Ruminating The Roux: Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About Roux

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of the more intimidating techniques to master in the kitchen is the roux. Pronounced "roo," it's a combination of equal parts of fat and flour that is cooked and used either as a starting base for sauces or added later to thicken soups or stews.

Roux is a wonderful technique to master in your cooking. It's the basis for a classic bechamel sauce (butter, flour, cream) that when you add garlic and parmesan cheese to, becomes the alfredo sauce for your fettuccine. Or add some canned San Marzano tomatoes to the alfredo and you have your sauce for a classic lasagna. The French add a combination of flour and butter mixed together with a fork to their stews and soups to thicken them.

You can use any fat and flour combination, really. The classic is white or wheat flour with butter. The classic French roux technically uses clarified butter, but you can get away with unclarified. Creole cuisine uses regular vegetable or canola oil instead of butter. You can even use lard, meat drippings or reserved bacon fat to achieve a super smoky flavor.

So why don't most people use this technique? Well, first of all it's honestly quite fatty. A basic roux recipe for a gumbo for example calls for 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of oil. A bechamel will be a cup of flour and two sticks of butter. If you're watching your weight you don't really want to be making these recipes all the time.

The other reason is it's really easy to screw up. I mean, easy. Flour burns very quickly. And so does butter for that matter. So when you're doing a roux you have to be totally committed, as in parking yourself in front of the pot for the foreseeable future. And if you burn it you can't fix it; you have to start from the beginning.

I had to practice making roux many, many times before I got comfortable with it. But once you "get it," it's a wonderful technique to have in your cooking artillery. You can make many beautiful sauces and dishes like lasagna, gumbo, and cream sauces for any pasta combination you can think of.

I recently made a pot of gumbo for our Mardi Gras themed Super Bowl party and took the opportunity to show you (via my handy dandy new Nikon 3000!) some pictures of the different stages of cooking a roux.

A basic roux starts off very light. This is called "blonde." Here's a picture of a roux cooking for about 10 minutes on a medium-low flame:

I used a vegetable oil-flour combination for this. Notice how light the color is. I like to start off the roux with a whisk and then as soon as the flour is incorporated and all lumps are gone, I switch to the wooden spoon.

A blonde roux actually has very little flavor. That's why most recipes will have you add garlic and cheeses. Those ingredients are the main flavor points and the roux actually becomes more of a texture than actual flavor ingredient.

However...if you continue to cook the roux, you can get some wonderful dark, smoky, nutty flavors that when combined with heavier flavors like onions, dark meats and smoked sausages, can make a wonderfully flavorful dish that's full of depth.

Here I continued cooking the roux for another 10 minutes. At this point it's been cooking about 20 minutes from start to this point:

See the color has already darkened? This is a great stage if you wanted to do a seafood stew or gumbo. With light colored proteins like white fish and shellfish that have their own distinct flavors, you don't want your roux to compete too much with them. So at this point I'd add my onions/celery/pepper mixture (aka Trinity), andouille sausage and proceed on with the seafood gumbo.

But let's keep going...

Another 15 minutes gets you to the "peanut butter" stage:

The color resembles peanut butter. At this point you could pull it for a chicken-based stew or gumbo. I'd like it made with the dark meat of turkey or chicken because that has more flavor than the white meat (breast), and so the flavor of the roux won't compete with the flavors of the chicken or turkey as much.

But we're not done...we just got started!

10 more minutes (total cooking time now is around 40 minutes from start to finish) will get you to the "caramel" color stage:

This is great for working with smoked meats and sausages.

But let's keep cooking...

Here's the roux at 50 minutes of constant cooking and stirring, or "dark caramel" stage:

And at one hour of cooking, we have the "milk chocolate" stage:

If you're doing a chicken-andouille gumbo then you might want to take it off starting around now. This is on the earlier end for a good gumbo but can certainly get the job done.

But let's push it even more...
1 hour and 15 minutes of cooking gets you to the "chocolate" stage:

This is a perfect roux for a gumbo. If you're working with duck, chicken, sausages or heavier meats this is the roux you want. It's dark, full of flavor and has a wonderful nutty bite and aroma to it.
You can go even darker than this and get to "dark chocolate" or "black" that you'd want if working with beef and heavier red meats. That stage is about an hour and half to two hours of cooking.
There are a few key tips to know about roux too:
1. The longer you cook the roux, the less thickening power you'll have. So if you're planning a huge pot of gumbo like I did, you'll have to triple your roux base to an obscene amount of flour and oil (think 4 cups of each) to get the thickness you need for a gumbo. I learned that the hard way as mine lost almost all of its thickness, but thank God the flavor remained!
2. You can never leave your roux!! Roux burns very, very easily so you need to have it at a medium-low temperature, adjusting the heat if the roux is getting too hot too fast, and be right next to it. Start your roux and you have exactly 10 minutes to go to the bathroom and crack open a bottle of beer or bottle of wine. After that 10 minutes, you're committed so don't even think about answering the phone or changing a diaper or taking a pee break. Your roux will burn and you will be screwed. And you must always stir the roux, even if you think it's not doing anything. By stirring it you're keeping the cooking even and moving around the flour so it doesn't settle in one spot and burns.
3. White roux use butter; dark roux use oil. Do not deviate from this rule. Ever. Oil has a much higher smoking point than butter, which means it won't burn. If you cook butter for over an hour you will burn it into oblivion. The milk solids in the butter will burn off and leave carbon. It's disgusting and not edible. If you're doing a white roux (i.e., cooking it for 10 minutes or less) then go ahead and use the butter. If you're doing a peanut butter or darker, use oil.
4. Roux cooks in stages, so don't panic. You'll start your roux and then yell at it because it's not changing color and it's been 20 minutes and it's still pretty light. Don't' dispare! You'll see roux cooks in stages. All of a sudden it'll get a good shade darker, and then you'll get excited. And then it'll seem to stop darkening again but keep the faith! It'll dip down another shade suddenly. Roux is about patience and love and encouragement, so stay with your roux and love it into goodness.
5. Just when you think it's dark enough...keep going! The best advice on cooking I think I ever got was when Emeril Lagasse told the Top Chef finalists "You gotta cook that roux until you're past the point of comfortability; when you're really uncomfortable, that's when you know you're getting close." In other words, cooking is mostly about feeling. It's about being connected to the food you're making and listening to the ingredients. That's honestly what makes the difference between a good cook and a great cook.
Well I hope this inspires you to try out some roux! Check back soon for a recipe on a simple gumbo (perfect for cold winter nights!) and a classic lasagna recipe using bechamel!

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