Why It Works
- Slicing the foie gras into thick slabs reduces the chances of it breaking apart or overcooking.
- Heating your knife under hot tap water after each cut keeps the blade from sticking to the foie gras and tearing it.
- A thoroughly pre-heated, smoking-hot skillet ensures the foie gras will get deeply seared during its short cooking time.
I once might have read in a non-existent survey that may well have been conducted by the top statisticians of our times, that many people think that foie gras is a dish limited to fine dining establishments alone. They're afraid to cook it at home. That stuff is $45 a pound... what if I mess it up? they may well be thinking.
It's a large enough paranoia that I've taken to advising the nation's foie gras producers to emblazon their packaging with the words "Don't Panic." And you shouldn't, because foie gras is one of the easiest proteins to cook in the world. Far simpler than a steak or a chicken breast. Infinitely more forgiving than a pork chop or a piece of delicate fish. It's nearly foolproof by nature.
My relationship with foie gras did not start off particularly auspiciously. The first time I remember tasting hot seared foie gras was at a newfangled Brazilian fusion restaurant in Boston where a thin slab of it was served with a chocolate and chili-based sauce. I did not like it and immediately constructed a strong prejudice against ordering it in the future. In retrospect, this was unfair, as I am now certain that it was not the foie gras that tasted terrible, but the preparation.
"I had no idea that there was a difference between a pâté of foie gras and a slab of fresh foie gras."
My second experience with foie gras came a few years later during a hormone-fueled spending and cooking binge in which I decided to serve my potential-future-wife-for-the-moment a piece of foie gras that I'd seared myself. At that stage in my blossoming culinary career, I had no idea that there was a difference between a pâté of foie gras and a slab of fresh foie gras. If you are in the same boat I was in, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and I have hopefully just saved you the trouble of watching $18 worth of pâté de foie gras bubble away in a hot skillet like the Wicked Witch of the West. I am not married to that particular potential-future-wife.
It wasn't until a few years later when I actually started working in a fine dining establishment that I finally understood what the fuss is about. Foie gras is delicious, plain and simple. Decadently rich with a distinct sweetness, its key feature is that its fat melts at just below body temperature. What goes into your mouth semi-solid ends up slowly melting away, coating your tongue in a wash of flavor.
There's a reason charcuterie is the most common way of preparing foie gras—the fattened livers of the Moulard duck (or goose, depending on your national persuasion; in the U.S. it's always duck)—and it's not because it's the tastiest method. It's in fact because it's the best way of preserving a luxury good with a limited shelf life. When cured and formed, a terrine or torchon can last weeks under refrigeration, allowing restaurants, home cooks, and gourmet shops to not worry much about turnover.
But for my money, there's no better way to enjoy foie gras than fresh, sliced into a thick slab, and cooked quickly in a hot skillet to a perfect medium-rare. Luckily, it also happens to be one of the simplest foods to cook properly, provided you understand the basics.
Sourcing and Storing Fresh Foie Gras
The most crucial step to a great dish of hot foie gras is to start with good-quality foie gras. My favorite, and the favorite of many chefs I've worked with, comes from La Belle Farms in Ferndale, New York. Of all the foie I've cooked in my life, theirs has the best ability to retain its shape during cooking, despite being fully flavored and richly fatty. Their foie gras can be ordered either as whole one and a half- to two-pound livers or pre-portioned two-ounce slices from Bella Bella Gourmet.* For pan-searing, you want to order their "A" grade foie gras, which has fewer veins and bruises.
Like bacon and other fatty meat products, foie gras stores remarkably well in the freezer, which means that even if you don't think you'll finish a whole lobe in a single setting, it may be worth your while to order it whole, as the unused portion can always be frozen for your next fancy-pants party. For best results, wrap it tightly in foil, followed by plastic wrap, then throw the whole thing in a zipper-lock bag with the air squeezed out. Alternatively, use a Foodsaver-style vacuum sealer.
Portioning, Scoring, and Seasoning
If you've ordered foie gras at restaurants, you've probably been shocked by the enormous ticket price and the meager portion you receive. I've always been of the mindset that if you're going to eat foie gras, just eat some foie gras. Eat a slab of it, at least a couple ounces. Eat something that takes more than one bite. Enjoy it. Enjoy the contrast between the browned crust and the barely softened center. A puny slab of foie gras is almost not worth the effort for me. On the select times of year I choose to eat it, I really want enough to taste what I'm eating. Anyone else with me?
First, if you're starting with a whole foie gras, split it into two lobes. Using your hands, they will easily pull apart. Work quickly so that the foie gras stays relatively cool and solid. It softens quickly and can smear if it gets too warm.
The key to slicing and portioning foie is to treat it like a rich mousse-cake: Make sure to heat up your knife under running water in between every slice. A cold knife will catch and stick in the foie, causing it to tear or crumble. A hot knife will melt the fat as it goes through, leaving you with clean, smooth surfaces to sear.
