I raised my hand and said to the chef, “I’m just not getting this. What is a roux? I mean, what does a roux DO?” I was sitting in a class at The New Orleans School of Cooking while my husband attended a meeting. The chef was big and hilarious, so when he suddenly got serious and answered, “A roux is the difference between bread and toast,” I felt like Confucius had just spoken. I smiled. I nodded. I had not a clue what he was talking about. There was some mystical voodoo thing happening in his kitchen, and I didn’t get it. I sat in my seat and continued to take notes, but I knew a roux was not in my future, so neither would gumbo or étouffée ever grace my table.
Fifteen years later, I found myself cooking regularly with Bruce Dobie and Ann Shayne in The Nashville Food Project kitchen, where we all volunteer. Bruce is from Lafayette, Louisiana, also known as South Louisiana. Every fall, as it got closer to Thanksgiving, Bruce started talking about the gumbo he was going to make with the family’s turkey carcass. When Bruce was growing up, it was a South Louisiana tradition to have turkey dinner on Thursday and a turkey and sausage gumbo several days later. Fridays were reserved for the all-day task of making the broth and pulling the small pieces of meat from the bones.
Ann and I asked Bruce if he would show us how to make gumbo. He was only too happy to oblige. We were told to save our T-day turkey carcasses in the freezer until we could figure out a time to cook together. He said we would start with a roux. But it was not his mother’s way of making a roux that entailed standing at the stove and stirring oil and flour together for an hour. No, Bruce was going to nuke the roux in the microwave.
Bruce arrived in my kitchen on a Sunday afternoon with three boxes of ingredients and supplies. Ann and I had been instructed to make turkey stock and afterward to pick the bits of turkey meat out of the strained stock. Noted. We arrived with our part of the meal. Bruce is an enthusiastic guy by nature, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He was pumped, thus we were pumped. He started waxing eloquent about the mystery that was about to unfold. I thought he was talking about the mystery of making a roux, but he said the roux was just the “foundation of something miraculous.” Bruce’s mystery had to do with the miracle that happens in the stockpot when we put all the beautiful ingredients together and let them cook all day. He used the three M words a lot: miraculous, magical, and mysterious. Ann and I were in for a good ride.
Just so we are all on the same page, a roux (pronounced “roo”) is a thickening agent for soups and sauces. It is made by cooking equal parts of flour and fat together until the flour is roasted. The longer you cook it, the more intense the flavor becomes. For example, you might cook it until it is light in color for gravy, darker for an étouffée, or to the color of chocolate for a gumbo. You don’t want to burn it, so you need to watch it and stir constantly. I remember our instructor in New Orleans telling us that when he was growing up and his mother was making a roux, that was the time for the children to get into mischief by doing things like jumping on the bed. They knew their mother would never leave her roux. A properly cooked roux is silky-smooth and adds an intense nutty flavor while doing its core job of thickening soups and sauces.
Yield: Four gallons. The ingredients list below is Bruce’s recipe doubled so there would be enough gumbo for us to all go home with some. Divide this ingredients list in half for his basic recipe and the amount you would prepare using one turkey carcass.
2 turkey carcasses; each should yield 4 quarts of broth and 1 pound of turkey meat
8 quarts turkey broth
2 large onions, chopped
2 sweet bell peppers, chopped
6 stalks celery, chopped
1 head of garlic, minced
40 okra pods, sliced
2 bunches of parsley, minced
2 bunches of green onions, sliced
2 15 ounce cans of whole tomatoes, diced, save juices
1 pound Veron Andouille Sausage
1 pound Conecuh Original Smoked Sausage “Spicy & Hot”
1 pound Conecuh Hickory Smoked Sausage
5 pounds turkey breast, cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces
2 pounds turkey meat pulled from the carcasses (1 pound per carcass)
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (measure 2/3 cup per each batch of roux)
1 1/3 cups canola oil (measure 2/3 cup per each batch of roux)
50 drops Tabasco Sauce
2 tablespoons Louisiana Hot Sauce
2 teaspoons red pepper (cayenne)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon gumbo file (a sassafras thickener)
2 tablespoons black pepper
Salt to taste, to be added after it has cooked. I added 1 tablespoon
Making the Broth:
It all starts with a roasted turkey. Just throwing an uncooked turkey in a pot of boiling water will not yield the same taste results. Roasting the turkey first will intensify the flavor of the broth later. It is fine to freeze the carcass until you are ready to make the broth.
Simmer the turkey carcasses, complete with skin, innards, and any leftover meat, in a large stockpot of water for five hours. There is no need to add any seasonings as the turkeys were well-seasoned when they were first roasted.
Strain the stock through a colander. Refrigerate the resulting broth overnight until the fat rises to the top and hardens. Use a spoon to remove the fat. The chilled broth should have the consistency of Jell-O.
Spread the meat and bones on a baking sheet and allow them to cool. Once cool, pull the meat off, even the little pieces. This step takes a long time. Throw the bones and skin that remain out; they have done their duty. Below is a picture of Ann’s two pots of broth with the hardened yellow fat on top.
This is a photo of the meat we picked off the bones, about one pound per carcass. You will be amazed at how much meat you can get.
We’ve got all of our ingredients set out on the countertop, and we are discussing our game plan. Ann is munching on a Biscuit King biscuit (recipe here) with a little sorghum drizzled on top.
#1 Prepping the Vegetables and Meat:
Below is a preview of what you should end up with after prepping the vegetables and meat as described in the set-by-step instructions that follow (the ultimate mise en place, btw). Starting at 1:00: turkey, sausage, parsley, garlic, green onion tops, okra, the bowl of combined onion, sweet bell pepper, and celery, and, turning the corner, chopped tomatoes.
