A Basic Saucemaker’s Skill: Making A Roux

Before I ever went to culinary school, I knew how to make a roux.

I didn’t learn it at my mother’s knee, or at my grandmother’s stove; rather I learned it from Julia Child, but I learned it, and learned it well, nonetheless, such that folks always wondered why my gravies, pan sauces and stews had such a silky-smooth texture, and browned, nutty flavor.

By the time I got to culinary school, I could make a roux with one hand tied behind my back and my eyes mostly closed, so I got to help teach the kids who had never even heard of one before make theirs.

“What’s a roux?” some of you may be asking.

It is a French thickener for hot liquids, made of roughly equal parts of fat and flour, cooked over low heat at least long enough to cook out the raw flour taste, or so long that the flour darkens to a mahogany color and the flavor is a combination of nuts and caramel. Roux-thickened sauces and gravies are permanently thickened, and the thickening power of roux depends much about how long it is cooked. The shorter the cooking time before it is added to the liquid, the greater the ability is has to thicken liquid. Thus, if you use a dark-colored roux, which not only thickens a sauce, but enhances color and flavor, you will have to use more of it to thicken the liquid than you would if you used a pale colored roux.

Roux can be made ahead of time, cooked to whatever color you like, and then refrigerated or frozen until needed. If you do this, you must reheat the roux in a pan before adding it to a hot liquid, lest you end up with what an aunt of mine once called “gravy biscuits”–unsightly, throat-cloying lumps of flour in the middle of a nice, thick gravy.

Roux takes time to make properly. I know that there are methods to make it in the oven that require less tending, but I have never used any of those methods. I know that you can also make roux on higher heat, which cuts down on the standing and stirring business that one must go through in making roux, but cooking it over high heat also risks burning the roux.

And once roux is burned, it is utterly ruined. There is nothing to be done but to throw it away and start all over again.

So, until you have the hang of cooking roux, may I suggest that you do it the old fashioned way, on top of the stove, on medium-low heat, while standing over it and stirring all the while. There is nothing more dishearteningn than having to start all over on a lengthy, sweaty, labor intensive job like roux making, just because you got careless and turned the heat up too high, or stopped watching it for just one second too long.

What sort of fat does one use to make a roux?

Well, that depends on what fat you have, what you are using the roux to thicken and what kind of flavor you want to impart to the finished dish. Butter, or clarified butter, is what we most often used in culinary school, and it is a classic choice. But, in Cajun country, lard is just as likely to be used, or a combination of lard and butter. Rendered duck or goose fat are also commonly used in French country cookery, and I have even used olive oil when I wanted to go for a monounsaturated fat option, though I have to admit that the color of the roux had a greenish cast which was somewhat unsettling. (It did taste good, though.)

You could use hydrogenated vegetable oil to make roux–but why? It has no flavor to speak of, and since roux isn’t just a thickener, but adds a flavor element to the finished sauce or gravy, use a fat that is going to give a flavor punch to your finished dish.

The flour to use is all purpose flour–it most likely is in your kitchen and works perfectly for the job.

How do you go about making a roux?

It really is simple.

All you do is take a heavy-bottomed skillet of a size appropriate to the amount of roux you are making, and heat it up on a medium-low fire. This is the time to use cast iron, enameled or plain, if you have it, by the way. It heats evenly, which for this purpose, you really want. A hot spot on the bottom of your pan while making roux is an invitation to burning it, and ruining the entire batch.

Once your pan is hot, you put your measured fat (you can do this by weight or by volume) into the pan to melt or heat up until it is somewhat bubbly. You then add your measured (again by weight or volume–just keep your measuring method consistent for both fat and flour) flour, all at once to the pan, and begin stirring.

What you use as a stirring utensil is up to you; I prefer a wooden or bamboo spoon or paddle. Other folks like a whisk. A silicone spatula could be used as well–just don’t use a regular rubber spatula. It might melt, and that would make a really nasty, stinky mess. Also, if you use a large metal spoon, be aware, that it will likely get quite hot and might burn your hand eventually.

You stir the flour into the fat until a pasty mass is formed–it should at first look rather like wet sand. The perfect texture is the kind of sand and water mixture you would use to make a sand castle–I got that piece of advice from several chefs in culinary school and beyond. Anything less solid will be what is termed a “slack roux” and it will, as it cooks, become too thin and will lack much thickening ability. If your roux is too liquidy from the beginning, add a bit of flour–a tablespoon or so at a time, to correct the texture. Sometimes the fat will absorb a bit more flour than an equal amount. Don’t worry about it, just stir it in, and keep stirring.

Keep stirring.

Keep stirring.

And when I say keep stirring, I mean, you want to make sure your implement gets all around that pan, on all sides, and across the center. I do a sort of serpentine motion with my wooden spoon, scraping the bottom in undulations across the bottom of the pan, then ending with a sweeping circle all around the edge of the pan.

