No dish defines French country cooking better-or drums up more controversy-than cassoulet. Debates over mandatory ingredients and technique have raged for centuries, but something everyone agrees on is its reputation for being complicated and time-consuming.
If we hoped to make a cassoulet more than once every few years, we needed to find a streamlined approach.
Cassoulet takes as long as it does (and achieves much of its richness) because of a specific component: homemade duck confit. Finding a way to remove this part of the recipe, while challenging, was an opportunity to cut back on time. Unfortunately, store-bought confit is expensive and inconsistent, so we decided to look for other ways to contribute richness. Salt pork proved best, contributing richness without overpowering the dish, as long as we blanched it first to remove excess salt. Pork shoulder fit the bill of the prerequisite stewing pork. It had plenty of connective tissue that didn’t dry out during prolonged cooking.
Finding a replacement for the traditional Toulouse sausage, which tastes mainly of pork with a hint of garlic and spices, was a little trickier. Tasters deemed mild Irish bangers or German bratwurst the best substitutions. To help the sausages keep their shape, we blanched them whole with the salt pork before slicing. To further simplify preparation, we finely diced the carrots and onions and left them in the finished dish. And even though they’re not typical ingredients in cassoulet, we found that tomato paste and canned diced tomatoes worked better than white wine alone in balancing out the richness of the meat. Also, canned chicken broth was a fine replacement for the homemade broth used in most recipes.
Dried cannellini beans provided the same creaminess as the expensive tarbais beans normally used in cassoulet, but we had to figure out a way to get them tender in a reasonable time. Based on our discovery that beans soaked overnight in salt water are vastly superior in texture and flavor to those soaked in regular water, we decided to brine our beans. During brining, the sodium ions in salt replace magnesium and calcium in beans-two minerals responsible for toughness. When placed back on the heat, out beans were creamy and velvety in just three hours-at which point the meat was perfectly cooked.
Other problems still remained. The tall sides of our Dutch oven were trapping moisture and prohibiting us from getting the cassoulet’s trademark crisp crust. A few tests taught us that an optimal crust requires a perfect balance of moisture and heat. The trick was creating a raft with half of the bread crumbs before adding the remaining crumbs to the top. We applied half of the bread crumbs to our casserole and baked the pot covered, allowing the crumbs to slightly moisten and bind together. Then we removed the cover, baked the mixture a few more minutes, added the remaining crumbs, and let them cook until crisp.