Roux is simply a mixture of flour and fat, whose purpose is to both thicken and add
flavor to sauces and stews. Roux is classified by the degree to which the flour is
cooked. The longer the flour is cooked, the less thickening power it has and the
more flavor it imparts. A white, or French, roux is simply flour mixed in melted butter
and is cooked only long enough to dissolve the flour. At the opposite end of the
spectrum is the Creole roux, which is cooked until the flour reaches a rich, dark
brown color (“jus’ like chocolate, sha”). This process imparts a rich, nutty taste to
the roux that gives Creole stews and gumbos their distinctive flavor.
Making Creole roux is not at all difficult, it simply requires a lot of patience and
diligence. The classic Creole roux is cooked over medium to low heat and stirred
constantly for about 50 minutes to an hour. Obviously, in our “fast food-centric, eat
on the run” culture, spending so much time preparing one single ingredient seems
at first foolhardy. But, herein lies the true zen of the roux. It is what Emril Legasse
likes to call “food of love”. You’re connecting with your food, patiently transforming it
from a pasty tasting solution of flour and oil into a rich, complex amalgam of flavors
that is as many layered as the culture that created it. This culinary alchemy, time
consuming as it may be, is what separates mere sustenance from the passionate,
sensual pleasure that God meant for eating to be.
Some recipes call for equal parts of flour and oil, I like to use 1 cup flour in one cup
of vegetable oil for a 10 qt pot of gumbo. While almost any pan will do, a cast iron
skillet is most ideally suited for making roux. Avoid thin pans, since controlling the
heat with these is quite difficult. Pour the oil into the pan and let it heat up for about
15 minutes. I set my burner halfway between medium-low and medium. Now add
the flour and start stirring. I like to use a wooden spatula for stirring, since it gives
you a wider surface for scraping the flour from the bottom of the pan. Be careful
when you stir that you don’t stir so quickly that you splash any of the oil on yourself
(Paul Prudhomme refers to roux as “Cajun napalm”). The roux does not have to be
stirred quickly, only constantly.
Now stir, stir and keep on stirring. Once you start, don’t stop until the roux is
finished, otherwise it will burn. Stir in long, well rounded strokes, making sure to get
into the corners of the pan, so that flour there does not burn. Have your favorite
music on, have a glass of good wine within easy reach, set the phone within an
arm’s length in case you must answer it. Use the time to think, to reflect on life, to
commune with God. And watch as the white paste with which you started is slowly
nurtured into a dark, flavorful essence. Your roux should be no darker than a very
light shade of peanut butter after 10 minutes. At 30 minutes, it should be taking on
the appearance of melted chocolate. Once your roux is done, add your vegetables
if you are using it immediately, or take the roux off of the heat and keep stirring until
the pan has cooled.
One final note: If you do burn your roux, chalk it up to experience, throw it out and
start over. Nothing tastes worse than burnt roux!