Photo by Sarah Shatz
Gumbo is a true adventurer, a hearty Creole-Cajun stew that pulls inspiration from French, Spanish, West African, Choctaw, Italian, and German culinary traditions and bounds through the Deep South to gather up the region’s epicurean treasures. Traditionally served over white rice (to both sop up the sauce and counter the heat of spicier variations), gumbo is a slow cooking, stick-to-your-ribs staple of Louisiana kitchens with as many versions as there are cooks. The name for this stew is derived most likely from the Bantu word for okra (ki ngombo), but may also have roots in the Choctaw word for filé (kombo).
Roux is the Glue
A deep, dark roux forms the foundation of most Cajun gumbos. Something to keep in mind: The darker the roux, the more flavor it develops as the flour toasts and milk solids brown (if using butter), but the less thickening power it will have.
The Butter Method
- Melt butter (peanut oil or lard are also traditional) over medium heat, and then gradually sprinkle in flour and continue stirring until the roux is free of lumps.
- Use a 1:1 ratio of fat to flour, by volume
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the roux until it's milk chocolate colored (dark chocolate colored is even better, but be careful not to burn it!).
- You can also try hardlikearmour's kick-butt oven method: Combine fat and flour in a cast iron skillet and place in a 350-degree F oven for 90 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes until the desired color is reached.
The Rendered-Fat Method
- Instead of starting the roux with butter, brown meat in the base of a large, heavy-bottomed pot to render any fat. Sausage, skin-on chicken pieces, and bacon are great for this purpose.
- Remove the browned meat and set aside -- you’ll add these back to the stew once the stock is simmering.
- Estimate the amount of hot fat left in the pot, measure an equal volume of flour accordingly, and proceed with cooking the roux.
Whisking roux and examining okra. Photos by Sarah Shatz (left) and James Ransom.
The Plot Thickens
In addition to roux (a French-born thickener), gumbo relies on two other viscosity boosters, particularly in Creole gumbos:
- Okra: This vegetable has natural sugars and proteins that react to heat to produce a thick mucilage that’s flavorless, but effective in plumping up gumbo.
- Filé powder: Made from dried sassafras leaves, filé has a woodsy, root beer-like flavor and besides wielding considerable thickening power, it lends an appealing green tint to gumbos. Filé should only be added to the gumbo once the pot has been removed from the heat, just before serving.
- Traditionally, either okra or filé is used, but using a combination of the two can yield fabulously complex flavor (granted, some would say that's heresy).
The Real Meat
- Pork, seafood, and poultry reign supreme in the South, but game meats (rabbit, duck, and squirrel) also make an appearance in more regionalized gumbo preparations.
- Andouille sausage pulls on German and French influences, but has been claimed by Cajun cuisine. The garlicky pork sausage is smoked for up to 14 hours and is deeply colored and spicy.
- Tasso is heavily seasoned, lean cured pork that’s smoked to the point of being firm and dry. The spiced curing mixture for tasso typically includes cayenne powder, a bit of cinnamon, garlic, paprika, and sometimes filé powder. Tasso should be finely diced before using.
- Add shucked oysters and clams, steamed crab meat or claws toward the end of the cooking time.
- The "holy trinity" -- a variation on the French mirepoix (carrots, onion, celery) -- is a base of onions, celery, and green bell peppers in roughly equal proportions and essential for any traditional gumbo.
- Diced tomatoes or even tomato paste are sometimes added, as well.
- In addition to the meat-filled Creole and Cajun gumbos, a vegetarian gumbo (gumbo z’herbes) is traditionally eaten on Good Friday. Packed with as many greens as possible -- cabbage, turnip greens, beet greens, kale, chard, mustard greens, sorrel, dandelion greens, spinach -- this gumbo is thickened by okra (another vegetable -- go figure!).
Photo by Joseph De Leo
Quick Vegetarian Gumbo
Sausage and Lentil Gumbo (pictured above)
All Day Duck Gumbo [Food52]
Shrimp Gumbo [Food52] (pictured at top)
What makes your gumbo special? What's your thickener of choice? Share your cooking tips and serving suggestions in the comments section below.
Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Flavored Waters.