Ok, so that was a little forced.
I love Cajun food. Etouffee, jambalaya, red beans ‘n rice, and of course, gumbo. Over my years of cooking, traveling and tasting, I’ve encountered many variations of all these iconic Cajun dishes — and the varying ways of preparing them. They tend to differ in not so inconsiderable ways. A byproduct of this is that I’ve yet to encounter any truly definitive voice or perspective that I can regard as the “correct” way to make them. This being the case, here I am, left to decide for myself what’s the best.
While I’m no doubt going to espouse some perspectives that will spark controversy, something that seems to be accepted by anyone with an opinion on Cajun cooking philosophies, is that when it comes to sauces or gravies in preparations like gumbo or etouffee, it should be the roux itself that actually imparts the trademark flavoring. While I originally wanted to talk about making gumbo (which I will get to), it’s for this reason that one needs to first talk about roux; and ultimately, Cajun roux!
What is roux?
Roux is first and foremost a thickening agent. It’s made by incorporating flour into a liquified fat – most commonly, but not necessarily melted butter – and cooked at least to a partial degree. It is possible to make a roux with any fat though. Any preparation that tells you to first brown meat in a pot, then add flour, before adding a liquid (yes, country gravy comes to my mind first also!), is essentially having you make a roux with the rendered fat from the browned meat.
Flour: how much should be added?
There are a couple perspectives that should be mentioned: conventional thought is “equal parts”, which always makes me a little fidgety when this isn’t specified by weight or by volume. I personally think it’s irresponsible to broadcast recipes in any measurement unit other than metric weight, so I’m gonna go with that. I personally believe a 1:1 ratio doesn’t call for enough flour, and my first sous chef (who basically first taught me how to cook) believed roux should be the “consistency of wet sand”, which does call for a bit more than equal parts, but not quite as much as I think it needs. Another chef I worked for liked to try and get as close to a 2:1 ratio as he could, but that can get a little excessive. So yes, I find somewhere in the middle to be ideal.
For the sake of this instruction, here’s what I did: I started by melting a stick of butter, which is a quarter pound (or 4oz.).
With the help of Google, I found that that translates to about 134g. I weighed out this amount of flour twice.
After the butter melted, I gradually incorporated the first 134g.,
which did indeed result in too loose of a roux for my liking. I added as much of the remaining flour as I felt I needed to until I got the right consistency:
In total, I used 184g. of flour. The math then works out to precisely 137% of flour, by weight of butter.
This brings me to another important point, which is that roux can be incorporated in one of two ways: In the case of adding liquid to a roux, this is typically done in the pot/saucepan in which the preparation will be primarily cooked – like in the country gravy example. While convenient, in that it doesn’t require using/dirtying another pot, I personally prefer the alternative method of making roux separate from the dish to which it will be added. I feel this gives me more control over how much I want to add, which will dictate how thick the liquid will be. While I concede this is a personal preference, this method does allow for more freely exploring the different types of roux one can make, and this is where it gets interesting!
How long should it cook?
As I mentioned, roux needs to be cooked at least a little (usually on the stovetop with occasional-to-frequent stirring), if for no other reason than for the flour and butter to incorporate sufficiently. How much it’s cooked will have significant impacts on the color, flavor and thickening properties of that roux, and by extension, the end result of the preparation to which it’s added. Oh, and don’t let my poor example in the picture above be your guide: always stir with a wooden spoon or stiff rubber spatula. Stirring roux with a whisk gets messy and cumbersome in a hurry.
A minimally-cooked roux will be a very light tan/beige color, and will have minimal flavor impacts, apart from what you might expect from incorporating butter into a liquid. This is referred to as blonde roux (see above pic).
After being cooked a bit more, the starches in the flour will start to toast a bit. This results in a darker coloration and a very pleasant aroma (frequently described as “nutty”). This is known as a brown roux.
Eventually, after enough cooking/stirring, you arrive at Cajun roux, but exactly when this occurs is not always agreed upon. Early in my career, I was taught that proper Cajun roux should have the aroma of burnt popcorn.
While this is helpful when smelling that smell as it quells the worry that you’re burning your roux, I’ve learned that this is the tip of the iceberg. The burnt popcorn smell tells you you’re on the right track, but a good Cajun roux should be damn near burnt – a very dark brown in color and not entirely pleasant to smell.
