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Cooking Cajun: You'll Roux the Day You Don't Read This!


The word “roux” brings smiles to the faces of some folk, and strikes fear into the hearts of many others. Let’s cut to the chase here; it’s just a thickener, people! Nothing to fear. If you’ve been to Cordon Bleu school or such (and who hasn’t?) then you already appreciate the roux. It’s the starting point for three of the Big Five sauces: Bechamel, Veloute, and Espagnole. But of course you knew that already, right? What’s so scary about that?

The basic Cajun/Creole roux; if you’re from Louisiana you learned it at your mama’s knee, and if not, well, there’s still hope for you. If you’re willing to practice a lot. Fortunately, the ingredients for a great roux are cheap and plentiful. (That means practicing won’t cost you an arm and a leg.)

There’s also only about three stages, although some cooks will tell you about twenty or more. That’s just to keep you scared so you won’t try; but you’re past that now, right? Good. Here’s the three: white, blond and brown. Same starting point, three endpoints. All it takes is time to go from white to blond to brown. Of course, exactly HOW brown is up to you! A white roux, useful for a quick cream gravy at breakfast, is cooked only long enough to remove the floury taste before the gravy liquid goes in. The other two just take time and love.

It’s an interesting testament to the field of Louisiana cooking that authorities disagree even over the basics of Cajun versus Creole. I’ve found sources (you can too, if you can type Google) that say the difference in Cajun roux is that it’s made with butter, while Creole roux uses lard or bacon fat. The next sources say just the opposite. I even found one website where both are claimed! In the same page! Odd.

GumboWhatever fat source you use, there are differences between Cajun and Creole. The Creole dishes I can find include influences from Spanish and African immigrant cooking, including the Caribbean islands. Cajuns, they just eat. Pretty much anything. Creole roux are purported to be lighter in color, generally, than Cajun ones. They’re all slow-cooked, with generous stirring using wooden implements; put that whisk away! Some recipes call for as much as an hour of gentle stir agitation before the desired color and texture are achieved.

The thing to remember– Don’t rush your roux! Turning the heat up will only lead to disaster, trust me. This is a lot like making a baby (no, not THAT part of making the baby): You can’t get a baby faster by putting ten women on it, and you can’t get a roux faster by turning the knob to High. You can’t rush love (not even making the baby), and you shouldn’t try to rush your roux.

How easy is a good roux? Here’s how. Start with a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. When skillet is hot, add oil, lard or bacon fat. Start with a half-cup of fat. When it’s all dispersed in the pan add a half cup of flour. Plain ol’ all-purpose flour; save your fancy flour for baking. Then stir! Stir until it’s got an even consistency. Then stir some more. If it bubbles a lot, turn the heat down a bit. Did I mention you should stir?

At this early stage the roux will have maximum thickening power. That means it will thicken a gravy and hold quite a lot of liquid. It also means, if you put in too little liquid, it’ll get lumpy, or worse yet, harden like Quikrete. How to avoid that? Switch to a whisk and have plenty of liquid staged up. Add some liquid and stir like crazy. You may also want to turn the heat up. If the sauce binds, keep stirring and add in more liquid, a small portion at a time. Once the gravy is behaving and appears a bit too loose, it’s time to let it come to a boil. It’ll finish thickening just fine at that point. You can always add a bit of milk, broth or water at this point to keep it from setting up.

For gumbo or étouffée, you’ll need a darker roux, more peanut-butter color. Indeed, for gumbo you’ll eventually want it pretty dark! If you like to add your Trinity to the roux, you can do that when the sauce looks like creamy Jif. Keep stirring and the veggies will soften as the roux darkens. Or you can sauté your Trinity separately and add the prepared veggies when the roux is dark. In either case, you’re looking for a dark brown, but not burned, roux for a great gumbo.

See? I told you it was easy! So go cook a few slabs of bacon (for the grease; you can throw the other part away) and get to stirring! Switch off between both hands on the stirring part, though, or you’ll look like a lopsided Popeye or something. And when somebody asks how you learned to cook such fine Cajun and Creole dishes, just tell them the Chile Underground larned ya good…

Enjoy the (Saucy Cajun) Heat!

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