It's worth the effort for your best-ever gumbo.

By Colleen McMillar
December 30, 2020
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“First, you make a roux.” It’s such a common opening line in recipes from south Louisiana that it’s become a catchphrase. You find the words emblazoned on kitchen towels, sweatshirts, and even ready-to-hang art. In New Orleans and Acadiana, a roux is often Ground Zero for gumbos, etouffees, and other regional dishes. Cooks in the Bayou State aren’t the only ones who ever thought of mixing together flour and fat. Roux, a thickening and enriching agent, is used to create Béchamel and Velouté, two of the five mother sauces codified by French chef Auguste Escoffier a century ago. And, all over America, it’s used as the foundation of gravies, chowders, even mac-and-cheese.

But there are distinctions. There’s the white or caramel-colored roux that cookbooks carefully explain and measure out, equal parts flour and butter or other fat. And then there’s the super dark roux cooked in kitchens throughout south Louisiana, where the mixing of flour and fat is elevated to an art form. This is an ode to the latter.

Credit: Scott Little

In its most divine state, it’s a deep chocolate hue, reached after 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes of stirring. Yes, you can make a delectable gumbo without working this hard on your roux. But it won’t be nearly as awe inspiring. Maybe a chocolate-colored roux is so exalted because the journey is fraught with peril. This roux tiptoes up to the edge of burnt ruin, risking being scorched useless, in order to become that rich, complex undertone flavor in a gumbo. This is a roux that would overpower a delicate seafood dish but is perfect for a chicken-and-sausage gumbo. Master the artful roux with an assist from these tips.

You’ve Got to Work for It

In a hurry? Don’t bother. This is going to take a while. Multi-tasking? Dangerous. This takes constant stirring. Dark roux “is an infant. You’ve got to babysit it," says Chef Rusty Hamlin, who grew up in south Louisiana and now is chef/owner of Atkins Park Restaurant in Smyrna, Georgia, and Papi's Taqueria in Charleston, South Carolina. "It definitely is intimidating, especially for the home cook, and especially if you haven’t grown up around it," continues Hamlin. "The dark roux gets to a point where you’re going to nail it or burn it.”

This roux is not an exact science. Just ask Marelda Parish, who’s been perfecting the art for decades.

With a roux, “it’s a relationship,” says Parish, who grew up in Mallet, a tiny southwest Louisiana community. “You’re in a relationship with it as you’re cooking it.” You have to eyeball the amounts, play with the temperature, watch to see if it’s browning too fast. There are no set instructions, no real recipe to give, just a starting point.

“I pour some oil in, then put some flour in,” Parish says. “If you put in too much oil, you put in a little bit more flour. If you put in too much flour, you put in a little more oil. You’re also in relations with it because, during all of this, you’re adjusting the heat.”

Time the Veggies Right

In the 1960s and ‘70s in Mallet, there was only one roux made—dark roux, according to Parish. It’s still the only kind she makes. When the roux reaches the perfect color, it’s time to throw in the holy trinity of diced onions, bell peppers and celery, the base of many Louisiana recipes. Onions first, the rest a couple of minutes later, Parish says. This will stop the roux from browning, so cooks must be sure it's the color they want. Many people make big batches that they freeze for use later.

“A lot of the skill with the roux is not just not burning it. It’s knowing the right amount to put in,” she says. “If you use too much, it will overwhelm the food and that’s all you’ll taste. You add some and then taste it. It might be, ‘Hmmm, that’s not enough,’ so you add a little more. You want to be careful.”

“I have wonderful childhood memories about roux. When you smell the roux being cooked, and when the onions are thrown into that hot roux, it’s the most wonderful smell in the world. It always had that festive feel to it. Even if the festiveness didn’t mean a party or a lot of people, maybe it was just your auntie and her husband and their children, it meant something wonderful was going to happen. It’s still one my favorite smells.”

Know When It’s Gone Too Far

Parish doesn’t remember ever burning a roux, but plenty of people have on the way to that deep brown color. If little black specks start to appear, it’s time to throw it away—even if you’ve been stirring for half an hour. There’s no way to save a burnt roux.

But you don’t have to see black specks to know when something is going wrong, Parish says. “You can tell by smelling it. If it has an unpleasant smell, if you lose that happy smell, you’ve messed it up. If you miscalculate by looking, your nose will tell you.”

Try the Oven

Hamlin makes roux by the pound. Roux made on the stove top, with constant stirring, risking being splashed by what is often called "Cajun napalm," holds no appeal for Hamlin. “I don’t burn roux anymore because, if you put it in an oven on 400°F, it might take longer, but you can gauge it better," he says. You still have to stir it, and you still have to watch it.

If you take the oven route, the chef has a couple of tips. Use a Dutch oven ($100, Target) for more even heat distribution. Take it out of the oven before it reaches the color you want, because it's going to keep cooking. And let it cool to room temperature before adding it to liquid.

While Hamlin doesn't make his dark roux the same way that Parish does, he agrees it's the soul of the dish. “Honestly, I feel like the roux is the center of the dart board with whatever you put it in,” says Hamlin. “It doesn’t just color or thicken the dish, it’s almost emulsifying the flavor of that dish. It’s its own flavor profile."

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