Most cajun and creole recipes start out the same way: “First you make a roux…” It’s not just Louisiana home cooking, though; lots of recipes start out with a roux, from cream-based soups and sauces to homemade macaroni and cheese. Roux provides flavor, color, mouthfeel, and a thickener. Without roux, much of cooking just wouldn’t be the same.
Your basic roux is half fat, half flour. I generally use butter, and yes, you can use spelt or gluten-free flour for a roux. My mother and grandmother used Crisco, and lard and bacon grease are other common roux fats. My standard gumbo recipe starts out with 1/2 cup (or 1 stick) of butter and 1/2 cup of flour.
Have the other ingredients for your recipe ready to go. Once your roux is ready, you want to move on immediately, before it can burn or get too dark. Have your onions or your liquid right by the stove, ready to pour in.
Step one is to melt your fat over high or medium heat. Lower heat means it will take longer to cook your roux, but it also means it will brown more slowly, making it easier to stop with a light roux. Now that I have the hang of it, I prefer to use high heat and get it over with faster.
Once your fat is melted, add the flour and start stirring. Keep stirring constantly. You’ll end up with what looks like a paste. Anything you don’t stir is going to stick and burn, so keep stirring! And watch carefully. You’ll want to stop at different points, depending on what you’re making:
- For a bechamel or cream sauce, you’ll only cook a few seconds, just long enough to combine the flour and the fat. Then you’ll add your liquid just a little at a time, stirring constantly. Adding your liquid slowly allows the roux to work better as a thickener.
- For a creole sauce, or for macaroni and cheese, cook for a minute or two, long enough to get a slightly darker color to your roux (white flour will look blonde; spelt or whole wheat will just get darker). Add any onions first, to stop the browning process and saute the onions, then slowly add your liquid, stirring constantly.
- For a dark, country cajun roux, just keep on going…and going…and going. Make sure the windows are open and the vent fan is running. Don’t let any of this “Cajun napalm” splatter on you. You’re going to keep on cooking until your roux is brown, nice and dark brown, like dark chocolate. It will smoke a little; that’s okay. Make extra sure you stir thoroughly, not letting any of the roux sit in one place on the pot and burn. As soon as it reaches that smoky, chocolatey point, add in your onions to stop the browning process, then any other veggies, and saute, saving your liquid for last.
An important note: Be careful of your cooking utensils. If you are using a metal pot, use a metal spoon. If you’re using a non-stick pot, then you can use wood, but whatever spoon or spatula you use for making roux is going to get burned out over time. Never ever use silicone or plastic utensils for making a roux, especially a dark roux. They just can’t take the heat!
I heard somewhere once that you could buy roux pre-made at the grocery store in some places. I can’t even imagine. Making the roux is just part of making the dish!