foie gras torchon

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

One of my favorite things on earth to eat is a well made foie gras torchon. It’s a special preparation of foie gras, fat duck liver, that I first experienced at The French Laundry (the recipe is in The French Laundry Cookbook if you have it).  It’s a three day procedure and brings out the very best in the foie gras when done right.  The duck liver is deveined, typically soaked in milk and salt to remove residual blood, then seasoned and, traditionally, rolled up in a kitchen towel (a torchon, in French), poached, rerolled to compact it and chilled. It’s then eaten cold, a big fat slice of it, with some form of bread and a sweet-sour accompaniment.  The biggest producer of foie gras in the country, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, was making and selling its own, but ran into problems. I’m honored to have Bob del Grosso guest post on what happened after, in the first of what will now be three foie gras torchon posts.

—M.R.

By Bob Del Grosso, aka A Hunger Artist

I’d been blogging about the misdirected animal rights movement’s efforts to ban foie gras (rather than putting their efforts toward ending chicken batteries or farrowing crates or any of the dozens of other nasty practices by moneyed industrial agribusinesses) since 2007.  In 2009, Hudson Valley Foie Gras manager Marcus Henley, invited me to see for myself how the ducks were raised and harvested. I gladly accepted and invited along Michael Pardus, a CIA chef-instructor and friend who lived nearby.

It was an exciting visit and confirmed for both me and Pardus HVFG’s excellent farming techniques and treatment of its ducks. (I work on a grassfed beef and dairy farm, so I know good, humane, farming practices when I see them.) After the visit, Marcus occasionally wrote or called to ask food production advice. Shortly after Christmas 2010, he called me about a problem he was having with the production of their foie gras au torchon, which they’d outsourced to another food production company. The torchons were developing large, unappealing pockets of fat.  He asked me if I could solve the problem.

I accepted and, missing my friend Pardus and believing he had access to hi-tech, slow-cook equipment at work, I asked if he wanted to join me.

Pardus was game, but unfortunately, he couldn’t get access to the high-tech equipment for an outside project. In fact this turned out to be a benefit.  The first thing we changed from HVFG’s production method was to use an immersion circulator (it was the cooking of foie gras that helped spur the development of sous vide cooking in the 1970s) and cook the torchon in a water bath. Not only would this form of cooking be less costly, but it would also solve the problem of the fat pockets. Because the new method required that the torchon be put in a bag and vacuum sealed, it created a much more compact liver and took care of the fat problem, no more bubbles of fat breaking out.

We were also asked to start from scratch regarding the recipe itself, the seasoning of the foie gras.  I proceeded in the same way I create all of my commercial recipes. After deciding on the method of preparation and determining how the seasoning will influence the physical properties of the main ingredient I did the following:

  1. Imagine how I want the dish to taste.
  2. Guess at a minimum weight of each ingredient.
  3. Weigh out each ingredient and begin adding them to the main ingredient.

Each time I add a new ingredient to the dish, I smell it carefully to get a sense of how the aroma is coming together. I taste it for the basic tastes (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami, “heat”) of course, but mostly I rely on my sense of smell to know when a dish has been seasoned properly.  If I know the dish will be eaten cold, I usually add a little bit more seasoning than what I think smells and tastes right in the uncooked product. Conversely, if the dish is to be eaten hot I will record less seasoning than what might smell and taste right at room temperature or I will leave it as is.  Once I get to what I believe is the right aromatic and taste profile, I record the final weight of each ingredient and calculate the percentage of the main ingredient that each subordinate ingredient represents.

While I bought a terrific inexpensive FreshMealsSolutions sous vide machine to run my tests, Pardus, a true minimalist decided to cook his torchons in a pot on a stove top. He kept track of the temperature with an instant read thermometer and when it got too hot too fast, dropped it by bombing it with ice cubes. I’m not kidding—and when we used the same temperature and time regimen, he got the same results.

