Confiting with Syrup (sugar and water)
Mention the word confit in the context of cooking, and most likely people are going to think you’re talking about slow cooking in fat. Probably duck fat. But this is not necessarily the case; you can confit with other liquids besides fat. Confit comes from the French word meaning to preserve, and so to confit something is to cook it in such a way as to be able to preserve it. In the case of fat, you cook and store something in fat to preserve it; the fat acts as a microbe barrier between the food and air, thus impeding spoilage.
However, you can also confit in syrup (sugar and water). Due to the high sugar concentration, syrup is an inhospitable environment for microbes, and therefore it is capable of preservation. Simply cook your food slowly in syrup, and then store it in the syrup. That is confit as well. However, in this case, the manner of preservation will cause whatever we are confiting to become sweet. We would only want to use this method of confit for food that we wish to become sweet – maybe not the best choice for preserving eggplant for example.
When we are confiting food in syrup, the sugar is actually moving inside the food we are cooking. This process takes time and is best done at lower temperatures for an extended period of time. You can see the extent of this process by examining the appearance of the food. For example, citrus peel will begin to look transparent as it becomes confit. This is how you tell when the process is done. Since the sugar has now moved into the food, we can say that we have candied it.
An added benefit to confiting with syrup is that we will end up with a flavored syrup. If we are doing a citrus confit for example, we will end up with citrus syrup as a by product.
Decisions when Candying with Syrup
There are three main decisions we have to make when confiting with syrup. Firstly, what proportion of sugar and water should I use when starting my syrup? I like to start out with twice as much water as sugar. Since the water is constantly evaporating as we are cooking, this proportion will be constantly changing over time. The syrup becomes thicker, reduced, and more concentrated in sugar over time. You can always add more water if the syrup reduces too much.
The second decision is at what temperature to cook the food. We would like to confit as quickly as possible without doing any harm. First, bring the syrup to a boil, making sure that sugar is completely dissolved. Then reduce to a simmer, and maintain this simmer during the confit process. Again, add water if need be, making sure not to overreduce the syrup.
The third decision is how long to cook the food. This depends on the size of the food and the exact temperature you are cooking at. We are waiting here for the sugar to move inside the food, and this occurs more quickly at higher temperatures and greater concentrations of sugar. It also happens more quickly when the food is cut into smaller size pieces. Usually it should take between 30 min to 1 hour. You can observe the confit is finished by examining the food. In some cases, the food will become slightly transparent, such as with a citrus peel.
Ok, so now you know the basic principles of how to confit something in syrup. The only decision to make now is what do you want to confit? What would you like to preserve and/or make sweeter? Probably the most common application is for citrus peel – orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit – you name it. It is a great way to repurpose that peel that was probably going to end up in the trash anyway. You can turn those peels into candied orange zest, candied lemon zest, candied lime zest, etc. Below is a more detailed explanation of the process of confiting citrus peel in syrup.
Candied citrus peel
Citrus confit can be done for any citrus zest – orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, etc. The process is the same regardless. At the end, you will get a delicious candied peel flavored with the citrus that you choose. We will choose candied orange peel as an example here. Again, an added benefit of is that you will get a citrus syrup at the end.
Prepare the peel – Using a vegetable peeler, peel the orange in long large strips, being careful to only remove the outer orange zest and not the white pith. The flavor of the citrus is concentrated only in the outer zest; the whiter inner pith is bitter and does not taste pleasant. You are necessarily going to get some white pith when you peel, but we just want to minimize this amount. If you want to shoot for perfection, you can scrape the pith off the peel with a paring knife. This is the same whether candying lemon zest, lime zest, etc.
So now that you have the peel with minimal pith, you can decide the shape that you would like your candied citrus peel to be. You can just leave the peel in the long large strips that you already have. Personally, I like to lay my peels lengthwise and julienne them into strips that are about 1/16 of an inch wide. This gives you a lot of thin candied ribbons in the end.
Blanch the peel – This step is to remove the bitterness. There are a few ways to do this. The simplest way that we will do here is to place your peel in a pot and fill the pot with cold water. Put the pot on the stove and turn heat to medium high. When the water comes to a boil, turn down to simmer and continue for another 5 minutes. Drain the peel and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
Confit the peel – At the same time that we put the peel and cold water on the stove, we can put our syrup on the stove. Use the 2:1 ratio of water to sugar to start. Make sure to make a large enough amount so that you will be able to comfortably cover your peel afterward. The syrup will reduce so we want to give ourselves enough room to keep the peel covered as the syrup reduces. Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer making sure to stir at the beginning to ensure the sugar dissolves. Once we reach a simmer, add the blanched orange peel. Cook at this temperature for about an hour or until the peel changes appearance and becomes slightly transparent. Add water as needed if the syrup reduces. You can store the candied orange peel in the syrup or take it out and let it dry on a rack. It will be good for months.