February 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

“First, make a roux.”  How many times have you seen that line staring at you from a recipe for a Cajun dish?  Does it give you a little shiver of anxiety?  Do you wonder whether you should just skip that step?

Roux is one of the holy mysteries of Cajun cooking, and if you’re going to cook Cajun dishes like Cajuns do, you are going to have to get a handle on how to make a roux.  You will have to understand some of the basics of rouxology (don’t bother to check that on Wikipedia; it’s a word I made up).  Here are the basics.  But before you proceed, you might want to take a moment to read over some of my thoughts about Cajun cuisine here and here.

Roux, of course, is simply flour cooked in fat.  But that is like saying that a jet airplane is sheet metal and fasteners.  Both statements are essentially true, but neither even begins to convey the complexity and gestalt of the thing.  How roux interacts with the ingredients and what it adds to a dish is anything but simple.  The nuances of roux vary with its color and consistency, and its variations can confer an immense array of flavors and consistency to your dishes.  Roux is almost infinitely variable and malleable in what it can do for your recipes.

The tools you will need to make your roux will be a heavy pot (I like Creuset enamelled cast iron, but any heavy pot will do) and a wooden spatula.  The heavy pot will evenly distribute the heat and help you manage the cooking.  The spatula will enable you to stir the mixture thoroughly, keeping it from burning.  As you will see, stirring is most important, and the greater quantity of roux you can stir at a time will make you more efficient and effective.  A spoon will work, but the amount of roux you are able to move with a spoon is miniscule compared to the spatula.

What are the quantities of ingredients?  Depends on what you are cooking.  A white roux for a béchamel sauce may require no more than a tablespoon each of butter and flour.  A “red” or golden roux for a courtbouillon or jambalaya may require several tablespoons each of vegetable oil and flour.  If you are making a big pot of gumbo with a dark roux, you may need a cup or more each of flour and vegetable oil.  As you learn to use and manage roux, you will learn about how much or little is needed.

What is the ratio of flour to fat?  Again, it depends.  A safe ratio is one to one, but individual preferences come into play.  I prefer the consistency of a little more oil than flour.  Your mileage may vary.

What flour?  Any all-purpose white flour will do the job.  I have heard of people using whole wheat flour, but whatever you read here is based on using white flour.

What fats will work?  It boils down to this:  Lighter fats (e.g., butter and olive oil) work fine for white rouxs.  Stouter fats (e.g., vegetable oil, bacon grease, shortening) are needed for darker rouxs.  You cannot use a light oil for a dark roux because it will burn before the roux gets to the color you need, and a burned roux is a failed roux.  The one exception I have read about but never tried is that you can use clarified butter to make a dark roux.  My preference is for a good quality vegetable or canola oil.  It is healthier than bacon fat or shortening, and it works perfectly fine.

I prefer a good quality vegetable oil

Before you start cooking, here are a few principles of rouxology you need to know:

  • The lighter the roux, the greater its thickening power and the less flavor it adds to the dish.
  • Conversely, the darker the roux the less thickening power it has, but the greater flavor it imparts.
  • A medium (red or golden) roux will thicken the dish and add some flavor, but not as much flavor as a darker roux.

Bottom line:  There is no “one size fits all” roux.  That is why I will not buy or use the canned or bottled roux products one sees in so-called Cajun groceries on the interstate or New Orleans or up north (although, sad to say, I have seen it on the shelf in groceries in sw Louisiana; I guess convenience and busy schedules rule).  The roux you use to make a sauce picante is entirely different from the roux you use to make a wild duck and sausage gumbo.  Besides, why would you want to buy a canned version of something that is so easy and entertaining to whip up yourself once you understand how?

So let’s get started with a golden or dark roux.

Pour the oil into the pan and then add the flour.  Mix together to make a thin paste, being sure that any lumps are dissolved.  Turn the heat to medium-high or high.  I have heard people say that a roux should be cooked on low heat for a long time.  I once hunted with a guy from Demopolis, Alabama, who took two hours to cook a dark roux for the hunting camp.  More power to him, but my roux is every bit as good in a fraction of the time.  That’s the way I learned to do it.