Now for quick but important bit about roux that I don’t think a lot of cooks (even professional ones) know, that I sort of glossed over earlier: the longer the flour in the roux cooks, its thickening properties diminish. So relatively little blonde roux is required to appropriately thicken a given liquid. On the other end of the spectrum though, Cajun roux (having been cooked the maximum amount) needs to be heaped in to properly thicken a sauce or gravy. This is what leads to the roux itself providing so much of the telltale flavor of a well-made Cajun preparation. Indeed, Cajun roux is arguably more of a flavoring component than it is a thickening agent.
Now that we’ve covered roux, let’s get to the gumbo!
In my kitchen, I have a wooden placard with a traditional recipe for “creole gumbo” painted on it (souvenir from New Orleans). It calls for crabs, okra, shrimp, oysters (and juice), celery, onion, bay leaves, parsley, flour, butter, water, file, garlic, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper.
While this is a permanent (yes, and cute) wall decoration in my own kitchen, I’ve yet to follow the instructions on it for this preparation. In large part because crabs aren’t readily available where I live, I don’t care for okra (though it’s growing on me) and my wife doesn’t care for oysters. I know there are those that will say that without okra, it can’t be called gumbo, as many classic preparations of gumbo rely on the gooey innards of okra for most of the thickening. Like I said, I’m gonna say some things that are going to ruffle some feathers. Sorry.
My preparation this time around called for the produce of onions, celery, green bell pepper (a trio known as the Cajun trinity), poblano pepper, serrano chili pepper and garlic. My proteins were shrimp and andouille sausage (though I’ve been known to use chicken as well). Spices/seasonings were garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried thyme, smoked paprika and fresh parsley, and of course salt and black pepper.
- First and foremost was to brown the andouille. It should be noted that gumbo is one of many stew-like preparations that can utilize a type of sausage as a flavoring ingredient just as much so as a substantive protein. Getting a nice brown on this cured pork sausage will only result in a greater, deeper flavor in your end result.
- Once the sausage is browned, remove it from the pot and add in your onions and celery. Sweat those, stirring with a wooden spoon and use the spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen all that tasty andouille fonde. If you need to, you can splash some water in to help the deglazing process – but only use water at this point.
- When the bottom of the pot is scraped clean and your onions and celery have cooked for just a bit (you don’t want them to be full-on “tender” for this preparation, as they will continue to cook throughout the process, but you want to sweat the acidity out of their raw state), add in the bell, poblano and serrano peppers. Cook stirring for just a minute before adding the minced garlic, and stir for another 30 seconds.
- At this point, pour in your stock – either dark chicken stock or seafood stock (ideally shellfish stock of some kind, but not necessarily). I used homemade dark chicken stock with a splash of store-bought seafood stock (not pictured). Also at this point, go ahead and slide your cooked andouille back in.
- While you wait for that to reach a simmer, use cheesecloth and butcher’s twine to make a bouquet consisting of bay leaves, fresh thyme, black pepper, a couple cloves (also not pictured) – and the tails from the shrimp you diced earlier. Toss that bouquet into the pot and stir.
- Once the pot reaches a simmer, submerge a chinois into the pot and, from its cavity, ladle two cups (or so) of broth into a heat safe, high-sided container. Add your pre-made Cajun roux into this container with the broth, and blend with a stick blender until smooth (it should be almost the consistency of a Wendy’s frosty). This is done to avoid clumping, as tends to happen when roux is added straight to the pot (and you can’t puree your entire pot of soup!).
- Now, slowly stir this thickening mixture into the pot.
- Once your broth is at the consistency you desire, add in your spices/aromatics to your taste. Do the same with salt and pepper. Keep in mind that starch absorbs a lot of salt, and due to the roux, your liquid has quite a bit of starch laced into it at this point. So while you should always add salt only a bit at a time, you might have to add more of it than you think. The final seasoning you should add is a splash of lemon juice for acidity.
- When you feel your gumbo is at the proper flavor and consistency, the last thing you’ll do is add the shrimp to the pot. Simmer long enough for the shrimp to become a bright pink/orange, and you’re done!
Serve over rice, garnish with some chopped fresh parsley and enjoy!