. Sprinkle the duck with the rest of the salt and then spread it with your hands so that all sides are coated. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Put the duck fat in a heavy Dutch oven that’s large enough to hold all the legs (they can be stacked) and heat over low heat until melted. Scrape all of the seasonings from the duck, wiping away any moisture with paper towels. Slip the duck legs into the fat and completely submerge them. Cover the pot and adjust the heat so that the fat stays just about 200°F; do not let it go over 210°F.
Cook until the legs are completely tender when pierced by a knife, 2-1/2 to 4 hours, depending on the size of the legs. Let them cool in the fat; when cool enough to handle, remove with tongs, taking care not to rip the skin, which will be delicate.
Arrange the legs in a crock, baking dish, or large sturdy plastic container (they can be stacked). Pour the fat through a fine strainer over the legs to cover them completely. Cover the dish tightly and refrigerate for at least 1 week before using (you can use the legs sooner, but the texture and flavor are best after this curing period). You can store the confit for up to 8 weeks.
To use, gently pry out the number of legs you need, scrape off the excess fat, and press the fat back over the remaining legs.
For the Cassoulet Recipe
Heat the oven to 375°F. Arrange the duck legs skin side up on a heavy rimmed baking sheet and cook until heated through, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool slightly. With your fingers, pull off the skin and chop it finely; then pull off the meat in large chunks and assemble with the beans according to the recipe.
To Eat Confit as a Main Dish
Reheat as above for about 15 minutes and then raise the heat to 425°F. Flip the legs skin side down and continue to cook until the skin is crisp and brown; use a thin spatula to remove them from the pan. If you need just a few legs’ worth of confit, heat them in a skillet (preferably cast iron), and crisp the skin over medium-high heat.
Cook the Beans
Soak the beans overnight in cold water (soaking is optional, but makes the texture creamier and the cooking time shorter). Drain, rinse again, and put in a large saucepan or 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven. Add enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch (more, if you didn’t soak them). Add the onion, thyme, rosemary, savory (if using), bay leaf, chile, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, adjusting the heat as needed to achieve a gentle bubbling. Cover partially and simmer until the beans are tender but still hold their shape. Depending on the variety and freshness of your beans, this could take from 30 minutes to 2 hours, so check frequently, adding more water if the beans get dry. Remove from the heat and let cool in the liquid.
Make ahead: You can make the beans up to 2 days ahead. If not using the same day, refrigerate the beans and their cooking liquid separately. Discard the herb stems, onion, and chile.
Make the Stewed Pork
In a medium bowl, toss the pork with the olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Heat a 10-inch straight-sided sauté pan over medium-high heat, add about half of the pork in a single layer, and cook until well browned on all sides, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining pork. Pour off any fat and return the reserved pork and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the wine and boil vigorously until it’s reduced to about 1/4 cup. Add the broth, garlic, and rosemary and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and simmer gently until the pork is very tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Cool slightly, remove the meat from the broth, and put the broth in a bowl. Let the broth cool and then skim off as much fat as possible.
Make ahead: You can cook the pork up to 2 days ahead.
Cook the Vegetables and Tomato Sauce
Heat 1 Tbs. of the duck fat or olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pancetta and cook until browned and most of the fat has been rendered, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and pour off the fat. Add another 1 Tbs. of the duck fat or oil to the pan, raise the heat to medium high, and add the carrots; season with salt and pepper. Cook until barely tender and golden around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the carrots to the bowl with the pancetta. Add 1 Tbs. more duck fat or oil and the onions to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook, stirring and scraping the pan frequently, until the onions are soft and fragrant and starting to caramelize, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the onions to the carrots and pancetta.
If there’s a layer of cooked-on juices in the pan, deglaze with a few spoonfuls of water and add that to the vegetables and pancetta.
Over medium-high heat, add the remaining 1 Tbs. duck fat or olive oil to the skillet, and quickly cook the garlic until it’s fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until they reach the consistency of a chunky sauce, 5 to 6 minutes. Set aside.
Make ahead: You can cook the vegetables and tomato sauce up to 1 day ahead, but don’t combine them with the beans until the day of assembly.
Assemble the Cassoulet
Strain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid (if you haven’t done so already). Pick out the herb stems, onion, and chile and discard. Gently fold the beans with the pancetta-vegetable mixture, the tomato sauce, and the parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Choose a vessel for the cassoulet: A flameproof roasting pan that’s about 16x13x3 inches works well, as does a 9- to 10-quart Dutch oven. Adjust the oven rack so that the pan you’re using will sit about 6 inches below the broiler. Heat the oven to 350°F.
Heat 1 tsp. of the olive oil in the pan over medium heat. Add the sausages and cook until nicely browned all over, 5 to 6 minutes (they don’t need to be fully cooked at this point). Remove from the heat. Set the sausages aside to cool; then cut into quarters. Pour off any fat from the pan.
Spoon half the bean mixture into the pan in an even layer. Arrange the sausage, pork shoulder, and duck meat evenly over the beans. Top with the rest of the beans. Pour in the defatted pork broth and then add the bean-cooking liquid until the level comes to just below the beans—you should be able to see the liquid but it shouldn’t cover the beans. Bake the cassoulet, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
Toss the remaining 3 Tbs. olive oil with the breadcrumbs, cheese, and zest (if using), and spread about 2 cups over the surface of the cassoulet. Continue baking until the crumbs start to brown and the beans are sizzling around the edges, about 45 minutes more.
Sprinkle on the remaining crumbs, turn the broiler to high, and broil until the crumbs are crunchy and browned, about 1 minute. Remove the cassoulet and let it sit for at least 45 minutes so the juices can thicken slightly. Serve hot or warm.