In a few minutes, the paste will begin to bubble.  If you haven’t already started stirring, now is the time to start. Stir, stir, stir, making sure that you keep redistributing the mixture over the heat and that you keep it turning color evenly.  As it cooks, the roux will take on a darker and darker color, turning first from white to a creamy gray, then to tan, then a golden, tawny brown (some call this “red” because it can give a reddish tint to your dish), and then shades of brown, from a fricasee-ochre color to dark brown ranging from milk chocolate to dark chocolate, and then, finally and fatally black, as in burnt.  To stop cooking at the color you want, pull the pot off the fire and mix the vegetables in; adding the vegetables will arrest the cooking process.

Stirring is vitally important in the cooking process, but be careful in your zeal not to splash.  Cajuns call hot roux “Cajun napalm” for the reason that it will stick to you and burn if it escapes from the pot.  Handle with care.

Golden roux (aka red roux) is more or less the color of a paper bag, and will add that golden or reddish hue to your dish and significantly thicken it.  Because of its thickening properties, don’t use as much of a golden roux in your dish as you would a darker roux.  A golden roux is best for a courtbouillon, jambalaya, sauce picante or étoufée (if you’re one of those people who makes étoufée with a roux).

A shade darker is a brown roux between dark brown and golden, which will be the color of your dish.  It doesn’t thicken as well as a golden roux, but it adds a rich, deep flavor that a golden roux lacks.  It’s the best roux for a chicken gumbo and for more delicate ingredients like crab meat or oysters.

The darkest dark roux adds a distinctive nutty flavor and a dark color that can make a simple dish memorable.  It lacks much thickening power, so you will generally use more in your recipe than you would with a lighter-colored roux.  Dark roux is best for dark-meat gumbos (e.g., wild duck and sausage), and crawfish, crab, shrimp or chicken stews.

A black roux is, simply put, a failure.  It’s burnt and will make your dish bitter and inedible.  And the entire roux does not have to be black.  Black specks mean burned ingredients and bitterness.  Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there is a fine line between success and failure.  Likewise, there is a fine line between the best dark roux and the inedbile black roux.  Knowing when to stop comes with experience.  Expect some burned rouxs in your roux-cooking career.  They are part of the learning experience.

What about a white roux (roux blanc)?  Roux blanc is used as a base for some white sauces such as béchamel and as a thickener in many recipes.  Cook and stir as you would any other roux, and follow the recipe’s instructions as to the color.  Some roux blancs must be very white, and others creamy.  I am not aware of any Cajun recipes that call for a roux blanc, but if you’re going to learn about rouxs, you need to have this one in your repertoire.

Here’s a video, avec la musique Acadienne, that I made to guide you step by step …

So you’re cooking merrily away and you suddenly get the feeling that your roux is cooking too fast.  Maybe it’s beginning to smoke, or you sense that it is thickening too quickly, or one area is turning pasty brown while another is still milky white.  What to do?  Pull the pan off the heat and stir, stir, stir.  Remember that the pan retains its heat, and if you don’t stir, the roux will burn, even if it is off the fire.  Make sure while you stir that you keep making contact with every bit of the roux.  Try to contact one third of the mixture with one sweep, then the next third, and then the last third and repeat, repeat, repeat.  When you feel that things are back under control, return the pan to the heat and continue on.

Or what about when everything seems to be going well and you are on your way to that perfect color.  The phone rings, or you see the dog peeing on the kitchen floor, or that annoying security-system salesman is back at the front door ringing the doorbell and you’d love to give him a piece of your mind.  Should you just turn off the heat and answer the phone, or let the roux simmer while you throw the dog out into the back yard, or pull the pan off the burner and go yell through the door at the salesman?  Should you just leave your precious roux for that teensy minute to address the distraction?  NEVER!!!  If you stop stirring, even for 30 seconds, the roux will burn.  Never stop stirring after the roux first bubbles.  Never.  Return the call later, or deal with the dog after you cook your roux, or let yourself take zen satisfaction at the mental image of that salesman futilely ringing away on the front porch while you’re stirring serenely.  The roux results will be worth your efforts and attention.

It takes time and experience to master the art of cooking a successful roux.  One stab at it or attempting it once a year for five years will not do it.  As my dear grandmother used to say, “Lâche pas la patate.”  Literally, it means in Cajun French “Don’t drop the potato,” which was her way of saying, “Stick with it; hang in there and you’ll make it.”

Now you know the basics of making a roux and how to use it.  Will this knowledge make you an honorary Cajun?  No, but it is an important first step in improving your Cajun cooking dramatically.

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