If you spend any time working with sauces, you’re going to have to become familiar with roux. You might already be acquainted with it, whether or not you know what roux is. If you’ve ever made gravy, gumbo or mac and cheese from scratch, you’ve probably also made a roux. It is, simply, a thickener made of fat and flour.
The fat is most often oil or butter, but there is plenty of room for creativity. In “The Southerner’s Handbook,” by the editors of Garden & Gun, John Currence talks to Leah Chase about roux, which she often starts by rendering fat from spicy sausage.
“If you have sausage, bacon or anything you can render off, that fat gives your roux extra flavor,” she said.
“Opinions on how to make roux and what ingredients to use vary greatly. This is particularly ironic, as it is comprised of only two ingredients (fat and flour). You might wonder exactly how much debate might arise over something so simple, but trust me, in south Louisiana, that discussion can heat up like a prison dice game in about half a second.
“Creoles (heavily influenced by traditional French cooking), who were the backbone of the kitchens in the 19th and early 20th centuries in New Orleans, made their roux with butter. Their dishes were more refined and ‘lighter’ and employed roux mostly for thickening and a tiny bit of flavor. Roux made in this tradition were typically blond, or golden. They rarely got darker than that.
“Cajuns, on the other hand, used roux heavily for flavor, color and thickening. Cajuns use vegetable oil almost exclusively for their roux, which are frequently cooked to a deep chocolate brown to add a depth of flavor, likely to help mask the gaminess of some of the bayou protein used to make those gumbos.”
Other cooks agree that rendered fats (lard, tallow, schmaltz) can make a better roux, and if you don’t want to render your own, clarified butter (also known as ghee) is a good option.
Roux is cooked by mixing fat and flour (often equal amounts, but the proportions can vary) and then stirring over medium heat while the flour toasts. It can take a while, depending on how dark you want the roux to be, and must be closely attended or it will get sticky and burn (you’ll see spots in it). Once that happens, all you can do is toss it and start over again; there is no redemption when you’ve burned roux.
A white roux takes just five minutes or so to make. Taste while you cook; it only needs to heat long enough for the raw flour flavor to disappear. Golden roux takes about 20 minutes and will start to smell like popcorn. Brown roux takes a half-hour or more and starts to look like peanut butter. Beyond that, after 45 minutes or more, you’ll get a roux with a strong, roasted flavor. Keep in mind that the longer you cook a roux, the less power it will have as a thickener. You’re trading thickness for flavor as time passes. This is probably why so many casseroles, such as mac and cheese, stroganoffs and tetrazzinis, use a white sauce; a darker version would be more flavorful, but it wouldn’t cling to the pasta or potatoes as well.
The history of roux goes back a long way and continues to evolve. If you’re concerned about the amount of fat in a roux (which is not necessarily all that substantial, but if you will later be adding cheese, cream or other fats to your dish, it could add up), you might try a dry roux, like the one in this gumbo. You can avoid animal fats if you want to make vegan versions of the classic sauces, and if you’re steering clear of gluten, you can experiment with different flours.
Once cooked to the desired thickness and/or color, use the roux by whisking it into a liquid to form a sauce, soup or gravy. Three of the famed French mother sauces are based on roux: béchamel (roux mixed with milk or cream), velouté (roux mixed with white stock) and espagnole (roux mixed with brown stock). And there are quite a few cream soups and chowders that start with a roux. Of course, every time you roast meat, you have an opportunity to make gravy. Once you start digging, you’ll find so many different dishes to try, and you’ll never have to buy canned soup ever again!
Now go make some sauce. Have fun, and let me know how it turns out!
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.