Starting a new year is always a great time to focus on the basics. In this post, I zero in on the needlessly intimidating process of roux-making. For the next post, I will share my recipe for the very best dish on Planet Earth – using this roux – Spoiler: it’s not gumbo.
Hurricane’s coming – better make a roux! Tomorrow’s Christmas – better make a roux! Sister-in-law just announced she’s got a bun in the oven – better make a roux! LSU’s playing Auburn again – better make a roux! Hell, it’s Tuesday – better make a roux!
It’s not far-fetched to say that, if there’s a scent most associated with Cajuns, (aside from the smells of squirrel fur and gunpowder, or chunks of pig skin in boiling oil on their way to becoming cracklins, or the intoxicating aroma of pork, rice, and green onions wafting up from a steaming plate of Saturday-morning boudin) well, it’s gotta be roux. My sister Cassie in Nashville – way up yonder from the bayous of Acadiana – tells a tale about how one afternoon she was making a roux when her mailman said he could smell it from down the block, and it nearly knocked him out with a powerful nostalgia for his childhood home in Louisiana. (He happily accepted her offer of a bowl of gumbo the next day, by which time it would have been finished, and its flavors would have had time to marry in the fridge overnight.)
So many recipes in Louisiana – as in strong food cultures all over the world – vary from house to house, family to family, with each home adding or subtracting a little bit of this or that; making it their own. This is very true for popular Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, and such. And it’s all good. What does not vary by much at all, however, is the recipe and process of making a roux. As in baking, to get it right, you pretty much cannot veer too far from the basic instructions for a proper roux – or you’ll end up with a sad, burnt, useless mess.
Because it’s so important in Cajun and Creole cooking, this recipe for roux is something you’ll need to learn from the get-go. Doing so will serve you well as you cook your way though the Louisiana food canon. So let’s get started:
1 cup low-smoke vegetable oil, such as canola
2 cups plain white flour
*The ratio of flour to oil is 2/1, so you can make half or double, accordingly. This 2-cups-of-flour recipe will be exactly enough roux for a good seafood or chicken and sausage gumbo, or a fricassee. There are roux recipes that call for butter instead of oil, but those rouxs tend to be for lighter-colored dishes that require less cooking time. Vegetable oil is best for long-cooked rouxs that render a dark-chocolaty color and rich flavor you want for gumbos or fricassees.
In a cast iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil on medium heat until you can feel that it has been warmed through when you wave your hand over the oil. Do not heat to boiling. Add the flour, one half cup at a time, whisking briskly until it is all incorporated and smooth. Once all the flour is incorporated, the mixture will be creamy and will turn from white to yellow early on. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Using a flat wooden spatula, stir the roux completely, making sure to scrape the entire bottom of the pan – with breaks in between stirrings of about 40 seconds. This will continue for the entire cooking process. The critical thing is to go SLOW. For gumbo and fricassee recipes, your roux should look like dark chocolate. You can stop before you get to this dark stage and you’ll have a café-au-lait colored roux or a reddish roux – and incremental shades you might use for other dishes.
If the heat is too high, the flour will cook too quickly and the roux will be ruined. The whole dark roux-making process should take about 35-45 minutes, although I’ve taken more time – lower heat for longer – to get a solid dark brown roux, with less threat of burning. When in doubt, remove your pot from the heat and continue to stir briskly. The roux continues to brown until the pot cools down, so you should continue stirring. DO NOT LEAVE THE STOVE when you’re making roux.
Once you’ve achieved a beautiful deep brown, but not black or burned roux, the hard part of gumbo-making or fricassee-making is over! If the roux burns you must start over. A properly-cooked roux emits a deep, rich and nutty aroma. Trust your nose. A burnt roux smells much like burnt paper or rice, and cannot be salvaged.
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