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Perfect Roux, How to Make the Perfect Roux
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First you make a roux...
First time I ever ran across the phrase "Is your mama Catholic and can she make a roux?" was while reading "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" by Rebecca Wells, a fabulous novel set in Louisiana. Now, the different parts of the South can be as disparate as night and day, and as a Tennessean from the mountains the word 'roux' was not in our everyday vocabulary. But as a Southerner I understood the critical question about mamas, and therefore realized that if roux ranked enough to be included in that question, it must be fundamental indeed.
Years later, when I began to ask myself the critical questions that led to my philosophy of technique over recipe, I realized that I did indeed know how to make a roux, and had been taught not only by own mama, but her mama as well. We just lacked the cultural link to the French culinary history that Louisiana had, and therefore didn't feel we had to discuss it. We also lacked some of the finer permutations of the roux though - what we made was nearly always a simple white or 'light' roux. This is the basic thickening method for cream sauces and gravies - most often a Bechamel. If you've ever eaten Macaroni and Cheese, Sausage Gravy and Biscuits, or tons of cream based casseroles, you've had roux.
The elevation of a roux though comes when the French and Cajuns get hold of it. The word 'roux' means 'red' in French, and it refers to the richer colors a roux acquires as it cooks. We'll talk about that in a minute.
The purpose of a roux is to thicken sauces, stews and soups. Beyond that though, a darker roux will impart an unmistakable nutty flavor to the dish in which it is used. A roux is simply flour and fat cooked together to the desired color. Cooking them together before using allows the starch in the flour to absorb moisture, which in turn allows the flour to thicken a sauce or soup without lumps. The more liquid the flour particles have absorbed at the beginning, the less likely they will be to clump together later. This is a nifty means by which to make sure your sauces and stews are silky and beautifully thickened, with nary a lump or bump in sight.This is the basic method for making most sauces and of course - the bechamel.
However, if you've ever received the unparalleled delight that is a basic Cajun gumbo, you'll understand why a roux is also much more than that. If you cook a roux longer than strictly necessary for thickening, the flour is therefore toasted, and the roux takes on an incomparable nutty flavor. It also picks up more and more color, which is where the names of the different roux come from.
All righty - there's the intro. Let's move on...
Cowboy Roux - AKA Whitewash
If you want merely the thickening power of flour, you can make a slurry (thin paste) of flour and water, and boil that into what you're making. The boiling water will release the starch from the flour and allow your dish to thicken, but it won't become hot enough to cook off the floury taste. So...it'll work. But no one wants to eat it. If you have to do that, get it out of your head your making roux at all, and use cornstarch.
What IS a roux, anyway?
Roux is simply fat and flour. All roux is fat and flour. The differences between roux (rouxis also the plural - there isn't rouxs or rouxes) come in what kind of fat and how long it is cooked. Most roux uses butter and flour in equal proportion, 1/2 stick (or 1/4 cup) of butter and a 1/4 cup of flour. Or a cup of butter and a cup of flour. A 1:1 ratio is the standard for roux, period. Note I said standard - I personally like most things a little thicker than standard, so I use about another 25% more flour than fat than the standard. (See - once you know the method you don't need to follow all the rules!)
Most traditionally, roux is made with butter, especially clarified butter. However, you can use just about any fat you wish. I've used bacon fat in Bacon Pot Pie, oils in Gumbos and Etouffee, and schmaltz in Chicken and Dumplings. They're all delicious. Your choice is yours - although you should be led by two factors. What you will be using the roux for, and how long you'll be cooking the roux. The longer your roux cooks, the more likely it will be to burn. So you'll want to choose judiciously there. A higher smoke point - with vegetable oils vs. butter or bacon grease might be a better choice, and is more traditional with the Cajun classics. However, keep in mind that the true art of roux is in stirring, so as long as your willing to stir and baby it, you can use whatever you like. Your roux is not only a means by which to thicken - it's also a flavoring agent if you want it to be (in darker roux). And the fat you choose is a large part of this.
If you're making a very dark roux, you may want to take it off the heat before it's quite where you want it. If you are using cast iron you definitely will. Remember carryover cooking. The residual heat in the pan will continue to cook your roux after you take it off the heat. Adding vegetables - say if you're making gumbo - will also slow the cooking process.
All the colors of Roux...
I've read about forty two bajillion cookbooks, essays and articles, especially on method. Many will try to give you a distinct number of roux - some say three, some say five, some simply list colors. The truth is, there are as many types of roux as there are color variations between white and black. However, there are some basic 'grades' and each one has it's own uses and benefits. So I'll give you the high points on the color scale. To make the darker roux, keep stirring. You'll progress through each of the lighter colors on your way to the final one.
