Making A Good Roux

This article discusses how to make a roux and the measurements of flour and oil to use.

Cajun and creole cooking have exploded in popularity in the past 15 years or so. Suddenly, everything is blackened, Cajun-style, creole-inspired or "kicked up a notch" (with apologies to Emeril). However, Cajun and creole cooking is basically the cuisine of the people and a home cook can duplicate many of the most famous dishes, such as shrimp creole or crawfish etouffee if she knows some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. The basis of most Cajun dishes, many creole dishes, and a number of sauces is the roux. This combination of flour and oil makes Cajun food taste how it is supposed to taste, but the method of making a roux baffles many cooks.

The first rule of roux is patience. Start a roux when you have plenty of time. A good roux is not hurried and the cook simply must stay with the project until it is complete. Have everything ready ahead of time. If making a gumbo or etouffee, have the "holy trinity" of Cajun cooking: onions, celery and bell peppers, chopped and ready to go ahead of time. Adding these at the right time is critical for a good roux and subsequent base for the dish. You might even want to have someone who can take over some of the stirring for you when your arms get tired.

The second rule of roux is to have a heavy pot. Cast iron works well, but a heavy aluminum pot is good, too. Anything you can make candy in will serve as a roux pot. The goals here are even heating and heat containment. The heat must be evenly distributed to avoid hot spots in the bottom that could burn the flour. And buy a wooden spoon if you don't have one. These are non-reactive and do not scrape the bottom of the pan.

Now to technique. Start with equal parts of olive oil and flour. Olive oil is desirable because it has a high smoke point and does not burn as quickly as other oils. If you use a cup of oil, use a cup of flour. This, in fact, is the usual measurement for most roux bases.

Add the oil to the pot first, and stir it around so that it coats the bottom of the pan completely. Turn the heat on to medium-high to get things started. Add the flour and stir it in thoroughly. Keep a fairly constant stirring until the roux begins to steam or bubble around the edges, then turn the heat down to medium-medium-high. Keep stirring. The roux will start to darken as the flour browns. Stirring is critical--without it, the roux will burn. Browning is good, burning is not. After about 10-15 minutes, the roux will begin to take on the color of peanut butter. This is a good sign that it is incorporating and browning properly. Some recipes call for a "light roux" and this is what they mean. When it is the color of darker peanut butter, it is ready to use. However, most Cajun recipes call for a "dark roux." This means at least 15 more minutes of browning.

A good dark roux will look a lot like chocolate sauce when nearly done. It should also be shiny and smooth on top, with no lumps. The cook must act quickly when the roux gets to this stage. One purpose of the onions, celery and bell pepper is that they stop the browning action of the flour, and in essence, "stop" the roux, which must happen before the flour actually burns. Be careful when adding the vegetables--the roux is hot and the water in the veggies will create a lot of steam. Add the onions first, then the celery, then the bell peppers, stirring well after each addition.

Some cooks complain that a roux smells like it is burning. It doesn't, exactly. It smells like a lot of browning is going on, which it is. A burned roux will chase the residents out of the house, it smells so bad. Cooks also complain that making a roux is not as exact as they would like. It is true that there is some guesswork involved in a roux, and quite a bit of "eyeballing." However, a cook with some experience will have a feel for how the roux is progressing and can adjust accordingly. But this is part of the fun and elemental nature of making a roux. A roux is a very basic technique, but it is "real" cooking. A cook must rely on her skills and senses for a good result.

What makes a bad or ruined roux? First, a burned one should be thrown out. A roux that sticks to the bottom of the pot is usually burned, and so must be discarded, as well. Once in a while, a roux simply will not brown. This usually means the heat was not initially high enough to heat the oil sufficiently to begin the browning process. If the mixture is lumpy and/or has not done much browning at all in 15 to 20 minutes, throw it out and start over, with a higher initial heat. Once the browning starts, it more or less continues independently, but the heat has to be high enough to start the process.

A roux takes time and patience, but the end result is usually a delicious dish that equals anything in New Orleans. It is worth the trouble, and a technique worth learning. Be brave, make that roux, and sample some real Cajun and creole flavor.

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