What Is Foie Gras?

This delicacy is made of duck or goose liver

Pan-seared foie gras with red onion relish
Steven Morris Photography / Getty Images

Foie gras (pronounced "fwah-grah") is a French delicacy. It is very rich and buttery, as well as delicate in flavor. It is either sold whole or as a pate or mousse. Foie gras is French for "fat liver," and is, in fact, the liver of a duck or goose that has been enlarged through a special feeding technique. It is then served in pâtés, terrines, or as a hot entree or main ingredient. This luxury item is extremely fatty, with a full flavor and smooth texture. It melts easily, so while it is often prepared with high heat, such as pan-searing, 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.

Making Foie Gras

In order to make foie gras, the duck or goose liver needs to be enlarged to nearly 10 times its size. This is accomplished by force-feeding the animals corn using a feeding tube. This practice, known as gavage, originated with the ancient Egyptians in 2500 BC when they would force-feed birds to fatten them up for consumption. In France, French law states that "foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France."

The idea of 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 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 in a humane manner.

Geese and ducks are migratory birds that eat a large amount before migration, which means in effect the birds naturally fatten themselves. By timing the slaughter with these migration patterns, it is possible to produce a version of foie gras known as "fatty goose liver," which some view as a form of "ethical" or "humane" foie gras. 

Different Grades of Foie Gras

All foie gras is made up of two lobes—one smaller than the other—that together create an oval shape. The liver weighs between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds. There are three grades of foie gras: Grades A, B, and C. Grade A is the best quality, designating a liver that is the largest in size with a firm body, shiny exterior, and smooth texture. The color is consistent and there are no blood spots or blemishes. A Grade A foie gras should have a sweet smell and is used in the simplest of preparations, such as searing and sauteeing. A 2-pound Grade A liver can cost as much as $125. The lesser quality Grade B still has the same rich taste but is smaller with visible veining and defects, and has a softer texture than the Grade A, making it ideal for pates and terrines. The lowest quality is Grade C, which is not as prevalent than the other two and is mostly used to flavor and thicken sauces.

Cooking With Foie Gras

There are a few traditional methods for cooking foie gras, from a simple sear to pureeing and making into a mousse. A terrine of foie gras is actually one of the purest forms of preparations; the pieces of liver are layered in a loaf pan along with a bit of Sauternes or Armagnac and then the mold is weighted down, baked, chilled, and then sliced. The foie gras is also often made into a mousse; cooked foie gras is pureed in a food processor along with brandy and butter to make a smooth, silky paste to spread on fresh bread.