Chop the onions, celery, and green peppers and mix. In South Louisiana, this is known as the holy trinity. If you add garlic to it, the garlic is known as the pope.
Wash and chop the okra. You only want to use small and tender okra pods. Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the okra for 5 minutes. Drain. Blanching keeps okra from becoming gooey once in the gumbo. Notice Bruce has left the stem tops on. I used to cut them off and discard them. Now I know to leave them on. Set aside.
Using a fork, pierce the sausage in multiple spots and place in a shallow pan with boiling water for 5 minutes to release the fat. Alternatively, Bruce likes to grill the sausage. When the sausage cools, cut it into bite-sized chunks. Set aside.
Chop the turkey. Set aside.
Chop the garlic, parsley, green onion tops, and tomatoes. Set aside in separate bowls.
# 2 Preparing the Gumbo Stock:
Into a 20-quart stockpot, add 8 quarts of broth, the chicken, sausage, okra, parsley, green onion tops, and tomatoes. Turn the heat up to high and let it heat while you make the roux. Stir every 5 minutes. You don’t want anything to stick to the bottom of the pot.
# 3 Making a Microwaved Roux:
Bruce taught us to make the roux in an 8-cup Pyrex liquid measuring container. It worked perfectly, and the instructions follow. Disclaimer: I was in a friend’s kitchen making a roux for jambalaya, and the very hot Pyrex container burst when I set it down on a Formica countertop. The container was old and well-used, which may have contributed to it breaking. If you are uncomfortable nuking a roux, just cook it in a sauté pan on the stovetop. The timeline photos below show the changes in color as the roux cooks, still apply.
FYI: This information from the makers of Pyrex should be on their packaging. I found it on the Internet. “With all glass products, you must exercise an appropriate degree of care, especially when cooking food at high temperatures.
-Avoid sudden temperature changes to glassware.
-DO NOT add liquid to hot glassware
-DO NOT place hot glassware on a wet or cool surface, directly on a counter, metal surface, or in the sink
-DO NOT handle hot glassware with a wet cloth.
-ALWAYS allow hot glassware to cool on a cooling rack, potholder, or dry cloth.
-Be sure to allow hot glassware to cool before washing, refrigerating, or freezing.
-Containers should be at least half full when heating liquids in them.”
Back to the story.
You will need a heavy-duty potholder, a whisk, and a Pyrex liquid measure (I had to order one online). We will make two separate batches of roux. Measure 2/3 cup of all-purpose flour and shake it through a sieve into your Pyrex container. Rule of thumb: a roux always consists of equal parts fat to flour. There can’t be any lumps in the roux.
To this, add 2/3 cup canola oil.
Whisk together until smooth. Check for lumps.
The watching and waiting begin. This applies whether you are cooking a roux on the stovetop or in the microwave.
After 3 minutes, remove from microwave with a potholder and stir with a whisk, then back into the microwave. Continue in this way, checking and stirring, constantly– at first every three minutes, and then every minute, then every 30 seconds. The roux and the Pyrex container are going to get HOT. Louisiana cooks don’t call it “Cajun Napalm” for nothing. Cook until it becomes the color of chocolate, or, as Bruce likes to say, the color of Ronald Reagan’s brown suits.
While the roux is still hot, add half the trinity mixture. As you know, when you add water to very hot oil, the oil will pop and splatter. When you add damp veggies to a hot roux, the same thing happens, so be careful.
Stir and cook for two minutes in the microwave. This is the equivalent of sautéing your base veggies on the stovetop.
Add half the garlic, stir, and return to the microwave for another minute.
It should look like this when you are through.
Add the roux and vegetable mixture to the turkey stock.
After adding the roux to the veggies, Bruce looked at Ann and me and said, “Okay girls, you make the next batch,” and he walked away. Just like that. Apparently, you can’t make more than one cup of roux at a time, and since we doubled Bruce’s original recipe, we needed to make a second batch. Ann and I looked at one another. “Really? Wait. We weren’t paying attention. Help!” It was a brilliant teacher’s move.
Worth mentioning: it took 13.5 minutes for our batch of roux to cook to the same chocolate color as Bruce’s. No rhyme or reason as to why ours took longer. Bruce says to go by the color, not the time.
Cajun seasonings, take a bow! We used everything but Tony’s Chachere’s Creole Seasoning for this recipe.
Realizing that adding spice to a dish when you are unfamiliar with the seasonings is a little daunting, I will show you how much of each seasoning Bruce added.
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon of gumbo file (ground sassafras used as a thickener)
2 tablespoons black pepper
Mix and wait for the magic to happen.
Here’s Ann cheering the magic on.
About 5 hours later. After giving all the flavors time to meld, I tasted the gumbo and decided it still needed salt. I added one tablespoon of salt.
I turned the stove off, put the lid on, and put the gumbo to bed. First thing in the morning, I put the gumbo in the refrigerator.
-Serve over rice (not too much– should still be soupy).
-Add fresh chopped green onion or parsley on top.
-Bruce likes to heat it up and add shrimp just before serving.
-Have these three seasonings available for people to season their gumbo per their personal taste: Tabasco (for heat), Louisiana Hot Sauce (for flavor), and red pepper (more heat).
-Gumbo freezes well.
I’m just starting to understand the roux. I get that a roux is somewhat about toasting flour. I get that it’s a soup thickener. There’s still a part I’ll never get, though, and that’s the thing that happens when the roux gets together with all the other ingredients. That’s when Bruce’s three M words take over: the magical, the mystical, and the miraculous. That’s the leap of faith we cooks take. The gumbo was delicious, by the way!
Thanks, Bruce and Ann! It was epic!
P.S. “And I helped!”
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