If the Roux Fits

How To Start A Gumbo

Making a roux is not nearly as difficult as it may sound and can be a truly serene experience.

Depending on skill and speed, creating a light “blonde” roux (also the beginning of a béchamel sauce) can take a few minutes, although it can require at least half an hour of diligent stirring over a very low heat to completely cook the raw-flour flavor out, and a dark roux can require 45 minutes to an hour. Some experienced chefs can do it quickly over a higher heat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When they say don’t try this at home, they’re not kidding. The great news is that roux freezes beautifully. So make a large batch, cool it, then portion it into small containers and freeze it for future use.

A roux is nothing more than flour browned in oil or fat, and it delivers much more flavor than that would suggest. The raw-flour taste is eliminated in the final product, and the chemical reaction created by the flour browning in the hot oil imparts a nutty, smoky flavor that deepens as the roux becomes darker.

The language of roux pertains to its different hues, which can range from a barely colored tan to the color of peanut butter and through café au lait to dark mahogany. Before choosing the oil or fat, decide on the flavor and color of roux you’re seeking. For example, a blonde roux’s flavor is subtler but has more thickening power than a dark roux.

The appropriate oil is anything from vegetable oil, olive oil or canola oil to bacon grease, Crisco® or lard. Butter burns easily at low temperatures, so unless it is clarified and the solids are skimmed off, it will not work easily for a darker roux.
While white all-purpose flour is the norm, whole-wheat flour imparts a lovely nutty flavor. The one-to-one ratio of oil and flour is standard, although some cooks prefer a bit more flour than oil, as much as half a cup more of flour on a one-cup-to-one-cup measurement.

Begin the process by turning on some music (for entertainment while you’re stirring) and assembling the necessary equipment. An adult beverage might be a fine idea. The ideal basic tools are an easy-to-use wire whisk, wooden spoon and a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven. Thin metal pots significantly increase the risk of scorching.

Start the roux by heating the oil over medium-low heat. Add the flour slowly, stirring continuously with a whisk or a wooden spoon. Some cooks, such as Poppy Tooker, have a special wooden roux spoon they treasure.

Once the oil and flour begin to come together and bubble, the heat level can be raised or lowered. But this calls for close attention. The color stays deceptively the same for some minutes, and then changes rapidly. Just don’t leave the stove. Don’t answer the phone. The flour can scorch before you’re able to react. (There is no saving a scorched roux. It is over, it is finished, and it must be trashed. Don’t feel bad, it happens to us all.)

Once the roux starts to approach the desired color level, remove it from the heat a shade or two lighter than you want it to end up and continue whisking, as the flour will continue to cook quickly and darken further when the trinity is added and cooked.

The Trinity

If you intend to use the roux for gumbo, you’ll want to add the “trinity” of Creole-Cajun cooking — chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. While the addition of these vegetables will cause the roux to darken, it also begins cooling the roux as the vegetables cook and release their liquids. Once the vegetables have softened and become translucent, gradually begin stirring in the warm stock or other liquid. Some chefs reverse the process, cooking the vegetables in the oil and then adding the roux and stock, or other liquid. The proportions among the trinity’s components can vary according to the cook’s fancy, as well as to what happens to be in the refrigerator at a given moment.

Basically, the trinity is:

  • 2 parts onion, chopped
1 part celery, chopped
  • 1/3 part green bell pepper, chopped

Many recipes call for bell peppers. Their confetti colors of green, yellow, red and orange are bright, so use whichever one, or combination of them, you prefer.
Once the vegetables are chopped, combined and set aside, prepare the roux. When the roux has been cooked to a shade or two lighter than what you’re seeking, carefully begin stirring in the trinity. When the vegetables hit the hot roux they will splatter, so add them slowly and stand back from the pot or skillet. When the vegetables have been completely incorporated into the roux, the flour will darken even more. Allow the mixture to simmer until the vegetables release their liquids and the onions are translucent.

At this point, slowly stir in the stock or water until well-blended. Louisiana cookbook author Marcelle Bienvenu, whose vast experience makes her an expert in these matters, prefers to heat the liquid before adding it to the roux and trinity mix.

From the very beginning of the cooking process, the quality of the roux, trinity and stock is most important for a gumbo’s full-bodied flavor. A word of caution about seafood gumbo: Reserve the delicately flavored raw oysters, shrimp, fish or crawfish until the gumbo is just a few minutes from being removed from the heat. Otherwise, the seafood will overcook, becoming tough and tasteless. The same applies to other proteins such as sausage, chicken and duck. Give them enough time to heat through at the end, but take care not to leach out their flavor by overcooking.