White roux is the first thing you'll get on the scale. This is often used in simple cream gravy or sauce, and can be used to make the Bechamel that is used to bind other dishes. A white roux is achieved when the flour has cooked enough to be rid of the 'floury' taste. This roux is the most powerful of thickeners.
Considered a 'medium' roux, many Creole dishes use a blond roux as a base. Creole cuisine is somewhat more 'refined' than Cajun; think of it as the elegant city version of Cajun's rustic punch.
Peanut Butter Roux
Also thought of as a 'medium' roux, Classic Cajun cuisine will sometimes use a blond roux, but many of the distinctive flavors of Cajun dishes come from the incredible nutty, smokey flavors found in the roux - which often is not lighter than a peanut butter roux. Peanut butter roux simply looks like peanut butter - when the color is the same, this one is done.
Chocolate Roux, Dark Chocolate Roux
Keep stirring a medium roux over low heat, and the color will continue to deepen, as will the flavors. While roux that are 'dark' - such as the chocolate and brick roux, have more distinct flavors, it's not always what you are looking to achieve. More delicate flavors can't really benefit from a dark roux. However, if you're after a knock-your-socks-off Gumbo or German Brown Sauce, you'll start with these. Imagine all the colors of chocolate, from milk chocolate to dark, and you'll understand the similar variations in color of roux. Just remember the darker the color, the more complex and intense the flavor.
The richest, most distinct flavoring agent, a brick roux has lost much of the thickening power it started with. What is has traded for is FLAVOR. There is nothing like it, and when someone ask 'can you make a roux', I personally feel that if you haven't mastered this one, the answer is NO. The good news are that it's not that hard, if you follow the rules, the first of which is not to leave it! Brick roux is one small step from burnt roux, and if you burn it, start over. There's no way to salvage it. The color of a brick roux is exactly that - it obtains a distinct reddish tone, and the fragrance is both nutty and smoky.
I read somewhere that this stuff is called Cajun Napalm - if you splatter this on you while you're cooking, you'll probably cry. You'll definitely bear scars. It's HOT. Be careful.
Fat Free Roux?
I've never tried it, but I've heard of a method developed by Cajun Chef Enola Prudhomme. It's very much the same idea as making Toasted Rice Powder. You just add however much flour you want to use to a skillet, and toast it, like nuts or rice, making sure you keep it moving. Get it to the color you want, and voila! Fat free roux. I think.
Just how important is roux?
Think roux is just an esoteric method? Nope. Of the Five French Mother Sauces three begin with roux - Bechamel, Veloute and Espagnole. It's an AMAZING tool...
Yeah, yeah - But how do I MAKE a roux?
All you do is heat the fat, sprinkle in the flour, and stir. The traditional tried and true sworn-by-method-of Southern-cooks is to use a cast iron skillet and a wooden spoon. That's it. The whole method. Now - the trick is to stir - seriously. Don't walk off. This is not the time to call your Mama. Don't get yourself a cold drink. Within just a few minutes, as soon as the mixture is incorporated in fact, you'll have a white roux - what's most often used in a casserole.
Now while cast iron is the classic, I have to confess I've used a steel skillet or porcelain pot and I have remained a member of polite society. More or less.
Remember as well that while a classic ratio is 1:1, you can tailor this based on your preferences. Make a roux a couple times the standard way, using butter or oil and an equivalent amount of flour, then begin to tweak it as you like. Begin with a medium heat, then remember the main objective. If you want a darker roux, use slightly lower heat to accommodate smoke points. If you want butter flavor but a chocolate roux, use half vegetable oil. Or all oil - which means you can use higher temps and have a shorter cook time.
It's all up to you - think about what you want in your final product. Personally, for a darker roux, I'm happy with half butter or bacon fat and half oil, with a slightly longer cooking time. The flavor is unbelievable. Be prepared to spend at least a half hour on a chocolate roux - up to an hour depending on the temperature you're using.
The good news is that roux can be made ahead - and frozen or refrigerated for up to a couple months. If it lasts that long. Mine never does. Roux in the fridge calls like a siren - "gumbo..." it says. "Etouffee... can you taste it?". You can put it directly into whatever you're making. Sweet, huh?
The number one mistake people make is to not stir. I can't emphasize this point enough. I mean it. If you stop, and then see black specks, you're toast. You've burned your roux, and there's no redemption. Start over.
That's it - you're ready. Don't be afraid of roux. Allow yourself a couple times to experiment and screw it up - although if you keep the heat down and don't stop stirring, you'll be fine. Be ready to rock some Gumbo (can you tell I love that stuff), and prepare to show yourself off as a Bombshell. You'll have earned it.
- The Thrillbilly Gourmet
Combining classic technique with everyday food for spectacular results!