FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Mark R. Vogel
A roux is a cooked mixture of flour and fat that is used to thicken sauces, soups, and other preparations. Although any fat can be used, butter is the most common. Down in New Orleans, you’re likely to find unctuous roux made from lard. A standard roux is comprised of equal amounts of flour and fat by weight. Sometimes you’ll encounter recipes that deviate from this basic formula due to the type of flour or fat relied upon, but generally speaking, you really can’t go wrong with a simple one-to-one ratio.
Making roux is pretty straightforward. First melt the butter over medium or medium-low heat. Add the flour all at once and stir until the target color is achieved. Roux can be white, blond, brown and dark brown a.k.a. black. As you continue to cook it three things happen: the color becomes increasingly darker, the aroma becomes nuttier and stronger, and it’s thickening ability decreases. As always, the nature of the raw ingredients, the type of cookware employed, and the heat level can all influence cooking time.
White roux takes eight minutes or less and may still have a floury taste. Usually roux is cooked to at least the blond stage which takes about ten minutes. Brown roux requires fifteen to twenty minutes, and dark brown roux even longer, but you should cook it by sight, and not a clock. Which type of roux to employ will be determined by the recipe it is intended for. A light colored sauce like the below recipe for béchamel necessitates a white roux while some deep and rich gumbos rely on brown or dark brown roux.
In order to combine roux with its terminal concoction, it is vitally important that the roux, and whatever it is going into, be at different temperatures. This prevents lumping. Thus, add hot liquid to cold roux or vice versa. The temperature difference does not need to be extreme but it should be notable. Add the one to the other gradually and constantly whisk to further prevent lumping. Return the roux-thickened dish to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook as needed.
Beurre manié, French for “kneaded butter,” or colloquially known as “uncooked roux,” is exactly that: an equal mixture of flour and butter that is not cooked. Simply knead the flour and butter together with a fork. It is a last minute thickener that is whisked in at the end and not cooked for any appreciable length of time. One to two tablespoons of beurre manié can thicken a cup of liquid.
A classic utilization of roux is exemplified by béchamel sauce. Named after the French aristocrat Louis de Bechamel, the sauce was first published in 1651 by the esteemed chef François Pierre La Varenne. Debate exists over whether Bechameil actually invented the sauce, or was merely its namesake. Bechamel is one of the “mother sauces” i.e., a primary sauce from which many derivative sauces are made. In addition to serving as a base for other sauces, bechamel can be slathered over vegetables, fish or poultry. In Italy it is traditionally combined with tomato sauce and poured over baked pastas.
2 oz. salted butter
4 oz. chopped onion
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 oz. all purpose flour
1 quart cold milk
Pinch of nutmeg
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan or ideally, a saucier (a sauce pan with sloping sides which prevents food from getting trapped and burning in the corners). Add the onion and some salt and pepper. Sweat, do not saute the onion until soft. Add the flour and stir constantly for no more than two minutes. Gradually add the cold milk while constantly whisking. When all of the milk has been incorporated add the cloves and a little more salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce on low heat for thirty minutes, frequently whisking and assessing for extra seasoning as the sauce thickens. Strain the sauce through a chinois or fine sieve and finish with the nutmeg.
There are multiple issues to consider with bechamel:
- The onions and cloves are optional. Some chefs prefer a very straightforward sauce of roux, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
- Vegetable oil is sometimes substituted for the butter to produce an ever whiter colored sauce. Butter of course, offers more flavor.
- The thickness of béchamel can be altered by adjusting the amount of roux. The above recipe will produce a béchamel of medium viscosity. For a light béchamel use three oz. of roux per quart of milk, and for a heavier sauce employ five.
- Many chefs scald the milk and add it to cold or room temperature roux as opposed to adding cold milk to hot roux. What’s most vital is that the roux and milk be at different temperatures.
- It is crucial to use your highest quality, heaviest bottomed pan and watch the heat. Béchamel can burn easily and thin pans are notorious for scorching food.