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The Food Lab: How To Make a Foie Gras Torchon (Secret Technique Inside!)

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

Did you know that with just $65 and a bit of effort, you can serve your holiday guests the king of all hors d'oeuvres?

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and venture a guess that for the vast vast vast majority of you, this post is gonna seem less than 100% useful. I mean, a cured, fattened duck liver barely cooked and rolled up in a kitchen towel? What the heck kind of a dish is that? How many people even eat foie gras to begin with, mush less at home, and who in their right mind wants to spend three days working on a single cold appetizer?

And fair enough. But if the current state of media is any indication, we love to learn about things we're never going to do for ourselves. We have shows that answer questions like, "can a cockroach survive a nuclear holocaust?" There's an entire documentary about training dragons. And how many of you are prepared for the zombie apocalypse that, to be honest, will *probably* never happen?

By those standards, making a foie torchon doesn't seem so far fetched, does it? And it shouldn't! It is, after all, one of the pinnacles of Western cuisine, combining centuries of exploration into the fields of animal husbandry and breeding, curing and charcuterie, flavor development, and of course general kitchen badassery.

The basic process starts with really good foie gras. Living in the United States, fortunately this is relatively easy to find. There are only two foie farms remaining in the country (the third, Sonoma foie was recently closed due to California law), both of them located in the Hudson Valley in New York, and both of them producing excellent foie gras from very well-raised ducks. (Take an inside look at La Belle Farms here). Once the liver is cleaned of veins, it's cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, and pepper, along with a splash of liquor such as brandy or Sauternes, before being rolled up tightly into a cylinder, typically inside a clean kitchen towel (that would be a torchon in French). After hanging for a few days, it's gently poached, chilled again, then served sliced.

A perfect foie torchon melts on the tongue like the creamiest butter, but with a distinct cured sweetness that forms the perfect balance for a perfumed wine. It's simple to serve—just slice it, put it on a piece of toast, add a bit of dried fruit or preserves, and go—and let's face it, it'll impress your guests.

Foie gras ain't cheap, but it's not out-of-this-world expensive either. A full liver—enough to feed at least 10 to 16 people—will run you $65 if you order it online (I recommend Bella Bella Gourmet, who were kind enough to provide the foie I used for these recipes.

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Are you sold yet? Well good, because we're about to dive in. While this is such a classic dish that the technique is pretty much a standard, there are a few tricks I've developed over the past few years to get you to your end in a better, more streamlined manner.

For details of the process and the tricks, read on. Or, jump straight into the step-by-step slideshow above or see the printable recipe here.

Cleaning Foie

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Foie comes in two grades, "A" and "B." The grading standards are self-designated, but generally refer to the amount of bruising there is on the exterior of a lobe, and how many interior veins there are. For things like searing or roasting whole, you'd want to go with an "A" liver, since you don't have the opportunity to remove veins before cooking it. For a torchon, on the other hand, we're going to dive in there and remove all the veins anyway, so a B lobe will do just fine.

De-veining the foie is the most painstaking and frustrating part of the process, but it's easier than it looks. I like to do it with a pair of tweezers and a metal offset spatula, which I find is less likely to accidentally cut through a vein than a normal paring knife.

The key is this: DON'T WORRY IF YOU MESS IT UP. Room temperature foie gras is like play doh—extremely forgiving. Even if you completely mangle it trying to get those veins out, you can always push it back into shape and nobody will be the wiser.

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Once you've got the major veins out, go back in with your spatula and start pressing the foie around, searching it for any more tiny veins or burst blood vessels that'll leave unattractive red spots in your finished torchon.

Once the veins are out, you're ready to cure.

Measuring Woes

The curing step is the one in which I personally take most issue with existing recipes. Some start with an overnight soak in milk, which accomplishes... nothing, other than to slightly lighten the color of the liver as it leaches out a bit of blood that you may have missed. If you feel like doing it, it won't hurt, but I personally skip this step—the flavor of your torchon will be the same.

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The second point in which I find problems is that most recipes have you season your foie by eye, sprinkling it with salt and pepper until it seems right. Any professional charcutier will tell you that the key to a successful, tasty cured meat preparation is to get the proportions of curing agent precisely correct. There's nothing more important in food than proper seasoning, and since you can't exactly taste as you go, eyeballing it just ain't good enough.

These are the proportions we're aiming for. All ingredients are listed as a percentage of the weight of foie gras you are starting with.