04 March 2014

Food Lab 27: Roux

Happy Fat Tuesday, y'all!

Your Food Labbers gathered on Sunday for our latest lab adventure. Mad Kitchen Scientist, the Executive Committee, Chef Spouse and I were joined by two new Labbers: Eggman and Die Künstlerwranglerin. With Mardi Gras right around the corner, we decided it was time to tackle something that's been on the "to lab" list for some time: roux.

Roux is a foundational technique of both French cooking and Cajun cooking. As the saying goes:

Roux is merely flour cooked in an equal amount of fat. It provides thickening to a variety of dishes ranging from the classic (espagnole sauce, béchamel sauce, and more on that later) to the down-home (gumbo).

Sounds simple.

Ah! But what flour? What fat? How dark? Fast or slow? And, perhaps the most important question one has to answer in order to make a real Cajun (dark) roux: what's the difference between burning and burnt?

We set out to answer all of those things.

We had a variety of fats to work with: butter, clarified butter, various vegetable oils, duck fat, bacon fat, lamb fat. We also had our standby King Arthur unbleached white all purpose flour, plus corn meal and pumpkin flour. And we wanted to work with fast and slow stovetop roux, as well as Alton Brown's oven roux technique.

Obviously, we were not going to make 12 varieties of gumbo, not least of which because you really need to wait until the next day to eat your gumbo, and that was not going to happen.

First Chef Spouse made us a round of his fantastic Ramos gin fizzes, to facilitate planning our order of operations. We decided that our first test would to make three roux on the stovetop, regular flour and butter, going light, caramel, and dark, and then turning those into béchamel to top roasted beets, roasted Belgian endives wrapped in proscuitto, and pearl onions sauteed in butter.

Eggman and The Executive Committee got to work processing the beets, endives, and onions. Mad Kitchen Scientist had also brought along three whole ducks (which is the quantity of ducks one buys when buying duck), so he and Die Künstlerwranglerin got to work disassembling them so we could confit the legs and make duck liver pate.

In the meantime, I was mid-way through making a King Cake. Die Künstlerwranglerin wanted to see how it's done, and I had started it earlier in the morning so it would be done in time for us to enjoy some later in the afternoon.

In that first round, we learned that it's pretty hard to make a dark roux with unclarified butter on the stovetop, as the milk solids tend to burn and get very bitter. Needless to say, the béchamel we tried to make with it did NOT taste good. Fortunately, I'd had the foresight to start a butter-based oven roux while everyone was busy chopping and whisking:

Also fortunately, we were left with completely serviceable caramel and light roux based béchamel for our onions, endives, and beets. Traditionally, béchamel is made with a very light roux, since it's a white sauce. Thing is, I've always thought that leaves it tasting of raw flour. Not appealing. If you're not concerned about maintaining that pure white color, our advice is to go for a caramel roux, with an egg yolk added at the end. That is some tasty, tasty béchamel, as we can attest, since we took a break to eat the béchamel-topped beets, onions, and proscuitto-wrapped endives.

Our next test was to look at other fats and other flours. We decided to make four dark roux: corn meal in bacon fat, pumpkin flour in duck fat, regular flour in duck fat, and regular flour in bacon fat. Whichever one(s) turned out would become étouffée later in the day.

Corn meal does not make a good roux. We're not sure if it's the lack of gluten, or the fact that it's coarser than flour, or what, but it ended up looking like the sand at the edge of the water at the beach, right at the tideline.

The pumpkin flour, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. It made a really nice roux. So maybe it has nothing to do with the gluten content. Hmmm. We ended up combining it with the butter-based oven roux and using it as the base for duck confit and andouille étouffée that was the BOMB DIGGITY.

We also discovered that either duck or bacon fat make for a much better dark roux base, even if you're going slow on the stovetop, but particularly if you're using the fast roux technique.

What is the fast roux technique? Highest heat possible, and keep that flour moving at ALL times! If you're going to attempt the fast version of dark roux, you must roll your sleeves down and wear something like this on your hands. Cajun napalm is no joke if you get it on your skin, and the fast roux technique increases the chances that's going to happen dramatically.

The regular flour roux got combined for shrimp and andouille étouffée that was also quite good, but not as good as the duck confit version (quelle suprise!).

Chef Spouse usually makes étouffée with a relatively light roux, and I think the dark roux was a revelation. It doesn't offer as much thickening, of course, but I think it brings a lot more flavor to the party.

So what did we drink? In addition to the Ramos gin fizzes, we made sazeracs with various bitters, including The Eggman's gift for the house of Bitter Truth Creole bitters, which, as far as we can tell, were specifically made for sazeracs. Yep, *that* good. He had also brought some lavender honey simple syrup that we played with, too, as well as a small sample pack of unusual bitters, including chocolate and cardamon, which made their way into manhattans. Since we had a variety of absinthes, including a violently green Eastern European version The Eggman brought along with some Fee Brothers rock candy simple syrup, we also had to make an absinthe frappe.

The point of the absinthe frappe, a drink I happen to adore, is to get all the benefits of an absinthe fountain without actually having an absinthe fountain (or, if you have one, going through the trouble of setting it up and waiting). It's a shortcut to getting the absinthe diluted, sweetened, and cold. I endorse this technique.

Oh - and, of course, King Cake, beautifully decorated by The Executive Committee and Die Künstlerwranglerin.

Yeah, you right!

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