Shortcuts for Making Roux for Gumbo

Okra plants have surprisingly pretty flowers, as I learned when I grew my own in 2016. Author photo.

There were ample leftovers from our weekend roast chicken and my husband is away on a business trip. It’s been a while since he’s had his favorite dish. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a pot of gumbo to surprise him when he gets home?

So first thing I have to do is to make a roux.

A roux is a mixture of flour and a fat. For gumbo, that’s flour and a vegetable oil. The word roux is a shortened form of a French term, beurre roux, for brown or cooked butter. Roux is pronounced like the English verb to rue, meaning to bitterly regret.

To rue, as in many people will rue their decision to start a roux when they have been stirring the damn thing for 30 minutes and it’s not done yet.

Or …many people will rue neglecting their roux for even a minute when they fail to keep stirring and burn the damn thing after spending 40 minutes on it, and have to throw out that mess and start over.

Or.. as almost happened to me tonight — and I’d bet already has happened to a few folks in the 504 or 334 area codes you will rue leaving your phone on a kitchen shelf where it could tumble into your roux. That likely would be the end of the phone as well as that batch of roux. I doubt a phone would survive a drop into a pot of roux. You need the roux to get very very hot to develop the right flavor. How hot? The famous late Chef Paul Prudhomme of Louisiana used to use the phrase Cajun napalm to describe what roux can do to your hands.

You may wonder at this point why people bother with roux. Seriously. Why would anyone want to mess with something called Cajun napalm?

Well, you do it because you want to make gumbo. There are a few ingredients you can play with in making gumbo. Some folks like gumbo thickened with ground sassafras called file’. I prefer okra. Some people add shrimp. I adore shrimp, but not in my gumbo. For that, I stick with chicken and andouille sausage.

But no sensible person would make gumbo without a roux.

Ah, but is there a more sensible way to make a roux?

Author photo of okra plants.

There are at least two alternatives to the traditional method of making a roux. Some folks opt to use the microwave to heat the combination of flour and oil. Others advocate for cooking the flour in the oven.

The late Steve Hall, creator of the Cooking With Shotgun Red YouTube channel, made a very convincing case for that second approach. Many people are needlessly intimidated by the idea of stirring a roux by hand and so they don’t even try to make gumbo.

No need to be afraid, Hall says, just use the oven to heat the flour.

“You don’t need to stand and stir roux,” Hall said. “You don’t need to do that.”

I enjoyed watching Hall describe how to cook flour in the oven …while I stirred a roux in a big orange pot. My Dutch oven looks a lot like the pot the famous PBS cooking show host Justin Wilson used in the episode where he makes gumbo.

When I start gumbo, I get my ingredients together. I have my cutting board and bowls ready to chop up what’s known as the Louisiana trinity — onion, celery and bell pepper. I keep them near the stove, within arms reach.

Then I always replay that episode of Wilson making gumbo. I start chopping the onion. The short video reminds me of the basics of the gumbo recipe. I follow much of what Wilson says, but have my own variation. He’s a file’ fan. As I said earlier, I’m an okra girl.

French Quarter Detail, New Orleans, 2006. Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress. Photo is in the public domain.

While Wilson’s video plays, I mix the flour and oil in the big orange pot on a low flame. I stir the roux and then quickly do a bit of chopping, and then stir again and chop more. Stir, chop, stir, chop.

The YouTube clip of Wilson making gumbo lasts about 10 minutes, with the roux-stirring part greatly abbreviated. So that video covers only the beginning of my roux process. Next I usually play one of the many videos on YouTube where Leah Chase, owner of the famous New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase, talks about gumbo. I watch with my phone on kitchen shelf and I stir. Next up for me lately has been the Cooking With Carolyn YouTube channel. I like both her video on how to make gumbo and then the follow-up video she made to explain the roux by itself.

“Don’t get nervous. You are in control,” she says to comfort newcomers to roux.

But she also cautions them.

“This is a task that you cannot walk away from,” Carolyn says. “You need to stick around.”

Indeed.

I keep stirring and stirring. At this point I start to look at other videos. Over the years, I’ve watched Emeril talk about gumbo, a dish he clearly loves. I’ve watched many people cook gumbo in their homes. I see that America’s Test Kitchen has an oven-based roux recipe for gumbo. I loved the America’s Test Kitchen recipe for shrimp scampi.

So the next time I make gumbo, I might watch the America’s Test Kitchen episode about the oven-based roux — as I stir my own flour-oil mix in the big orange pot.

Thyme and Time

I’ve realized I’m not that interested in shortcuts for making gumbo. Stirring a roux is one of my favorite exercises in mindfulness.

I’m not a patient person by nature. And I use the Toggl app almost religiously to track the time. I use it to keep tabs on how long I spend each day on not only on freelance work projects, but also on personal ones like studying Spanish and French. I know how many hours I spent this year working on my tax returns.

But I can’t tell you how much time it’s ever taken me to make a roux for gumbo.

As I stir and stir, I find fun videos of people talking about their approach to gumbo. Like most of my fellow alumni of Tulane University, I love hearing people in Louisiana talk about food and traditions.

I check the roux constantly. Once its color resembles peanut butter, the roux has my full attention. How much darker to go is the question. Darker roux means more flavor, but it’s also risky. I have had more than once gone too far in my search for flavor. I’ve had to toss out burnt batches of roux and start over and stir, stir, stir.

These days I try now to get the roux to a dark brown color and then add chopped onions. That way the roux cooks a bit more, but won’t burn. Next I add chopped celery and bell pepper and garlic and then andouille sausage and chicken. My gumbo seasonings are simple. I add a good couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce. I add a little bit of Crystal pepper sauce. That’s my go-to hot sauce, but I appreciate that other people have their own favorites.

Screenshot of Twitter profile of Crystal.

I use chicken broth and sometimes a little wine in the gumbo. And then thyme. I sometimes use dried thyme. I sometimes can use fresh thyme. That herb has been one of the most resilient plants in my small garden. It has for many years grow back on its own, nestled against the base of a rose.

I never used my own okra in gumbo. It was fun to try to grow okra in 2016, but I can’t say it was a success.

A great day’s harvest from my 2016 okra experiment.

I buy frozen okra and roast it on a cookie sheet to add to my gumbo. There is no water involved in cooking it. Never water. Trust me that that’s a good way to go.

And then there is a final essential ingredient for a good gumbo. It’s one shared with many soups and stews.

Time.

“Don’t serve it today. No. Put in your icebox tonight,” Justin Wilson said about the finished gumbo at the end of his lesson. “And tomorrow bring it to a boil and let it simmer for about an hour. And then eat that. Because it tastes more better then. It always does.”

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Journalist writing for free and for fun on Medium. Digs kindness, art, food, cities, politics, history and business. Has eaten in more than 60 nations.

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