Culinary Arts Basic Training
How To Make And Use A Roux
Roux /ˈruː/ (also rue) is flour and fat cooked together and used as to thicken sauces. The fat is butter in French cuisine, but may be lard or vegetable oil in other cuisines.
A roux is used in three of the mother sauces of classical French cooking: béchamel sauce, velouté sauce, and espagnole sauce.
The fat is heated in a pot or pan, melting it if necessary. Then the flour is added. The mixture is stirred until the flour is incorporated and then cooked until at least the point where a raw flour taste is no longer apparent and the desired colour has been reached. The final colour can range from nearly white to nearly black, depending on the length of time it is over the heat and its intended use. The end result is a thickening and flavoring agent.
Roux is most often made with butter as the fat base, but it may be made with any edible fat. In the case of meat gravies, fat rendered from meat is often used. In regional American cuisine, bacon is sometimes rendered to produce fat to use in the roux. If clarified butter is not available, vegetable oil is often used when producing dark roux, as it does not burn at high temperatures, as whole butter does.
Adding liquids to create a sauce
When combining roux with water-based liquids, such as broth or milk, many authorities assert it is important that these liquids are not excessively hot. It is preferable to add room temperature or warm roux to a moderately hot liquid, or vice versa, to avoid lumps. They should be added in small quantities while stirring, some authorities suggest a very brief boil. Conversely, some authorities suggest that the combined mixture will never be lumpy if the roux itself is correctly made.
Light (or “white”) roux provides little flavor other than a characteristic richness to a dish, and is used in French cooking and some gravies or pastries throughout the world.
Darker roux are cooked longer, and add a distinct nutty flavor to a dish. They may be called “blond”, “peanut-butter”, “brown” or “chocolate” roux depending on their color.
Swabian (southwest German) cooking uses a darker roux for its “brown broth” (braune Brühe), which, in its simplest form, consists of nothing more than lard, flour, and water, with a bay leaf and salt for seasoning. Dark roux is often made with vegetable oils, which have a higher smoke point than butter, and are used in Cajun and Creole cuisine for gumbos and stews. The darker the roux, the less thickening power it has; a chocolate roux has about one-fourth the thickening power, by weight, of a white roux. A very dark roux, just shy of burning and turning black, has a distinctly reddish color and is sometimes referred to as “brick” roux.
As a subject of controversy roux seems to have been under the radar until the 1970s, with the advent of “nouvelle cuisine.” Many people were watching fat (particularly saturated fat) and calories and they felt that butter, lard, and flour did not belong in the kitchen or on the dinner plate. Then Paul Prudhomme exuberantly surfaced and brought a renewed interest in roux with him. Roux, once again, appeared on the front burner of the food scene. (Though it had never disappeared or even diminished from traditional Cajun cooking.)
If the idea of lard seems unhealthy, allow me to mention that lard is lower in saturated fat than butter (7 grams saturated fat per tablespoon of butter; 5 grams saturated fat per tablespoon of lard). Lard is also lower in cholesterol than butter at 10 grams of cholesterol per tablespoon of lard as opposed to 30 grams cholesterol per tablespoon butter. Lard contains no sodium, while butter has 90 mg sodium per tablespoon.
Roux, in today’s culinary lexicon, usually refers to Cajun roux, which mixes oil or lard with flour and is generally cooked in a cast iron pan on the stove top over medium heat for a long time.
A Partial History of Roux
As far back as 1651, François Pierre La Varenne wrote a cookbook in which he mentioned liaison de farine which was made with flour and lard. He called this mixture “thickening of flower,” and it later came to be known as farine frit, or roux. La Varenne’s recipe:
“Thickening of flower. Melt some lard, take out the mammocks; put your flower into your melted lard, seeth it well, but have a care it stick not to the pan, mix some onion with it proportionably. When it is enough, put all with good broth, mushrums and a drop of vinegar. Then after it hath boiled with its seasoning, pass all through the strainer and put in a pot. When you will use it, you shall set it upon warm embers for to thicken or allay your sauces”.
In the mid-1700s, the mixture was called roux de farine, employed butter rather than lard, and was cooked to a light creamy color. One hundred years after that, many French chefs thought roux de farine was relied upon too much, while others (including Antonin Carême) felt differently. Carême believed that any good chef considered roux indispensable, “as indispensable to cooks as ink to writers.”
Cajun vs Creole Roux
The type of roux made in Cajun and Creole cooking follows the individual type of cookery itself. Cajun cooking is country cooking, and Cajun roux is country roux—oil and flour cooked for a long time in a heavy pot. Creole roux, on the other hand, is a roux designed for the city cookery of the Creole people, and uses butter as its foundation and is only cooked long enough to achieve a light color (and to cook the flour). Yet there is an overlap, as many Creole chefs today use oil rather than butter, and cook the roux for a longer time so it has a deeper flavor. Creole and Cajun cooking borrow many techniques and elements from each other. That is to say, from the cooking style of their “culinary cousins.”
Cajuns traditionally used lard in their roux for a couple of reasons:
Nothing is wasted in a Cajun kitchen, and it made no sense to discard one fat (drippings from a roast, or lard from the annual boucherie, or pig slaughter) and replace it with another fat.
Lard gives a smooth rich flavor and texture to both savory and sweet foods. Roux made with lard is particularly flavorful, and biscuits and pie crusts made with lard are wonderfully flaky and light.