A view from my side.
A phrase that has scared away countless amateur cooks. The infamous roux (pronounced “roo.”) Just what the hell is it anyway? And why is it necessary? And why does it seem so hard to get it right? Blah…I’ll just use a mix.
I love gravies. Homemade gravies. I love soups, stews, gumbos. Each of these wondrous dishes benefits greatly from a properly prepared roux. Basically a roux is equal parts fat (of some kind) and flour. It is used to thicken, flavor and color a dish. While there are alternatives and workarounds, a well prepared roux is absolutely necessary to “do it right”.
Unfortunately, most people do not have the patience to cook a good roux. While some people will spend 45 minutes or more making a roux, it can be done, at home on a typical stove-top, in about 11-15 minutes (depending on the color/consistency you need). The keys to a good roux are simple:
Five simple things. That’s it. It is that simple. Unfortunately, a poor choice in any of those five can be disastrous. For example, many people choose ordinary butter for the fat. While it can produce a flavorful roux, one of the problems with it is that it burns easily. If you choose butter for your fat, then you have two choices. First, either take the time to clarify the butter or buy clarified butter. Second use unsalted butter, lower the heat and be sure to never, ever stop stirring. Lower heat means more time. Add to that the constant stirring and many people will tire, quit early or turn up the heat and end up burning the roux. Either way, they don’t get what they want.
Fat. Choose wisely. Butter is most often the choice since it is readily available. Butter burns easily, so be prepared to spend more time if that is your choice. Other fats don’t burn as easily as butter and can be used to impart different flavors into the roux. For Thanksgiving Turkey gravy, for example, I always use the fat from the turkey. It helps to add flavor to the roux and allows me to use a higher heat than butter. 25 years ago, when beef roasts still had a nice layer of fat on them, I would use the fat in the roasting pan as the basis for a beef gravy. Bacon and sausage greases are sometimes used, especially in a roux being made for gumbos or étouffées. Any of a wide range of fats are acceptable depending on what your need might be.
Good clean flour is also necessary. Flour has a shelf life of about 6-8 months once opened. People often keep it longer, but if your flour is older than that, please go buy a fresh bag. Even if it is just the small, 2 pound bag, it will make a difference. Also, make sure it is clean of any foreign objects. Sometimes things fall into flour and people don’t notice. Done right, you will be working with pretty high temps and anything other than fat and flour will burn in the heat. Burn it and you need to start over. A quick glance at the flour now can save you time later.
Heat. You have to have heat. It is the heat that causes the molecules in the flour and fat to merge and come together, forming the roux. You can’t do this on “medium.” You must have a high heat or all you will end up with us mush.
The pan. You must have a sauce pan/skillet that is up to the task. It can’t be a thin, cheap pan that can’t handle the heat. Nor does it need to be a cast iron skillet that weighs 2 metric tons. A nicely weighted sauce pan or skillet will do. Purist will tell you it can’t be a “coated” pan, but I’ve never found that it mattered much in my kitchen. Make sure you wipe the pan clean before using it…see note above about foreign objects.
Time to stand and stir. Given the high heat and the ease with which the roux can burn, you have to constantly stir it to avoid burning. Using butter adds to the time due to the lower heat. Using other fats makes it easier to turn up the heat and adds a different flavor. Regardless of your choice, you’ll be stirring for a while so have a whisk or wooden spoon ready that fits comfortably in your hand.
Now, having made all the important choices off you go. For any fat other than butter, get it hot…really hot. When ready, add the flour and stir it in. You can’t let anything sit on the bottom of the pan or it will stick. If it sticks, it will burn. If it burns, you have to start all over. You will notice that the flour absorbs the oil and it will clump up a bit, almost into a ball. It will get really thick and you must keep stirring to avoid burning it. Right now, it doesn’t look like much, but you are only a few short minutes into it. Don’t lose faith.
Keep stirring and maintain the heat. After a few minutes, the consistency will change and it will start to get creamier. You will notice that it is still a little granular, but now it is holding together better and starting to look like something worthy might come of it. Now we’re about 1/3 of the way through, it’s been about 4 minutes or so. The burner is set at medium high heat. This is a small batch, only about 6 tbps of turkey fat and flour.
Continued stirring and the consistency changes again. The molecules in the fat and flour are starting to merge and their chemical composition is changing a bit. The color is still pretty light and at this point, you can see how it appears more like a thick liquid than a mass of grainy stuff. Still not quite ready for prime time, it needs a few more minutes before it is useful to anyone for anything other than a good burn. Remember, this stuff is hot. Blisteringly hot. And thick. Be careful not to get any on your arm. It will stick and burn. In certain places in Louisiana, they call this stuff “Cajun napalm.” At this point, we’ve been at it about 8 minutes.
Remember, you have to keep stirring. I know I’ve said this time and time again, but it is true. I took my wooden paddle out of the pan long enough to get a good photo above and you’ll notice in the lower left hand side of the pan, some of the mixture is taking on a darker brown color. It takes just a few more seconds longer than this to burn it. You have to keep the mixture moving or you will need to start over. Stir, stir, stir.
Ok, home stretch now. Just another short minute or two later and it is almost there. Almost, but not quite, a blond roux. A blond roux is great for cream soups, chowders, and other light-colored soups and sauces. At this point, you can dial back the heat a bit if you want to, but I always keep it steady until I’m done. If I were making a blond roux, I would give it another minute or two, until the consistency was a bit more creamy. Remember to continue stirring a few minutes more after you remove it from the heat to allow the heat to dissipate from the pan. I’d hate to set it down and let it burn after all this work. We’re around the 11 minute mark here.
For my purposes in this roux, I was making gravy for our Christmas Turkey dinner, so I wanted it a bit darker. I kept on stirring and kept it on the heat for another couple of minutes. You’ll notice the darker color and much creamier consistency. This was about 15 minutes total time. This became the base thickening agent for the gravy. A good color, a great aroma and wonderful flavor. I used the fat from the turkey and freshly purchased flour. If I were making a beef gravy, I would have used a different fat and let it cook longer, getting a darker color.
All the really good gravies, soups, sauces, and stews we enjoy start with a good roux. There is no getting around it. You can thicken chicken stock with cornstarch mixed in a little water, but it isn’t the same thing but I wouldn’t call it gravy. Sure, it’ll have the consistency you want, but it won’t hold up as well nor will it taste anywhere near as good. Like so many things in life, you’ve got to take the time and care to do it right. In order to get the texture, color and flavor you really want, you gotta make a roux.