Throughout food-obsessed South Louisiana, there is no single dish more revered and debated than gumbo. Everyone loves it, but that is where any consensus regarding the centuries-old, soupy, stewy concoction ends. What goes into gumbo, what doesn’t, how to make it, even how you define gumbo is a source of constant comment. Luckily, we all agree to disagree.
As with many native New Orleanians, my earliest gumbo memories come from my great-grandmother, Maman. I can still see her smiling, trails of steam rising from the murky depths of her porcelain tureen, as she ladled her gumbo over bowls of white rice. In my life today, it is a rare week that doesn’t include a gumbo, either at home or in one of the cooking classes I teach to locals and visitors alike. You could say that gumbo has been one of my life’s great obsessions. And there’s one thing I’ve learned in all that time stirring a gumbo pot: There may be few hard and fast rules in making gumbo, but understanding the basics will allow you to produce something delectable that is more than the sum of its parts.
The Three Essentials to Fantastic Flavor
Dark Roux: Roux is at the heart of the gumbo mystery, but it’s actually as simple as cooking flour and fat. The purpose of the roux is to provide flavor, color, and thickening. The color of a roux determines its thickening power—darker provides less thickening but delivers a richer roasted flavor. Some cooks insist on cooking roux over low heat for 40 minutes or more, but I’ve found that cooking over high heat imparts full flavor and color without having to spend all that time at the stove. But you must be careful: If the roux burns (you’ll know, because it gets very dark and smells acrid) it cannot be saved. You must start over.
The choice of fat for a roux says a lot about the cook. Cajuns were said to use bear grease, while Creoles favored bacon grease. I opt for vegetable oil, which is lighter and has a high smoke point, so you can make a fast but dark roux without burning. (See below for detailed instructions on making dark roux, or check out my video demonstrating the technique.)
How to make dark roux
How long to cook roux is a question answered in as many ways as there are cooks. I’ve heard that roux should be cooked until it’s the color of a pecan shell, a hazelnut, or a brown paper grocery bag. My personal preference is chocolate-brown.
No matter the final color, all roux starts by stirring flour into fat. It’s best to start with a high proportion of fat to flour, which makes stirring the mixture easier. Once you become confident with the roux-making process, you can use less fat if you wish. The traditional roux-mixing tool is a flat-edged wooden spatula or spoon. So much stirring is required before the roux reaches the correct color that lumps are not an issue, and the springy action of a wire whisk could cause the molten roux to splash on the cook, resulting in a serious burn. Today, heatproof silicone spatulas are a wonderful alternative to the old-fashioned wooden spoon.
Creole Mirepoix: Commonly referred to as “the holy trinity” of Creole cooking, the celery, bell pepper, and onions added to the roux are the Creole version of the traditional French aromatic mix called mirepoix. Early European settlers brought their root vegetables to the New World, but with New Orleans under sea level, the carrot—an integral ingredient of mirepoix—was impossible to cultivate. That’s how the pepper, which grows easily in South Louisiana, won a role in the traditional vegetable seasoning mix.
You start the mirepoix by adding the onions to the roux once it turns a caramel color. The onions cool the roux slightly as they release their natural sugars, and this helps prevent burning. Those sugars then caramelize in the roux, bringing it from a caramel color to a chocolate-brown. (For some reason, this direction has been omitted from almost every gumbo recipe I’ve seen, although home cooks will confide that they learned this step from their mothers or grandmothers). The celery and bell pepper release a lot of water when they’re heated; if you added them with the onion, the roux would get too light. Instead, they’re added at the end, when the roux is as dark as you want it to be.
Okra and Filé: Both okra and filé help thicken gumbo and give it a stew-like heartiness. Okra is a green pod, which is sliced into rounds that break down after being cooked. Some people claim an aversion to okra because of its texture, but I find that frying it hot and fast before adding it to the gumbo keeps it from getting slimy. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay) powder is the ground, dried leaves of the sassafras tree. It smells like eucalyptus and lends an earthy flavor to gumbo. Filé must never be added to boiling gumbo, or it will turn stringy.
Some cooks say that filé and okra should never be used together or that all gumbos must have okra, but these “rules” are broken over and over again. Traditionally, country cooks turned to filé for thickening because it was impossible to grow wheat in South Louisiana and they could not afford to buy flour for roux. Okra was grown in warmer months and became associated with seafood gumbo. But today, people often combine okra and filé, and that includes Leah Chase, the 85-year-old proprietor of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans and the queen of Creole cooking, and award-winning Chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s Restaurant. I always use a roux in my gumbo and add okra or filé, too, depending on the other ingredients.
The Roots of Gumbo
To get to the essence of gumbo, you have to understand the early settlers who stirred the first cauldrons of this soup. The first Creoles were the offspring of French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans who brought with them their refined cooking techniques and ingredients. Their dishes were almost immediately adopted and transformed by the African slaves who cooked at the city’s open hearths. The Cajuns, on the other hand, also had European roots but came to Louisiana from eastern Canada and settled in the swamps and prairie lands of Louisiana. Surviving on what they could grow, hunt, or trap, they adapted their traditional cooking to the new ingredients they found in southwest Louisiana.
The gumbos of the Creoles and Cajuns differed as much as the people who cooked them yet inevitably intersected in the 20th century as travel increased between the country and the city. At its simplest, Seafood Gumbo with okra and tomatoes is the gumbo of the city (New Orleans), and Chicken-Andouille Filé Gumbo is Cajun country gumbo. But once you’re sure you’ve solved the gumbo puzzle, you taste another delicious version from an old family’s or a respected chef’s gumbo pot, and the rules are contradicted yet again.
Even the origins of the word “gumbo” are debated. The African word for okra in the Bantu tongue is “kingombo.” The Choctaws sold filé, or finely ground, dried sassafras leaves, which they called “kombo,” at the French Market in New Orleans. So does gumbo get its name from the okra or the filé? That’s just another gumbo mystery.