The torchon we finally arrived at, and which HVFG now sells (scroll down), is first brined with some curing salts to leach any residual blood (better flavor, more attractive) and seasoned very simply with good white pepper (Black pepper tastes better but would make the torchon look speckled), brown sugar, and a really good Sauternes that has lots of peach and grapefruit notes.

And that is the story of the birth of a torchon.

foie gras torchon

(note the "created by" line —love it.)

————–

Thanks, Bob, and thanks HVFG for your consistently great products.  Bob, like any great chef, is a penny pincher by nature and so chose the most inexpensive temperature controlled water bath he could find; he also liked that he could use it in varying sized vessels.  Other options are the Sous Vide Supreme, which is great for home use.  The top of the line is the Poly Science Immersion circulator, which is what all restaurants should have and is what HVFG now uses to cook the Del Grosso/Pardus torchon.

If you liked this post on torchon, check out these other links:

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40 Wonderful responses to “The Birth of a Torchon”

  • Carol Blymire

    The TFL torchon with pickled cherries remains, to this day, one of the best things I’ve ever made. I was so daunted by it the first time I made it, but now — years later — it’s really easy to do, and well worth the time involved. Really, really delicious…. and a real crowd-pleaser.

  • Nicole Verity

    I know we all eat food that may involve animals’ suffering, even while we have the best intentions of treating food production animals humanely. Doesn’t foie gras production cause intentional and unavoidable suffering? In this light, should it be promoted as a foodstuff?

    • ruhlman

      Fair question, reasonably stated, thank you. The 100s of 1000s of foie gras ducks that we eat each year have far better lives than the billions of cows, pigs, and chickens raised in batteries and CAFOs. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned that’s a reason to promote and encourage foie gras consumption.

      • Berry

        My understanding is that geese (at least, not sure about ducks) will naturally gorge themselves on acorns (or whatever’s available) in preparation for migration. There’s a farm in Spain, Patería de Sousa, that sells foie gras made this way — from geese that overfeed themselves rather than being forcefed — and while it’s a bit different than traditional foie gras it’s still delicious.

        This leads me to think that the traditional method of making foie gras is not a cruel as some think; certainly not as nasty as what some giant farms do to veal calves or chickens.

  • Wilma de Soto

    Bob, Only you could make me weep over a Torchon. Nice post.

  • owen foster

    Nice bit. Good to hear the discipline of measured/ratio based cooking described so well. I think the romantic writer switch may have been turned on though… “I rely on my sense of smell to know when a dish has been seasoned properly” (insert upside down face) It reads nice, but you cannot smell salt.

    Great Blog Michael, I read it all the time.

    Owen,
    Whistler Canada.

    • bob del Grosso

      Also, I wrote that I rely “mostly” on my sense of smell. I suppose that given that I’ve worked out salt to meat ratios for most charcuterie products and have a great deal of faith that I always weigh out an appropriate measure of salt, I could rely soley on my sense of smell to tell when the dish is right. But, truth is I rely on my sense of taste too. Not very romantic, but there it is.

  • John Jezl

    Between you, Carol and BdG, I think you may be convincing me to try sous vide cooking. You’re “pressuring” me! *snerk* (bad joke… I am ashamed)

    Do I dare point out the typo on the label? “Refrigerated for Frozen”

    • bob del Grosso

      John, The typo on the label is driving us all nuts and will be corrected in the new label. This label was generated in-house and is slated to be replaced with a label produced by a graphic design firm.

  • Digging Dog Farm

    I’m no stranger to duck livers, but I’ve never had ‘foie gras’
    For someone who’s never had foie gras… is this the recommended introduction….or something else?

    • ruhlman

      I would definitely try this one. Keller once noted that the torchon is preferred in europe but in the states, people prefered sauteed. they are completely different experiences. I’ll be posting weds on how to serve.

