What Is Foie Gras?

What is foie gras?
Pan-seared foie gras with red onion relish. Steven Morris Photography / Getty Images

Foie gras (pronounced "fwah-grah") is the liver of a duck or goose that has been enlarged through a special feeding technique and then served in pâtés, terrines or as a hot entree or main ingredient. Foie gras is considered a luxury or delicacy item. It is extremely fatty, with a rich flavor and smooth texture. It melts easily, so while it is often prepared with high heat, such as pan-seared, but cooking it this way can be tricky.

Of the two types of foie gras, goose foie gras (foie gras d'oie) is considered the more refined, with a milder flavor. Duck foie gras (foie gras de canard) can have a somewhat more gamy flavor, though it is slightly less fatty and thus better suited for high-heat cooking.

Is Foie Gras Animal Cruelty?

Foie Gras is a controversial food. The technique used to fatten the goose or duck livers, known as gavage, is controversial because it is essentially a form of force-feeding, which is seen as a type of animal cruelty that goes beyond merely raising the animals to be slaughtered for food. The gavage process isn't just allowing the birds to eat more than they normally would in the wild, it involves using tubes to force feed the birds 12 to 15 times a day. This kind of feeding can cause their livers to swell by ten percent. The tubes used in force feeding can cause scarring in the esophagus and digestive issues for the bird.

They are sometimes fed to the point where walking becomes difficult. Gavage usually takes place up to two weeks before the birds are slaughtered.

The culinary community is somewhat divided on the issue, with some chefs refusing to serve foie gras. Foie gras producers argue that it is possible to perform gavage humanely.

They claim that as geese and ducks do not have the same gag reflex that humans do the use of tubes for feeding is not painful to them. However, this controversy has caused many countries like Canada, Australia, Argentina and many European nations to outlaw the production of foie gras. Some countries, like Spain, have prohibited the use of feeding tubes but allow for the birds to be fattened naturally.

Fatty Goose Liver

Geese and ducks are migratory birds that eat a large amount before migration, in effect the birds naturally fatten themselves (and their tasty livers) up before travel. By timing the slaughter with the bird's migration patterns, some farmers have been able to produce foie gras without resorting to gavage techniques. French food production laws prevent this product from being called Foie Gras (in France at least), so it is usually sold under the name "fatty goose liver" or in other places as "ethical" or "humane foie gras." Unfortunately, the ethical and humane label is sometimes used for products where gavage is performed using rubber hoses rather than steel pipes so do your research before purchasing or stick to things labeled fatty goose liver.