A couple weeks ago we took a good look at the five mother sauces. If you recall, many of them began with a roux. I thought it would be a good time to back up a few paces and examine the ideas behind the uses of a roux and the different ways to make them from the ground up.
Simply put, a roux is a thickening agent used to firm up sauces, soups, stews, and anything that requires a bit of “tightening up.” The ingredients are simple. First you must have some form of grease. This can come in the form of a vegetable oil, shortening, rendered fat or butter. I’ve even used a combination of two to get the job done. Secondly you need flour. I generally use an all purpose flour. The ratio is about one-to-one, but if you are going to err then do so with more oil than flour.
Before we get into the ways of making roux we should discuss the three different types. There are three general types of this classic concoction that are named after the color of the finished product.
The least amount of cooking should yield a blonde roux. Yellow to golden in color, you see a lot of this in things like chicken pot pie and tetrazzini. Most (but not all) of my blonde roux comes from a butter base. It’s easy to burn butter, so do this one over low to medium heat. Perfect for etouffee and dishes of that nature, don’t overthink this one. And don’t overcook it, either. You can whip up one of these in about five minutes over medium-low to medium heat.
A medium roux should have the same color as peanut butter. This is where you start getting into gumbo territory. With a peanut butter roux I am generally going to be using some form of oil, maybe olive oil or vegetable oil. I’m a little scared of butter at this point because I’ve burnt a few over the years. It is by far my favorite as a vehicle for gravy. A little bit of stock from chicken or beef along with some drippings brings this roux to gravy heaven. Some of you may like a darker etouffee or a lighter gumbo. This one is for you.
Once you cross the threshold of a chocolate color you have dark roux. To get a really dark roux you need some kind of oil that can take a good bit of heat and a pretty high smoking temperature. Make it easy on yourself. Use peanut oil. You’ll be much less likely to burn it, and we all know at this point you don’t want to start over.
So now let’s take a look at the three different ways to cook an oil-based roux as if we were going to thicken up a pot of gumbo. The idea is that we are making a dark roux, but through any of these techniques you may stop the cooking time early for a lighter roux. Remember, the darker the roux the less thickening it will do due to the flour being cooked down.
This is by far the most common method. Usually done in a cast iron skillet a dark roux should appear after 20 to 25 minutes of medium-high heat cooking. You must be careful, and you must stir constantly. Make sure you pee before you start this one.
A wire whisk is your buddy for this task, but some prefer a metal spatula for scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir counter clockwise if you are local, clockwise in the Southern hemisphere. Stir. Don’t Stop. Keep stirring. Just before it gets the color you need, remove the pan from the heat and add your trinity (bell pepper, onion, celery) to help slow down the cooking.
I first heard of this about 17 years ago. This is widely accepted as a great method for roux making. This time it is imperative we use a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. Whisk together the flour and oil in the cold vessel and place it in a preheated 350-degree oven. Stir the fool out of it every 20 minutes or so. This may take anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get your desired color, but you aren’t stirring constantly. Sweet Heaven, it is easier.
I have to admit I have never done this. Many do, it just seems weird. But who am I to judge? First rule, stay away from plastic. This is going to get hot and we need Pyrex, just like they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. This may take up to 15 minutes or more for a dark roux, but hang on. The blessing is you just stir every two minutes. That’s a good bit better than constantly, right? A clear Pyrex measuring cup is the best container. This way you get to see the color from the sides. Don’t stand staring at the microwave like an idiot the whole time. It will melt your eyeballs and fry your brain. Just ask my grandmother.
All three of these methods have their place. I’m sure many of our forefathers would have used a microwave had it been available. I think most people still use the forearm cramping skillet method because of the control. It’s a very hands-on technique and you are constantly inundated with the smell, which is the key to prevent burning.
I am personally a fan of oven roux and have great success and fewer errors when making gumbo, which isn’t often enough. I suggest you try all three and see which works for you. What’s the worst that could happen? Three batches of gumbo?
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