I am really, really bad at making roux. Or at least I used to be.
My first experience with roux was as a child. My mom used dark roux, the oily, flavorless crap that comes from a jar, occasionally while making gumbo. Dark roux can take hours to cook, and isn’t always practical when you’re trying to feed a family. When made properly, dark roux can add incredible richness and depth to sauces and gravies. When made poorly, it should be promptly deposited into the nearest trash can.
Since I don’t often make Cajun dishes — I don’t even like gumbo — I’m usually making light (or blonde) roux, the kind that you use in a béchamel sauce or, if you’re Southern, white cream gravy. I still make roux a little darker than a traditional blonde roux, but only because that added browning brings an even stronger flavor punch. It may make my béchamel a little darker, but it’s also a hell of a lot tastier.
In order to perfect this recipe, I have read one zillion tutorials from famous chefs, the ones that tell you to accurately measure out the flour and let the milk proteins bubble away from the butter before you mix the two together. Still, more often than not, I would inevitably scorch the first batch of roux when making sauces in my first few years of cooking.
And that’s a real pain in the ass. Not only do you have to scrape what is virtually hot, greasy wallpaper paste out of your favorite skillet, but you also have to start all that meticulous measuring and butter-watching all over again. But when you see that flour and butter start to come together into a beautiful, golden roux, all that hassle seems worth it.
Now that I can practically make a good béchamel in my sleep, roux is easy to make. Along the way, I’ve picked up a few tricks that make it much more difficult to screw up. This may be a meticulous process, but it’s much better than resorting to cornstarch or goopy arrowroot to thicken your favorite sauces—and that’s why roux deserves a spot in your home cooking repertoire. Here’s how to get it right every time.
Figure out your proportions.
Contrary to my own idiotic belief, you can’t just eyeball the ingredients for a good roux. Depending on how much sauce you’re making a couple tablespoons each, maybe two or three, of butter and flour should be plenty. Even if you’re not too keen on mise en place, pre-measure the flour and butter and place them separately into a small dish.
Let the butter bubble away, but not for too long.
Crank that burner up to medium, medium-high if you’re feeling lucky. Once your skillet has warmed, toss in the butter. You have approximately one split-second between achieving perfectly clarified butter and browning it all to hell, and you’ve got to be watching closely or you’re going to miss it. Once you’ve dropped those couple of tablespoons of butter into the skillet, watch it closely until it just finishes bubbling, and then add the flour. The bubbling you’re seeing is the milk proteins cooking away, which provide those delicious little browned bits that flavor a roux. To skip that step altogether, start with ghee, which is clarified browned butter. You can find it with the Indian food at the grocery store, and a shelf-stable jar will last for months.
Whisk in the flour really, really well.
If your roux is lumpy, you haven’t mixed it thoroughly enough. Using a whisk, mix the roux vigorously until you have a smooth paste. It may still be a little thin in the beginning of the process, and you don’t want any lumps to affect your final product. Keep whisking as the roux cooks, in order to make sure that it evenly browns and doesn’t cook too quickly or stick to the bottom of the pan.
Don’t be impatient. Wait for the right color.
An undercooked roux has a terrible, floury flavor, and won’t do much to enhance the flavor of that fancy mornay sauce that you’re whipping up. Even light roux should be a nice, golden brown, which adds nuttiness and complexity to an otherwise very simple sauce. You’re done when it turns golden brown in color, after about five or six minutes over medium heat. If you go just a little too far in the browning process, the flavor and color of your sauce may be a little deeper than you expected, but it should be fine unless it’s totally dark brown.