“First you make a roux.”
These are the words that begin just about every recipe for a Cajun dish (except desserts). All Cajuns know how to make a roux, but for people who don't here are links for a detailed recipe for traditional, microwave and oven roux: Traditional Roux Recipe (Blonde), Microwave Roux Recipe, Oven Roux Recipe, and a most important element of Cajun cookery, The Holy Trinity of Cajun Cooking. There are as many ways of making a roux as people are cooking it, and most methods are just fine.
Roux: What is it?
First I want to tell you about the history of this simple blend of flour and fat: quite a history for something with just two ingredients. Roux has been thickening savory dishes for centuries. Its first incarnation was in France and made with butter and flour. This mixture is only heated for a few minutes—just enough time to cook the flour—and is the base of many sauces (including white or béchamel sauce) as well as soups and stews. Butter is the fat used, as butter is typical in French cooking (rather than the lard or oil used in Cajun roux).
A butter-flour roux is most often used as the base of a sauce to which milk, cream or broth is added, and cooked for only minutes as butter would burn if cooked at a high temperature, or for a long time. The butter-flour mixture can also be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator to use whenever a dish needs to be thickened.
This achieves the same purpose as the better-known buerre manié, a paste made by mixing equal amounts of flour and soft butter. Buerre manié is often made at the last minute when it is realized that a stew, soup, or sauce is not thick enough. The cook frantically mixes soft butter with flour and stirs it into the hot sauce, stew or soup in increments, until enough has been added to achieve the desired consistency. Like roux, buerre manié can be made ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. A good thing to have around if you do a lot of cooking.
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, mushrooms 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.”
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 the 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 stovetop over medium heat for a long time.
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). There is an overlap, as many Creole chefs today use oil rather than butter, and cook the roux for a long 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.
As they do with almost every aspect of their lives, Cajuns have many jokes about cooking—there are two that go along with nearly every discussion of roux. The question is posed: "How long does it take to make a roux?" And the answer is one of two:
- The amount of time it takes to drink a six-pack of beer, or
- The amount of time it takes to brew and drink a pot of coffee.