On Gumbo: Kirk Spencer

After reading my plea for a good gumbo recipe,  friend of blog, Kirk, came through again:

I’m not going to give you a recipe. In part it’s because there is no such thing as a perfect recipe anyone can share.  There are a lot of good recipes you can make perfect for you, but that’s a wee bit different.

It’s also because I’d like to concentrate on a couple of critical elements to making a great gumbo.  The first, and the cornerstone, is dark roux.

Good Eats had a decent technique for making dark roux, but I’ve still burned it going the oven route.  I’ve instead got a couple of tricks that work for me which I’ll share.

The first is to start by making a dry roux.  That is, you cook flour, dry, till it’s the color you want.  Now you’ll see this recommended as a ‘low fat’ technique, but I don’t go that way — gotta have my fat. What I do is add the fat near the end, about the time it’s chocolate but not yet brick.  (Chocolate is dark brown.  Brick is darker brown with just a somewhat reddish tint, and it goes to burned pretty soon after that.  In a perfect world you want brick.  In most worlds you settle for something between chocolate and brick.)

The second trick is to add mass near the end.  In other words you’ve got your roux going and it’s become chocolate.  You add your mirepoix and keep going.  The additional mass helps slow the heat going to the roux.  The risk here is that your addition will have enough moisture to kick the roux into its thickening process.  Because of this I tend to add as close to brick as I can while still short of that point.

By the way – cast iron is not good for dark roux unless you’re using the mass trick, and even then you can expect it to go bad a time or two.  It’s the cast iron advantage of being a heat sink working against you this time.

I said I’d share some more things.  The next thing is file’.  This might – unless you’ve had it before – be your special spice. File is dried and ground sassafras leaves.  If you bought it in a store there’s a very good chance it wasn’t really file — a lot of commercial companies doctor it with some thyme and bay and, well, a few other things. If it’s right it is green and smells very similar to but not exactly like coriander.

File, in addition to being a spice, will also thicken the gumbo.  But don’t add it during the cooking.  If you do it has a bad habit of  threading.  Instead, add it after you pull the pot from the stove. Alton Brown recommends either/or for okra or file thickening. I instead recommend using okra to get it slightly thickened during the cooking then file at the end to make it rib-sticking thick.  But I like thick soups, so again your mileage may vary.  As a last note, some very good cooks can add file while the stove is on the fire and not get threads.  Once more, ymmv.

Finally, a clue.  Gumbo is a thick stew that uses a dark roux as the critical spice.  Everything else is an option. Venison/beef/mutton/seafood? Turnips? Kale? No problem, really.  Make a dark roux, add some chunks and liquid, add more chunks of what you like, spice to taste, thicken it with okra and/or file, enjoy (usually over rice).  Really and truly, there is no true gumbo.


Thanks Kirk, I can always count on your for the real stuff…