Roux is like Life
A perfect dark roux goes from a thick milky white liquid to a dark brownie colored sludge in a grueling process of perpetual movement, sweat and doubt.
In 2007 I got a DWI and in Texas, that is a $15,000 ordeal. At the time I had been a Vet Tech for almost 8 years but this tremendously expensive mistake caused me to look for a second job in an industry that I had hoped I left behind with my teenage years; food.
This was back in a time when being a line cook was not a glamorous position. Kids did not line up in droves at Culinary academies so that they could learn how to drizzle Balsamic reductions over fried vittles and call themselves Chefs. This was a time when line cooks were exclusively rage filled alcoholics who loved to smoke as much as possible and would show up to work with black eyes from epic bar fights the night before.
I worked for Cajun restaurants because there were two of them within two miles of where I lived and in my 2 year DWI-hustle period I worked for both of them. One of them is a charming place that uses Velveeta, margarine and a variety of prepared canned goods attained cheaply through a national distributor to execute recipes reminiscent of indigenous Lousianan cuisine. The other place is a slightly fancier butter, cream, ‘cut your own vegetables’ kind of place where I learned quite a lot about proper cooking process and technique.
The guy who showed me how to make roux was a great teacher. I can’t remember his name as I was his replacement and only spent one morning with him. In a 6 hour period, he methodically showed me how to execute 16 recipes ranging from 1–8 gallons and emphasized which recipes were the hardest to do with a hangover. He had all the signs of a great cook; the fragrance of Kentucky Deluxe, a cigarette behind his ear and filthy food crusted cast on his left arm. He gladly showed me the ropes before he excitedly clocked out for the last time, flipped the bird and went on to do bigger, better, non-cooking things.
There are several kinds of roux and different ways to make it. Blonde roux is for sissies and beginners but makes amazing tasty delights like cream base and Etouffee. Dark roux is the stuff that separates the wanna-be chef types from the seasoned professional cooks and the process in which you make it means you’re either a patient grandmother or a kitchen warrior who wears a bandana to soak up amounts of sweat that can be measured in long-neck bottles instead of shot glasses.
Making dark roux fast is only for the OCD inclined, and if you ignore it for 2 seconds(literally) you will ruin it. If you get it on your skin you’re screwed, it’s like napalm and I still have scars that look like ringworm from carelessly splashing it on myself still drunk from the night before.
So, how is roux like life?
Roux tests your resolve. It makes you doubt yourself because no matter how many times you make it, there is a point where you wonder if you did something wrong this time.
What I call “The phases of Roux” go as follows:
- Whisk a smooth and creamy mix of flour and a ‘high smoke point’ oil(5cups flour to 3cups oil ratio). It’s gorgeous, it looks cake batter and and moves like an interdimensional gate when you manipulate it with a high heat rated rubber spatula. This is a peaceful and calm time; tranquil and serene. It’s like meeting someone special for the first time and staying up until 5am with them drinking coffee and talking about life. Everything is wonderful for that moment but you know in the back of your mind that like anything in life; it will have it’s ups and downs.
- Pour your ambrosia into a cold pan and jostle it until it’s nice and even before cranking the heat up to full blast. This is the very beginning of your test, this is when you know it just got real. From this point on, there is no more relaxation. You need to stretch a little, drink some water and prepare to fight off hand cramps and achy feet. Whether it’s your first day at a new job or a positive pregnancy test, you feel urgency and commitment.
- Begin to stir like crazy. Start from the middle where the heating element is focused and at it’s hottest. Make sure that NOTHING sticks. Check the rivets on the inside of the pan that hold the handle on, roux likes to get stuck there and burn, you need to either keep that from happening or quarantine that sector of the pan immediately. Move the roux outward and then fold it inward again. Get used to this motion, because you are going to do it hundreds of times before the roux is done. When you see any slight haze of smoke or smell the slightest burn, immediately take it off the heat and keep stirring diligently.
- For the next 30 minutes, the roux will go through several textural transformations. This is very important. It goes from delicately smooth to thick and chunky and back. You will have to adapt the way you stir as there is a difference between folding batter and stacking concrete. Don’t EVER give up! This phase is the real test because it’s never the same and it leaves you wondering if your chunky concrete will ever be smooth again. You must have faith that at some point it will settle to a reasonable viscosity and you will have achieved a normalcy that will last a very long time.
- After you have achieved a dark brownie color, you can turn the heat off, but DO NOT stop what you have been doing. From here on, you want to use the residual heat from the stove and pan to finish the roux off. Keep working it until it feels like it has cooled off and you have cooked it to a desirable and sexy dark chocolate color. For the next part, you’ll need to pour the roux into a long baking sheet or Pyrex dish. Stick this in the freezer to halt any further cooking of the roux. Frozen roux is easier to save and the reaction of adding frozen roux to a hot liquid causes better thickening and flavor.
Every time I make roux; I fall in love with it, struggle to keep it happy, drift apart from it, break up with it and eventually reunite with it. 45 minutes seems like an entire lifetime of jubilation and tribulation.
The intense heat of the burner on high, the constant sweat and the agonizing uncertainty makes me feel alive. It reminds me that nothing goes perfectly but everything always ends up the way it’s supposed to. I don’t control the roux, for 45 minutes; the roux controls me. I don’t control anything, the best I can do is try my hardest to make something tasty, beautiful, and hope that life sees fit to allow me to finish it.