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
Roux, a simple mixture of flour and fat, adds flavor, color, and body to authentic gumbo.
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.)