    • bob del Grosso

      Sauteed is the best introduction and it’s seriously easy to do well as long as you remember to 1) let the slices warm to about 60 degrees before cooking 2) Get the pan screaming hot 3) Do not add fat to the pan

    • bob del Grosso

      :-) Don’t tell Carol but I reviewed her post when I was thinking about how I was going to cook my torchon. She nailed the classical method…

    • bob del Grosso

      Nicholas, It was the ($299) 1500D kit with the 18L polycarb tank and bubble circulator. It’s a clumsy set up that requires an (included) air pump but it performs beautifully and is really easy to operate. http://goo.gl/jVOvr

  • Jeremy

    Great read! On a related note, can anyone recommend a decent vacuum sealer? I know there are the kind that only do dry goods (avoid), some that do liquids (required for sous vide), then fancy ones that force air into the bag before sucking it out. I’ve done a bit of searching, and have found some very mixed reviews. Any pointers would be appreciated.

    • Mantonat

      One of the criticisms of the Food Saver brand is that they suck the juice out of meat when you vacuum seal cuts of meat. From what I’ve heard, the newer models are better about this and are also better designed to vacuum seal wet or dry ingredients. I have an older model and get around the issue by freezing meat (and any accompanying marinade or sauce) before vacuum sealing, then warming to room temp before cooking in a water bath.
      I’m not sure if there are any quality home versions like the ulta-expensive restaurant style vaccum sealers like you see on Iron Chef.

    • bob del Grosso

      The bad news is that there is nothing under 1K that I have found that does a better job than the cheapest FoodSaver. The good news is that there are a few tricks you can employ to reduce the FoodSaver’s tendency to suck liquids out of the bag.

      If the food you want to vacuum is just wet, wrap in in plastic wrap before putting it in the bag or par-freeze it before vacuuming. The plastic will retard the movement of liquid up and out of the bag and par freezing will do the same thing. I’ve also had good results putting a piece of gauze between the food and the mouth of the bag so that when the vacuum pulls out the liquid it is absorbed by the gauze and remains in the bag.

    • Jane

      Ziploc have a range of Sous vide bags that have a valve and a plastic pump to remove the air. You don’t need to worry about anything liquid – just position the bag so the valve is at the top and when the liquid starts coming out the air should all be out too. The pump is easily washed.

  • Matthew Hall

    Thank you so much for this post. Now I have another thoughtful food blog to read!

    Respectfully, I must point out that other people treating their animals poorly does not make the production of foie gras less likely to “cause intentional and unavoidable suffering”. The issue comes down to how much you are willing to accept.

    I’ve never found a foie gras that I really thought was worth having (budget constraints are most likely the cause here). With this post I’ve decided to start saving my pennies…

  • Thomas H. Ptacek

    Regarding vacuum sealers:

    There seems to be a large gulf between the “Seal-a-Meal”-style machines you can get at Walmart and the chamber vacuum machines Keller and Ruhlman are referring to in _Under Pressure_. Recall that to generate compression, you need the “for-reals” chamber machines; that’s going to set you back an extra $700-900 dollars. Sous Vide Supreme now sells what I believe is the cheapest new chamber machine you can get, for $800:

    http://www.sousvidesupreme.com/product.aspx?ProductID=54

    But! You probably don’t need a chamber machine.

    First, the only serious limitation you have with a cheap sealer is that you can’t create serious vac or compression, which eliminates some (very high end) cooking techniques. But in day-to-day low-temp cooking, you don’t need that capability.

    Second, did you know you don’t even need a sealing machine? I cook in a temp-controlled water bath at least once a week and haven’t used my sealer in almost a year. Instead, I use Dave Arnold’s zip-loc technique (put product in bag, seal bag around pinkie, submerge bag in water to allow displacement to get rid of air, then finish the seal). It’s much faster than the sealer and bags liquids (in their liquid state!) easily. So, that’s what I think you should do, especially if you’re just getting started.