Using a reasonably large portion size is smart for another reason: it's very difficult to cook thin slices of foie gras properly. The fat is so fragile that with a thin piece of foie, you are very likely to overcook it. It comes out looking like a greasy deflated balloon. I use slices that are at least half an inch thick. If you'd like to serve smaller portions, rather than using thinner slices, just cut thick slices and divide them into halves cross-wise to form smaller portions of the same thickness. Make sure to warm your knife thoroughly between each and every cut you make!
Duck skin is often scored lightly in order to prevent it from shrinking and causing the duck breast to curl up. With foie gras, there is no technical reason to do this as it does not buckle like a duck breast, but the practice continues, mainly for appearances. I score one side—the side I'm going to serve facing up—in a light cross-hatch pattern, just so I get a few bonus extra-fancy points.
Finally, don't be afraid to season the foie gras very liberally with salt and pepper. Much of the seasoning will come off and float away as the fat renders, so it's important to go heavier than you believe is necessary.
Searing Foie Gras
Now comes the hard part. And by hard I mean dumb-simple. There are really only two ways to mess up cooking a piece of foie. 1) not get your pan hot enough, or 2) forget about it during the 1 minute it's in the pan. Neither of these scenarios is very likely to happen.
To cook foie, heat up a skillet capable of withstanding high heat—stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron, carbon steel, even a newfangled high-heat-safe non-stick skillet will do. Heat it up until it's smoking hot and carefully lay the seasoned slabs of foie in the skillet.
If it doesn't immediately start smoking and rendering fat, your skillet is not hot enough. If this happens, quickly pull the foie out and let your pan preheat some more. Once the foie is in there, it's a rapid-fire process— it takes all of about 30 seconds to a minute per side to get the surface nice and deep brown, so unless you're a busy line cook with a half dozen other orders to fire, the chances of you making mistake #2 and forgetting about it are slim to none.
Flip the foie with a thin metal spatula and keep cooking. If you have particularly thick slices of foie, you can hasten their cooking by basting them with their own hot fat using a spoon.
The final crucial step to cooking foie is to let it rest just long enough that the center softens. About one minute on a paper towel-lined plate will do.
What to Serve It With?
Because of its richness, sweetness, and mild funk, foie gras pairs well with a variety of fruity, jammy flavors. Dried fruit and sauces made from them like figs and prunes are a natural and classic pair. For a preparation that uses fresh and dried figs, check out my recipe for pan-seared foie gras with fig mostarda and fresh figs. Stone fruit—peaches, plums, nectarines, sour cherries, and the like—also work beautifully, particularly when cooked down in a gently perfumed sweet wine like a Sauternes or a sweet Riesling.
For the Orange Purée:
1 whole orange, scrubbed clean
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
For the Foie Gras:
4 slabs fresh grade "A" foie gras, each 1/2-inch thick, lightly scored in a hashmark pattern on one side (6 to 8 ounces total, see notes)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely sliced chives
Coarse sea salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel
1 tablespoon finely diced candied orange peel
For the Orange Purée: Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut several slits in the skin of the orange.
Combine cinnamon, star anise, sugar, and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to the lowest setting. Add orange to pot. Place a clean kitchen towel or a paper towel over the top of the pot, pushing it down until it is in contact with the liquid to keep the orange moist on all sides. Cook until orange is completely tender, about 1 hour. Discard cinnamon and star anise.
Transfer orange to the jar of a blender and add a cup of cooking syrup. Blend on high speed until completely smooth, adding more syrup as necessary to reach a nice gel-like consistency. Season with a pinch of salt and press through a fine-mesh strainer. Set aside. Reserve orange syrup for another use (see notes).
For the Foie Gras: Lay a double layer of paper towels on top of a plate or cutting board and set aside. Season foie gras liberally on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a small skillet over high heat for at least 3 minutes. Place foie gras in skillet scored-side-down. It should immediately start smoking, sizzling, and rendering fat. If it doesn't, remove and allow the pan to preheat for another 1 to 2 minutes. Once all 4 pieces of foie are in skillet, cook, swirling pan gently every few seconds, until deeply browned and crisp on first side, about 30 seconds. Use a thin metal spatula to flip foie gras onto second side and cook for 30 second longer. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate and let rest for 1 minute.
Spoon some orange purée onto 4 individual serving plates and place 1 slice of foie gras on each. Top with chives, coarse sea salt, and candied orange peel. Serve immediately with lightly dressed greens.
A lobe of foie gras weighs about one and a half pounds and is enough for at least 10 to 12 servings.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Any uncooked foie gras can be stored in a vacuum-sealed bag and frozen for several months.
Excess sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to one month. Serve extra sauce with charcuterie, cheese, or roast duck or pork.
Excess spiced orange syrup can be used to flavor soda water and stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 20g||26%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||33%|
|Total Carbohydrate 83g||30%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||25%|
|Total Sugars 66g|
|Vitamin C 185mg||924%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|