Why do I do this?

Because the way roux cooks, is it cooks from the bottom up. The flour-fat mixture on the bottom begins to brown, and if you leave it on the bottom, without stirring it back into the rest of the mass of roux, it can burn, and then ruin the entire batch. So, the purpose of stirring is to continually move the roux that is cooking off the bottom and into the rest of the roux, thus allowing more of the cooler, uncooked roux to get into contact with the hotter, bottom part of the pan.

This action makes the roux cook evenly.

How long do you cook your roux?

Until it is done, obviously.

How do you know when it is done?

Well, that all depends on what color you want your roux to be.

In classic French cookery, there are three colors of roux. There is roux blanc, which translates to white roux, which is barely cooked. It has the most thickening power of any roux, and it has a very thick, creamy texture. You can see it in the first photograph illustrating this post. This particular roux was made with half unhydrogenated lard and half butter, and as you can see, it is creamy white, and very thick, like a boiled custard. It has just been cooked out of the stage where roux looks like sand, and has smoothed itself into a texture which easily coats the back of a spoon and is silky smooth. Depending on how much roux you are cooking at one time–this was four cups of roux–cooking to the stage of roux blanc can take anywhere from three to seven minutes, I would say. But rather than looking at the clock, use your eyes and nose to tell when it is done. Roux blanc has lost that raw flour smell–what you start to smell is more of a cooked odor, mostly from the fat, and is a creamy white, with a smooth consistency.

Roux blanc is used to thicken bechamel sauce and all derivatives of it–because it keeps the sauce’s pale color intact. I have also used it to thicken cream soups and cream sauces not based on bechamel.

The second color of roux in French cuisine is roux blonde–golden roux. It is the second picture–a nice golden color–I like mine a deep gold, rather than a pale one–that comes after about ten to fifteen or twenty minutes of diligent stirring and cooking. This is probably the most commonly used color of roux, it being the one used to thicken veloute sauces (sauces based on roux-thickened stocks), and many stock-based soups and stews. It adds a slight touch of “browned” flavor to the sauce or soup, and it adds a gentle color and a wonderful silken texture. The texture of roux blonde is a bit thinner than roux blanc–like a boiled custard mixture that hasn’t yet been boiled all the way.

The third color of French roux is roux brun–brown roux. It is the color of peanut butter, and is thinner in texture–less custardy, and more like melted ice cream. It still coats the back of a spoon, but it is definitely thinner and will run faster. It takes anywhere from twenty to forty minutes to make roux brun, and I must warn you that once you come to this stage–you must stir carefully and watch the roux like a hawk for little blackened flecks which look like commercial ground black pepper. If your roux develops a peppered appearance on its own, with or without a scorched scent, you have burned it, and have to throw it out.

Once roux comes to the roux brun stage, it is very easy to burn it. It is best, then, to turn the heat down and stir a bit more quickly, though you must have a care to not splash any roux on your skin. It sticks and burns–I call it “kitchen napalm,” for that reason, and have had some nasty blisters from it.

Roux brun is used to thicken brown sauces such as the mother sauce, espagnole, which is a brown stock with added tomato product, then thickened with roux brun. Espagnole sauce can be used to make various other French sauces such as sauce chasseur or sauce aux champignions. I use it to thicken stews, like beef or lamb stew.

The French-based Cajun and Creole cuisines in south Louisiana use a fourth color of roux which is much darker than the three types of classical French roux. It is cooked beyond brun, to a shade anywherefrom mahogany to chocolate. This rich, highly flavored roux has very little thickening power, per se, but is the basis for the flavor and texture of south Louisiana dishes from gumbo to etouffee.

In order to make this dark roux, you simply turn your heat down a bit more once it is the peanut-butter hue of roux brun, and keep stirring. It usually takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour to make dark Cajun/Creole roux.

Once roux is made to the color you desire, you either add it to the boiling stock or sauce while it is hot, and stir like made to keep it from making lumps as it thickens, or you can pour it into a glass or metal bowl to cool. If you do the latter, and you have a formica or Corian countertop–don’t leave the bowl on the counter–the heat of the roux will melt it. Once it is cooled, you can tightly cover the roux and put it in the refrigerator or freezer. It keeps in the fridge for about a month, and in the freezer for about a year.

There you are–instructions on making roux–an integral component in any French or French-based culinary system which is quite simple to make once you know and understand the basic skills involved.

23 Comments

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  1. Hiya, first of all *adore* your journal, this is seriously food heaven. Second, thank you so much for demystifying roux. I try so hard to explain this isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do (and so much better than adding a can of condensed creamed soup to food!!!!) – and now I can point everyone to your super excellent tutorial!

