Rouxing the day

I’d like to meander a bit about roux – and yes, I know I touched on it before. Thing is I’ve been playing with it some, and have stuff to share.

Classic roux is equal parts butter and flour cooked together then used as a thickener. It is the critical element for three of the four mother sauces of French cuisine: bechamel, veloute, and espagnole sauces.

A digression for personal annoyance. The fourth mother sauce is allemande. It’s made by thickening veloute with egg yolks and heavy cream, then has a bit of lemon juice added. Now my problem with this is that any OTHER sauce that’s an extension of one of the roux sauces is a small sauce. I have no idea why this one small sauce became a mother.

A digression (yep, another one) on those sauces. While Careme identified the four mother sauces in the 19th century, it is/was a stupid classification that Escoffier partially fixed in the early 20th century. He dropped allemande, and added hollandaise and tomato. (yes, tomato). And in modern contemporary that five is now seven, with mayonaisse and vinaigrette rounding out the list, for now. But let’s return to roux.

The three roux-based mother sauces don’t use the same roux. Bechamel uses white, veloute uses blonde, and espagnole uses brown. And the crowd goes “hunh?”

As I started saying, classical roux is butter and flour in equal parts that is cooked. White roux is only just enough to kill the raw flour taste, and is about the point where the roux seems to go from thick to thin while cooking. As it continues to cook the flour and butter solids darken. Blonde is a bit of tan, brown is somewhat self-explanatory though it’s usually subdivided further into ‘peanut butter’, ‘brown’, and ‘chocolate’ by many US cooks. Then there’s the magic creole level of “brick”, where the dark brown seems to pick up a reddish tinge just before it turns, well, blackly inedible.

Now an interesting point, and one I think will be particularly relevant shorter, is that the darker the roux the more flavor BUT the less thickening power it has. I don’t know why, by the way, I just know it happens.

As I noted, brick roux is The Secret Flavoring for gumbos, but it’s also VERY hard to get without burning. It is also very, well, fat-heavy. So some inspired creole cooks went and tried to make Dry Roux. It works, and works quite well, though it’s scorned by traditionalists not for the lack of fat (well, not much) but because it feels like “cheating” and “trying to shortcut.”

sigh.

As it happens, dry brick roux doesn’t taste quite like brick roux. By accident, I found out why, and can fix it. Look back up this post a bit and you’ll see the answer: it’s also browned butter. VERY browned butter, not quite burned.

As a final point, I know that it’s easier to make dry brick AND very browned butter and combine both at the last instant prior to adding to a gumbo or other dish in which you want That Flavor.

To make your dry roux you’ve got two choices. Either on the stove top in a clean, heavy skillet OR in a medium oven. Either way you want to check and stir somewhat regularly. It will take from 30 to 45 minutes to make, and the closer you get to done the more carefully you want to watch. My personal preference is to sift the flour on a aluminum foil lined cookie sheet and bake – the spread means less stirring is needed. As soon as it’s done I slide it off into a metal bowl I’ve been cooling in the refrigerator. Yes, you can also do this from the skillet as well. Put it in a clean jar with a good lid to keep it from picking up both moisture and ‘other flavors’, and it will keep for a few weeks.

When it comes time to make a gumbo, then, I can just start some butter browning. When it’s “brown enough” I quickly add the dry roux, stir, and add it to the pot. I get all the flavor, and I do NOT worry about having to cry about losing the roux and having to start again.

Since I’ve mentioned gumbo a few times, let me say that in my opinion it’s not hard. In fact it’s a fairly simple one-pot stew with only two things setting it apart. The first is the roux, and the second is what’s used (instead of roux) to thicken it. Two camps here, each with a distinctive flavor. There’s file (pronounced feelay) and okra.

Since I use dry roux, I get the butter browned a bit before adding the trinity. Once the onion’s translucent (and hopefully the butter is at the right point) I add the other spices that need to be briefly fried, then the dry roux. As soon as that’s mixed in I add the water or broth, and then the fixin’s – the meats and sausages and (depending on the particular flavors I want) the other veggies. Except, that is, the okra. Okra OR file get added after the whole stew had boiled (well, simmered) for an hour or two. In goes the thickener, let it cook till it’s the thickness desired, and serve.

Now this means you can make a special sort of flavor without going all gumbo. Try this sometime. Put a tablespoon of butter in the bottom of a saucepan, melt it and start it browning. Add a finely minced garlic clove and stir till it JUST begins to brown. Add a tablespoon of dry brick roux and stir, then finish with enough chicken broth to fill two coffee mugs. Share with a friend, or have seconds as you prefer. Or even better, pour it into a thermos and take it to work; drink it when it’s coffee break time. Yes, it’s evil to make your co-workers smell your beverage and not share. Mwu-hahahahaha.

By the way… I mentioned last time that you can make your blonde and browns ahead of time, with butter (or other oils), and freeze them just fine. You can also do the dry trick with them as well. Don’t bother doing it with white – seriously, it’s less effort to make a roux on the spot for that use. But for everything else, it’s faster to have the dry and add it to a bit of oil, or at most some slightly browned butter, than it is to cook the roux for 15 to 30 minutes at the time you want to make a meal. Saving 20 minutes on espagnole sauce is worth it in my opinion.

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