First things first:
What are rillettes?
Rillettes are the love-child of carnitas and pâté; meat that’s been salted, spiced, and slow-cooked in its own fat until it falls apart. The texture, somewhere between shredded and whipped, is smooth enough that you can (and should) spread it on toast; some people actually refer to it as “brown jam.”
I discovered rillettes during a semester in Paris, and introduced my husband to them when we went to Lyon this autumn. We ate them on toasted slices of yesterday’s bread as a garnish for salads or accompaniment to fruit, and on today’s bread as sandwiches, layered with jam, or thinly sliced apples, or whatever cheese we’d just discovered.
M. wanted to bring a half-dozen jars home from France, and refrained only because I told him that a) the folks at border control wouldn’t let him take meat back to the U.S. and b) I could make rillettes at home. Not that I had ever done so, but I figured it couldn’t be that difficult.
Tip #1: Don’t use turkey
Delicious rillettes start with delicious meat. Pork, for example. I’ve had rillettes made from duck, rabbit, goose, wild boar… all delicious.
Unfortunately, I decided to use turkey this time. It seemed like a great way to use up some of the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. And I like turkey. But here’s the thing: turkey is the culinary opposite of pork. Every part of the pig is delicious, no matter what you make with it. Turkey, on the other hand, often tastes like a cross between cardboard and death.
I’m not saying you can’t make exquisite turkey rillettes. But I did not. I made mediocre turkey rillettes. At least, I was pretty sure they were mediocre. At that point, my taste buds were kind of burnt out, after an afternoon of tasting little bites of turkey every time I added salt or pepper or garlic. And by “burnt out,” I mean that the thought of eating any more turkey made me feel ill.
Tip #2: Salt and spices are your friends
After letting the rillettes (and my taste buds) rest overnight, I pulled the rillettes out of the fridge and gave them another taste. They weren’t actually too bad. I added some more salt, and suddenly they were pretty good.
I’m not saying that more salt makes everything better, and most of us could certainly do with less salt in our diets. But just enough salt can do magical things, making all the other flavors more intense without making the dish taste salty. Afraid of over-salting, I’ll often salt half of the dish first — that way, if I add too much, I can dial it back by mixing in some of the unsalted portion, adjusting until it’s just right.
So I mixed in some salt, and dialed it back, and mixed in a little more. I portioned the rillette base into batches and mixed in some herbs and spices — thyme into one batch, rosemary and lemon zest into another, paprika into a third — and then tasted and added more salt to one batch, more unsalted base to another — until they all tasted pretty good. I put a bit on toast and with a dollop of cranberry sauce, and it tasted truly excellent.
Of course, by that time, I was sick of turkey again.
How to make rillettes (the general idea)
1. Chop a bunch of meat up into smallish pieces, making sure there’s no tendons or skin.
2. Put the meat in a pot with enough water or broth to just cover it. If the meat is particularly lean, add some fat. Typically, you’d use the fat that came with the meat, but if there isn’t enough you can make it up. The more flavorful the fat, the more delicious the rillettes; duck fat or bacon drippings would probably be the tastiest, olive oil will do in a pinch.
3. Add salt and pepper, and a few cloves of garlic.
4. Simmer, stirring regularly, until the meat starts to fall apart and most of the liquid is gone.
5. If you’re trying to be authentic, stir it until all the chunks of meat fall apart and the whole bunch is smooth enough to spread.
6. When you get tired of trying to be authentic, toss it in your food processor and give it a few quick whirls, or use your mixer to whip it until there are no big chunks of meat. (Careful: it’s easy to go too far and turn it into paste. You want it to have some texture, just no big solid chunks.)
7. Check the seasoning. If necessary, add more salt, pepper, and some herbs or spices. Some people add cognac at this point. Those people are fancier than I am.
8. Pack the rillettes into jars. Or plastic tubs, if you prefer — I’m not going to judge you.
9. In the olden days, people poured a layer of fat on top of the rillettes to seal out the air: the combination of fat and salt preserved the meat. Go ahead and pour in some fat if you like — it’s tasty and keeps the top from drying out — but keep your rillettes refrigerated or frozen. They’ll keep at least a few days in the fridge (longer if you followed good food safety practices, but I’m not going to commit to that in any legally responsible way), or a few months if you freeze them.
If you want to make shelf-stable rillettes, there are recipes out there, but this isn’t one of them. Seriously, don’t mess around with meat.