    Comment by Mamlambo — October 15, 2007 #

  2. My Uncle Hewes, who was Cajun, had a niece, Agnes (who is probably close to 80 now). Anyway, she has started making her roux in the microwave! And it comes out beautifully! I don’t have her method with me here, but trust me, it is the basis of some mighty fine Louisiana cooking. And I didn’t believe her at first, either.

    Comment by Karen — October 15, 2007 #

  3. “The shorter the cooking time before it is added to the liquid, the less ability is has to thicken liquid. Thus, if you use a dark-colored roux, which not only thickens a sauce, but enhances color and flavor, you will have to use more of it to thicken the liquid than you would if you used a pale colored roux.”

    I think you mistyped – don’t you mean the shorter the cooking time the greater thickening ability?

    Comment by Harry — October 15, 2007 #

  4. I am guessing that we could make a big batch of roux blanc to freeze into ice cube trays, then if we wanted a darker roux, we could take out one or two pieces of the roux blanc, and cook them further?

    PS: I was also confused by shorter cooking time = less thickening when I got further into the post. But since the shorter=MORE thickening, and longer=LESS thickenings were covered more than a few times later on, I get it now. But it IS confusing.

    Comment by Sherri — October 15, 2007 #

  5. Thanks for pointing out the typo–I changed it. That is what comes of writing, feeding a kid, and having a conversation on physics and UFOs with the older daughter, all at the same time.

    Comment by Barbara — October 15, 2007 #

  6. Barbara, what culinary school did you attend? I’m becoming interested in the possibility of culinary school, but I don’t know where to start!

    Comment by Anita — October 15, 2007 #

  7. Anita–I went to Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island.

    Culinary school is quite expensive, so I would caution you to really investigate why you want to go and what you hope to get out of the experience.

    You will not be an executive chef upon graduation–likely, you could get a job as a line cook at a restaurant, resort or on a cruise ship.

    On the other hand–you can likely get a job in a local restaurant as a line cook, learn on the job and not incur a great amount of educational debt.

    I do not regret my experiences in culinary school at all, but my experience is not typical of every culinary school graduate.

    If you have any questions, please email me–and I will give you my thoughts on the matter.

    Comment by Barbara — October 15, 2007 #

  8. A friend of mine from New Orleans says when she was growing the sure-fire way of getting a perso off the phone or a solicitor away from from the door was to say, “Can’t talk! I’m making a roux!”

    Thanks for the great tutorial. I had no idea you could freeze roux. That’s handy to know.

    Comment by Kitt — October 16, 2007 #

  9. Well, my goodness, no wonder I’ve always had trouble. I just sort of fling butter and flour in there, stir like hell, and hope it comes out right. (I’ve never burnt a roux, but my goodness, are they ever lumpy.)

    Did you know they make powdered “white sauce”? My husband brought it home once for use in some godawful eggs-n-ham-n-Velveeta casserole his mother used to make. I wanted to cry.

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 16, 2007 #

  10. Mamlambo–now that I fixed the typo, the post is ready to be pointed to for those mystified by roux. Thanks for the compliments–I do try to make my blog the kind of place I would like to visit now, and would have liked when I was starting out as a cook. I think that system seems to work.

    As for canned condensed cream of something or another soup–Ick. Though, I grew up on that green bean casserole with the cream of mushroom soup and Durkee fried onions.

    When I was culinary school, there was a family potluck I came home for, and I made that casserole, but really made it. Starting with fresh ingredients–and I made an ass-kicking mushroom veloute sauce for it. It had dried wild mushrooms, and fresh brown crimini, garlic, shallots, chicken stock, roux blonde and heavy cream, herbs, salt and pepper. The stuff was heaven on a spoon.

    And the freshly fried onions–oh–they were so light and crisp–like the way onion rings should be, but never are.

    And I set it down on the table, and one of my cousins tasted it and said, “I can’t believe you–you go to culinary school and then mess up green bean casserole.”

    Other folks were more appreciative, but I wanted to launch a can of cream of mushroom soup at her head!

    Kitt– I love it! Can’t talk, I’m making a roux!

    Elizabeth–I fear powdered white sauce. I mean, and I am not the best friend in the world of bechamel made properly as it is–I think it is just this side of nasty, and only use it as a step toward mornay sauce–which is a fancy way to say cheese sauce, of course. But from a powder–oh, that scares me. I will have nightmares about it, now.

    And nightmares about that eggsnhamnvelveetanpowderedwhitesauce casserole, too.

    I weep with you.

    Comment by Barbara — October 16, 2007 #

  11. “and I made that casserole, but really made it. Starting with fresh ingredients–and I made an ass-kicking mushroom veloute sauce for it. It had dried wild mushrooms, and fresh brown crimini, garlic, shallots, chicken stock, roux blonde and heavy cream, herbs, salt and pepper. The stuff was heaven on a spoon.”

    Hmmm, I just happen to have all these ingredients.

