Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Roux 101

Ok folks, I'm very excited about this post because I've taught myself so much about making roux and am delighted to share all of my findings with you! Yes, it's time for another one of those "nerd alert" moments, but bare with me. Since I've received Paul Prodhomme's classic, Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen, I am eager to try more of his recipes, and I thought I'd take some time to practice my roux making skills. As I've said before, I've had some experience making lighter roux, but none with the darker ones, which are most common in Cajun cooking (for those who don't know, a roux is a thickening agent made up of equal parts fat and flour, and when cooked together impart a unique nutty flavor to whatever you include it in). 

There are four main types of roux: 1) White roux 2) Blonde roux 3) Medium-dark roux 4) Black roux (although there are varying degrees of colors in each of these categories). The white and blonde roux are used in sauces, gravies, and soups and are ideal for darker meats such as beef and game. These lighter roux are often used in classic French cooking (white roux are used to make bachamel sauce and the blonde roux are used to make veloute sauce and soups). Many cooks use the darker roux in sauces and gravies for lighter meats such as pork, rabbit, veal, and seafood dishes (however, some cooks do just the opposite and use light roux with lighter meats and dark roux with darker meats. In the end it comes down to personal preference). Dark or black roux are traditionally used in making gumbo. The darker the roux, the less it will thicken (the high heat breaks down the starch in the flour), but the flavor becomes more intense. 

I've learned through my research over the past week that every cook uses different methods and techniques to get to their desired result. Butter is often the fat of choice in French cooking, while oil is commonly used in Cajun cooking. In addition to oil, clarified butter and animal fats can also be used (such as chicken, duck, and pork fat). Measurements are another common variation in preparing roux. Some prefer to use equal parts by volume of fat and flour, while others prefer to measure them by weight. It's no wonder roux have such a stigma surrounding them!

The more I researched, the more I found every authority on Cajun roux varied in opinion so much so, that I decided to put it all aside and find what methods and techniques worked best for me. In my trials and errors making roux, I've come up with a few methods that gave me excellent results. To start, I tried measuring the fat and flour by volume and by weight, and found that measuring by weight was the most consistent. 

In making lighter roux, I found that by adding the oil and flour to a cold pan and then cooking it over medium heat allowed me more control. Once the mixture came to a simmer I reduced the heat slightly. It took about 3 to 5 minutes to reach the white roux and about 7 to 10 minutes to reach the blonde roux. I learned that if I added the flour to smoking hot oil, I quickly lost control of the lighter roux and it became too dark- even after removing it from the heat. 

To make the darker roux, I found the best method was heating the oil until it was smoking (about 5 minutes) over high heat and then whisking in the flour in thirds. This method allows you to "skip" over the lighter roux, or at least move through them very quickly, so you don't have to whisk the flour for a half an hour or more. Once the flour was incorporated and simmering, I reduced the heat to medium/medium-low heat (and occasionally removed the pan from heat if I found it was browning too quickly), which allowed me to stay in complete control of the roux. I reached the dark red-brown roux in about 15 to 20 minutes. I'm not sure how long it took me to reach the black roux, as I lost track of time while whisking and staring into its deep dark abyss. So, awhile, I guess. I also tried another method for making the darker roux, starting as I did with the lighter roux, adding the oil and flour all at once to a cold pan and cooking it very slowly over medium heat. This method also worked well, but takes significantly longer- about 30 to 40 minutes or more. 

I've also read about another method, in which you brown the flour on a sheet pan in the oven and then add the fat to it later. This method seems to be used most often in large professional kitchens as a way to save time. As for me, I'm going to stick to the pan methods, as I rather like making a roux the old-fashioned way. You can see my various roux below:

White roux

Blonde roux

Dark red-brown roux

Black roux

The wonderful thing about a roux is that it can be made in advance, cooled and then stored in a well-sealed container until ready to use. You can simply pour off any excess oil and reheat the roux prior to using. Always remember: never add a hot roux to hot liquid as it can splatter and cause burns. So let it cool (or let it come to room temperature if making in advance) before incorporating it with a hot liquid. The same goes for combining a cold roux with cold liquid, as this will make it lumpy.

Here are some helpful pointers I've compiled about making roux from Paul's book and various other resources:
  • Be careful when making your roux, as the oil is extremely hot. Use a long-handled metal whisk. Never leave your roux unattended!
  • Use a cast iron skillet (large enough so the oil does not fill it by more than 1/4 its capacity) to make your roux, if possible, one with flared sides as this makes stirring easier and helps prevent burning.
  • Whisk quickly and constantly while making your roux to avoid possible scorching.
  • If you feel the roux is darkening too fast, reduce heat and/or remove it from the heat and continue to whisk constantly until you have control of it.  
  • If for some reason lumps appear in your roux, simply strain it through a fine-mesh sieve before continuing.
  • If black specks appear in the roux as it cooks, it has burned. Transfer it to a heat-proof container to cool before discarding. Clean your pan and start again. 

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