    Finally, I’m not sure it’s the bag that’s causing liquids to be expelled from your proteins. Bringing proteins to temp is always going to cause some liquid to be lost. And some temperatures that are perfectly reasonable for service turn out not to be reasonable for holding food long term, so be sure you aren’t overheating. Finally (and this blows my mind), you can apparently minimize loss of liquids by jaccarding your protein before you bring it up to temp; the jaccard (which makes zillions of undetectably small cuts in meat to tenderize) breaks fibers that would squeeze water out when they contract under heat.

    The jaccard is, in my opinion, a better place to route your kitchen cooking budget than a crazy expensive vac machine. Seriously, try the zip-loc bag thing.

    • Mantonat

      You are entirely right about not needing a vacuum sealer to cook in an immersion circulator or other low-temp water bath. A ziploc bag works great as does cling wrap (rolled tightly and tied on the ends like a sausage). The important thing is that you don’t want any air between the food and the water, which would act as a layer of insulation. I think someone should actually come up with a new name for sous vide cooking, since you don’t really need the vacuum. The water temperature is far more important unless, as you say, you are attempting some of the other techniques like fruit/vegetable compression or quick marination.

    • bob del Grosso

      Everything you’ve written here has the soul of common sense. I can find nothing to disagree with. (Does a comment like this make me an anti-troll?) ;-)

  • Kent

    In “The Saucier’s Apprentice”, Bob Spitz describes a Torchon “cooked” with salt in the freezer/refrigerator (pp. 156-157). Safe… dangerous… opinions?

    Many thanks.

    • bob del Grosso

      It’s a great way to make torchon and the risk is minimal. You would never get USDA approval to do it unless you cold pasteurized the liver, but it produces a beautiful torchon.

  • E. Nassar

    Keep the Foie posts coming. I’ve never splurged on one at home but order it whenever I can. Looking forward to the rest and that might finally push me to put a torchon in my immersion circulator soon.
    On the humane issue, I think we are avoiding a major point here. Properly produced Foie Gras like at HVFG does not cause harm or “torture” the animals. They live a decent life, get treated humanely and make a delicious product. They are uniquely suited to gavage unlike other animals or birds (or humans :-) ). I am not sure any ducks that we buy from the store have actually had it better than these birds.

  • DaleJ

    I’ve done a torchon from the TFL a couple of times. I now own a SVSupreme. At what temp and for how long to sv a torchon?

  • Natalie Sztern

    I am eating Tamales from the latin supermarket where I also bought banana leaves…so I am thinking couldn’t I steam foie gras like a tamale rolled in a banana leaf? For all I know that is a Torchon;

  • Deb W

    Why didn’t you show us a slice? I don’t care what the wrapping looks like, give us a little food porn.

  • Carolyn Z

    Doesn’t the recipe come out tomorrow? Same bat time, same bat place. Here, early in the morning!

  • Brad W.

    I had some luck curing the torchon in salt, white pepper, pink salt and wild turkey. Seems fitting, and foie and bourbon marry very well.

  • MonkeyInTheKitchen

    Great post! I have to ask, is sodium nitrate a necessity? For me it’s a migraine trigger and severely limits my ability to taste quite a bit of great food out there.

    • ruhlman

      actually it’s sodium nitrite. and here it’s mainly for color, prevents oxidation. did you know that green vegetables such as spinach are loaded with nitrate?

      • MonkeyInTheKitchen

        Ah typos :( Both are problem ingredients at times. Those green veggies you mention don’t bother me. Now if only I could figure out when it’s safe to get adventurous and when it’s not!

  • Brad W.

    From what I understand, the pink salt is primarily for color. I’ve done it without, and the outside is a little grey, but that was the only repercussion. That said, I am no expert such as Mr. Ruhlman.

  • Jim Jondreau

    Interesting to read about how to make a torchon at home. And liked the guest blog re defending the process of making Foie Gras….it’s true: chickens are treated much more cruelly !

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  1.  Serving Foie Gras At Home | Michael Ruhlman
  2.  How To Make a Foie Gras Torchon | Michael Ruhlman