    Comment by Harry — October 16, 2007 #

  12. Harry, if you thin that veloute out with some sherry and extra stock, you can make what I call “cream of many mushroom soup.”

    You can also add a bit of wild rice to the soup for extra texture.

    It is mighty tasty, if fattening.

    Comment by Barbara — October 16, 2007 #

  13. I never learned anything about the 4th roux at college, but then again we weren’t taught a thing about Southern US cooking. It also never even occured to me that one would freeze a roux for later use, it has no effect on the texture once defrosted and heated? I’ve still so much to learn from you.

    Comment by Trig — October 17, 2007 #

  14. Barbara, there’s always extra chicken stock around my house! And salsa juice (the extra liquid that I don’t want with my chips), turkey drippings, chicken drippings, shrimp stock and/or shells,… This is after I simplified my life till my toddler is older and I have more than 1 free hour a day.

    Comment by Harry — October 17, 2007 #

  15. Trig–unless you attend culinary school in Louisiana, or possibly somewhere else in the southern US, you won’t learn about the dark Cajun/Creole roux. I remember in my culinary school experience, I mentioned the darker roux to my French Classical chef, and he scoffed and said that such roux would not taste good. Obviously, he had never eaten any proper gumbo or etouffee!

    To use frozen roux, thaw it out in the fridge or using the defrost cycle on a microwave. Then bring to temperature–hot and bubbly–before adding to the boiling liquid you want to thicken.

    I usually freeze it in amounts I will use for a single purpose.

    Harry–extra stock is a staple in my freezer–along with all the rest–I am lucky, though, because I have a husband and seventeen year old daughter and her friends to help either with the food making or the baby minding.

    Comment by Barbara — October 18, 2007 #

  16. You know what’s a really good fat to make a roux out of? Bacon drippings.

    Just sayin’.

    Also, I usually agree with you, but green bean casserole from scratch? I don’t know, usually I would rather make things myself instead of use convenience food, but something about that just doesn’t seem right.

    The furthest I’ve gone was making it with homegrown green beans, but crimini mushrooms? In green bean casserole? Um, sorry, can’t accept that. ;-)

    Comment by Neohippie — October 19, 2007 #

  17. I have always had problems making the first stage of roux, the white one, for macaroni and cheese (a cheese sauce) as the butter instantly absorbs all of the flour and just lumps up. Should I stir longer? Should I try ghee? Does the recipe not call for enough fat?

    Comment by Laura — October 24, 2007 #

  18. Wow – the finla word on roux! My mom taught both me and my brother to make this and it is the single most useful thign any cook can learn as far as I’m concerned! This was also the single thing I taught my husband before we spent 18 months living on separate continents – I figured that it would stand him in good stead and it did!

    That said, I am almost always impatient with my roux and seldom do anything beyond a roux blanc. I am fascinated by the idea of freezing portions of it – thanks for that idea :)

    Comment by Jeanne — October 25, 2007 #

  19. Laura–keep stirring, and if it is too lumpy–add just a tiny bit more butter. It may be that you need to use a tiny bit more butter than flour in your roux, because of the texture or moisture content of your flour. At my house, I usually end up using a bit more flour than butter–whatever works for you.

    Ghee doesn’t do anything different for the roux, except change the flavor of the finished product! It works exactly the same as butter or clarified butter in roux making.

    Comment by Barbara — October 25, 2007 #

  20. Thanks for the advice. I just tried a new recipe for mac and cheese which called for more butter and flour both (plus I am in a new home, so who knows what did it, maybe different flour like you said) and it worked beautifully. I am having a casserole themed birthday party (with Mexican and Indian food too, I promise, in light of all of the what we feed our kids discussions around here) for my one year old tomorrow, and your post was very well timed. Thanks!

    PS Here’s to hoping that she smashes her face into the cake! :)

    Comment by Laura — October 26, 2007 #

  21. Awesome explanation. I have read that adding 100 degree to the roux will keep it from clumping. Something about hotter stock causing the flour to gelatinize. Anything to that?

    Comment by SactoTom — January 20, 2008 #

  22. Barbara, your blog is one step away from a cooking wiki. I read this article when it first came around, and learned so much from it! When my (now-ex)bf wanted to make “mexi-mac” from a mac&cheese box for me, I put my foot down and made the sauce from scratch.

    Now, a year later? I had a golden roux made up a batch of chorizo&vegetable soup that needed a little more heft in the broth, but before it went into the pot, I came back to check the only roux reference I trust. Thanks again :)

    Comment by Keeley — October 19, 2008 #

  23. [...] and butter for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture is golden and tan. (Here’s a wonderful tutorial on making roux.)6. Add the giblet stock, chopped giblet meat and pan drippings, and then add the [...]

    Pingback by A badly burnt bird, but great giblet gravy- News Robot — November 25, 2010 #

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