Sunday, July 21, 2013

Roux - Legally Blond to Scandalously Dark

Once a pillar of haute cuisine, now with the emphasis on healthy diets roux seems to have fallen out of favor. Yet even today you simply can't achieve the flavor of certain dishes as they were meant to be without using a roux. Sure you can thicken by alternative methods that don't introduce the fat that a roux does. Many that will give you wonderful results. But in certain dishes, Cajun cuisine comes to mind, you will never achieve that authentic flavor without using and mastering a roux.

Never has so simple a recipe been so misunderstood. It is mysterious to many due to the fact that making a roux correctly involves as much a sense of what not to do, as simply following a set recipe. Other than it's ingredients nothing is certain. How long to cook it, how high a temperature to cook it at, whisk or stir, blond or dark, how and when to use the end result are all up for interpretation. The answers to these moments of decision are nothing less than the result of experience. You simply have to work with the medium. Make the attempts, do not be afraid to fail since you invariably will, notice when it works and learn from it when it does not.

Roux is an art built on technique garnered through practice utilizing only two ingredients, fat and flour. Done properly and used sparingly, roux continues to have a place in culinary tradition today. Above all else making good roux involves a commitment in time and unbending patience.

The following describes how to make a roux though all its major stages, i.e. blond, medium, brown, dark brown.

Then there is the unique very dark brown roux used in Cajun dishes. This roux has been called by many different names. I have heard it referred to as a very dark brown roux, a brick or red brick roux.  I call it a chocolate roux and will do so in this blog because that is what it looks like to me. Whatever you call it, a Chocolate roux is actually taken beyond any of the other standard roux and is the hardest to keep from burning while it develops. The phrase "Black" roux is a marketing ploy. If you take it to black you've burnt it.

To help you know if you have made a chocolate roux properly let me try to describe what it should taste like. But remember, it's not meant to be eaten by itself. By itself it is very strong.

To me it always tastes like strong coffee or dark chocolate. There is a difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is sweet, while dark chocolate has a bitterness to it. Likewise there is a difference between different levels of roux. My medium and Brown roux are almost sweet, tasting and looking almost identical to homemade creamy peanut butter. My chocolate roux is a completely different animal.

Another way I describe it is to liken it to strong black coffee. Black coffee is bitter when made normally but quite bitter when made strong. My chocolate roux always has a significant level of bitterness to it. It's certainly not sweet.  But it does NOT taste burnt.

Some people describe the taste of a chocolate roux as very dark but not burnt toast.

If you do burn it, you should be able to tell without a doubt. It will taste burnt more than bitter. You will see small specks of black as you stir and they will not go away. But be advised, there are different levels of burnt. It is possible to burn it slightly and without tasting it, you may not be aware you burnt it. Just remember that some bitterness is expected, it's supposed to taste that way.

The goal is to caramelize the roux as it develops. The more your committed to stirring, the more your roux will caramelize, the less chance it will burn.

Finally, Cajun dishes made with a chocolate roux have a unique flavor. Some people simply don't like it. They go to New Orleans and look forward to authentic Cajun cuisine only to find it's too strong for them. Realize that you can make the same dish with a medium or brown roux. Done with these roux, they will not have near the deep dark taste that you get from a chocolate roux. Experiment with the different levels of roux. Then use the roux you like, not the roux you think your supposed to use.

Equal parts by weight:
All Purpose Flour


  • Cooking utensil. Preheat your pan thoroughly. The tool you use to make roux in is very important, either use a well seasoned cast iron skillet with high sides or use a good quality Dutch Oven.
  • Choose your fat carefully. Butter and neutral oils (Canola,Peanut or Vegetable) work best. Whole butter is best for a blond or medium roux. When making a brown or dark brown roux, choose clarified butter over whole butter so there are no milk solids to burn. Cajun roux's are almost exclusively made with all oil due to it's higher smoking point. Heat your fat to it's smoking point and immediately start to carefully add the flour little by little until all flour is incorporated. Immediately reduce heat to medium-low.
  • Always cook roux over medium low to high-low heat. If you try to rush it, it will burn instead of caramelize. It will still develop color like it should so it might look right but the flavors will be off. Depending on how high you cooked it, the flavors could be way off and give a burnt taste to your entire dish. Exercise patience.
  • Roux shouldn't pour. Roux won’t pour at any stage. If roux is runny, it’s because the flour/fat ratios were off from the start.
  • Do not let it smoke. If roux smokes even a little bit, remove from heat while continuing to stir, lower heat before replacing.
  • Black specks on the pan surface that do not go away as you stir (usually after you have stopped stirring for a moment or two). You burnt it, Throw out and start over.
  • ONCE YOU START. DO NOT STOP STIRRING. This is where the commitment in time and patience comes in. Lighter roux's are not a problem, but dark brown and Cajun roux's are a totally different animal. You have to be willing to pay the price to do them correctly. To end up with a chocolate roux that still has a bittersweet deep strong black coffee taste to it is not easy. Most people end up thinking they have made it and stop, not realizing that they only have a medium or dark brown roux. Once they realize that, they try again and end up burning their second attempt.You will know if you burn it bad. But there are different levels of burnt. A great roux becomes great because of caramelization. If your complacent about stirring, the high heat of the roux will cause it to burn slightly without creating major noticeable black specks, and yet your roux will end up more bitter that nutty. I suggest an environment with music, that will last hours without attention, no one else home, no phones of any sort that could ring, cold beer within reach and a cigar off to the side. That's how I do it anyway. 
  • To thicken. Add cold roux to hot liquid to avoid lumps. 
There are four distinct stages of roux development in classical French cuisine

Do not rush, better to take longer than try to go too fast. Once I add the flour to the hot oil, I work at a setting between medium-low to no greater than high-low during the whole process.

First stage is a blond roux. Uses include the mother sauce Bechamel. Approximately 20 -  30 minutes into cooking over medium-low heat. 

Second stage is a medium roux. Uses include basic brown sauces. Approximately 60+ minutes into cooking over medium-low heat. 

Now were into the third stage, brown. Looks like creamy peanut butter. Approximately two hours into cooking over medium-low heat. I have not yet stopped stirring

Dark Brown headed toward a Red or "Brick" roux. Used liberally in Creole dishes. Over two hours now. Still stirring. 

Beyond a red roux, almost to a Cajun roux. Two and a half hours now. Still stirring.

BE CAREFUL, If you get it on you it will stick and burn you like napalm.

When you are almost there, remove from heat and continue stirring, it will continue to darken and have a chance to burn for another fifteen minutes. Used in Cajun dishes.  Just over three hours into cooking over medium-low heat. I have not yet stopped stirring

Cajun roux otherwise known as "Scandalously Dark Roux". I know this takes a long time to make, but the good thing is you can make this and store in a good quality container that has a tight lid. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely. When you need some it will be a small amount. You can simply scrap out what you need with a spoon. 

One note on the time it took me to achieve this particular batch of chocolate roux.  I have seen many on-line videos and web sites of "famous" chef's going over how to make Cajun roux. And they all say it takes anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes.

In this roux I made for this blog I used half Peanut Oil and half whole butter because I wanted the flavor the butter would impart. I also made what is considered a larger batch. When using butter you MUST work slower at lower temperatures to keep it from burning. And of course larger batches take longer.

If you make it with all oil, and/or small batches it can be done in a lot less time.

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