One of the more dominant techniques that began to show up in the kitchens of the 17th Century was roux. Seldom has a technique undergone such a transformation in opinion amongst chefs and dedicated home cooks.
The common thickening agent used to give a sauce “body” before roux was toasted, crumbled bread or crushed almonds. But roux, known as farine frit or fried flour, began to replace this. The term roux comes from the French word for “reddish,” which indicates that white roux was a later development.
I adopted a ‘sophomore’s scorn’ and of course I was beset with “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” in the dawn of the 1980’s, trotting around in my first set of chef’s clogs, brandishing my coveted Henckels knife.
But I had some good reasons all the same. I had grim memories of the woollier years of traveling around the country and working in American restaurants where a pot of roux was eternally ‘at the ready’ on the shelf over the stove. The whisk would be stuck in a kind of slurry mixture. A pool of grease settling above the sludgy mess!
The so-called chefs would “fix” gravies and soups with what was actually a ‘mock-roux’ they made hastily flour with, not butter, (too expensive!), but some cheap, commercially produced frying oil. It could tighten up a gravy all right, but it smelled awful as far as I was concerned. But they were not asking my opinion back then.
Times changed for the better. A “New American Cuisine” was coming into being as I was making my way up the kitchen ladders. And just as I was getting used to celebrating our coast-to-coast success, I was suddenly kind of crushed. I read of one of my ‘culinary gurus,’ Jeremiah Tower of the hallowed “Stars” restaurant in San Francisco, using a roux! Scandal!!
Momentarily feeling betrayed I tried his recipe. After all, he was a giant and I needed to pay heed. And then I saw Chef Tower’s point. Recipes made in the more “nouvelle style” typically called for a reduction of massive amounts of heavy cream to attain the texture easily attained with a modicum of roux. Properly made, with flour cooked with real butter for an appropriate length of time, roux was more digestible and lighter! Voila!
The city and the cuisine that took roux through the roof was and remains New Orleans! By the mid 1980’s we all were learning about the four or five stages of roux technique mastery as taught most famously by the great Paul Prudhomme. I went through an entire winter of making Gumbos while working in Illinois. There is a moment I still find exciting when making a proper gumbo! It is when you have reached about the 20th minute of cooking that roux and your arm is close to falling off and the temperature of that butter and flour is reaching NAPALM level and then you hurl in the prepared “Holy Trinity” of Cajun and Creole cooking - bell peppers, onions and celery - into the roux and it practically SPARKS! The smell is MAGICAL!
As early as the 1830s the battle against roux started. The great French chef Marie-Antoine Carême came to its defense against these “ignorant men” saying roux was as “indispensable to cooks as ink is to writers, but just as a poor scribbler cannot produce a masterpiece simply by dipping his pen into that black liquid, a sauce is not necessarily improved if the roux is made with insufficient care.”
Béchamel is a classic sauce out of French repertoire. It is used to thicken soups and make croquettes etc.
Yield: 1 qt. of Béchamel
1 quart Chicken Stock
½ Cup of butter
2 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 quart small dice mix of diced vegetables, (include fennel, sweet onion, carrot and garlic
½ AP flour, sifted
4 Cups heavy cream
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, as desired
Put the chicken stock in a saucepan on the stove to simmer.
Heat the butter and bacon in a heavy flat pan. When it has rendered a good amount of bacon fat add the vegetables. Cook the vegetables on medium heat for about 5-7 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper.
Now add in the flour. Stir for about 3-4 minutes to dissolve the flour and cook out the raw nature of it.
Now add in about one cup of the hot stock. Whisk it well to incorporate the flour. Add more stock and continue to stir. This needs to cook for at least 10 full minutes.
Add the heavy cream all at once. Stir changing the heat to high. When the cream has fully incorporated, turn off the heat and allow to stand a moment. Now strain the béchamel through a china cap and reserve to use as needed.