My Goals

  • Easier—but still flavorful—roux

  • Nicely thickened, not brothy, consistency

  • Gumbo that doesn’t take all day

  • Brightness without overwhelming heat

Like any folk recipe, gumbo has hundreds of variations. The flavor, texture, and even the provenance of this legendary dish—a symbol of melting-pot cooking—are all fodder for debate.

There are, however, some characteristics that all gumbos share. Some are brothy, while others are thick. A pot typically holds seafood, poultry, or wild game, along with andouille sausage or some type of cured smoked pork. The proteins are simmered with the “holy trinity” of celery, bell pepper, and onion while seasonings such as garlic, cayenne, paprika, thyme, and bay leaves provide complexity. This mix is thickened slightly, sometimes with okra or ground dried sassafras leaves, known as filé (“fee-LAY”) powder. Last, and perhaps most important, is the roux—a slow-cooked mixture of flour and fat that gives the gumbo its deep brown color, a bit of body, and a toasty flavor.

Inspired by the late Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme’s dark, meaty, poultry-centric gumbo, I decided to develop my own recipe featuring just chicken and andouille. I also opted to omit okra and filé—okra is more typical of shrimp- and tomato-based gumbos, and filé’s distinct, earthy flavor can be polarizing.

Associate editor Annie Petito, left, discusses the testing and development of her Chicken and Sausage Gumbo recipe with members of the Cook’s Illustrated team.

Roux-minating

I started with the roux. In classic French cuisine, roux can be cooked to shades ranging from blondish white to the color of peanut butter. But Cajun and Creole chefs push the roux much further—to a deep, dark brown or even just short of black—to develop the toasty, nutty flavor that characterizes gumbo. To guard against burning, the roux is stirred constantly over low heat, meaning it can take an hour or more of hands-on attention to make.

It can take an hour or more of constant, slow stirring to properly toast flour on the stovetop for the deep-flavored roux used in many Cajun and Creole recipes, so we set out to find an easier method.

That said, there are renegade techniques for making dark roux that don’t require stirring at the stove for long (if at all). I found methods using the microwave or the oven, as well as a quick one that involved heating the oil on the stovetop until smoking and then adding the flour.

Working with the typical 1:1 ratio of all-purpose flour to vegetable oil—½ cup of each for now—I first tried the quick method of adding flour to smoking oil. This produced a superdark roux in a mere 10 minutes, but the flour was more burnt than deeply toasted. The microwave wasn’t much more hands-off than the stove, as I had to stir the roux frequently between short bursts of heating. However, in the dry, even heat of a 425-degree oven, a roux required stirring just every 20 minutes. The downside was that it took 1¼ hours to reach the proper dark chocolate color.

Still, I pressed on. In the roux, I sautéed onion, celery, and green bell pepper. I then poured in 6 cups of chicken broth and added a couple of pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs and some sliced andouille. I kept the seasonings simple for now: cayenne, bay leaves, and thyme sprigs. I simmered the gumbo until the chicken was tender, at which point I removed it, shredded it for easy eating, and added it back to the pot. This version boasted just the right toastiness from the roux, but the seasonings needed tweaking.

I’d address those later. For now, I wanted to deal with the fact that the roux had taken more than an hour to make. Plus, my gumbo was thin, with a thick slick of grease that had to be skimmed off the surface. That wasn’t surprising: The fat in a typical roux coats its flour particles, making it easier for them to disperse in a hot liquid without forming lumps. At the same time, the starch chains in the flour are becoming hydrated and thickening the hot liquid. But browning the flour for a gumbo’s roux weakens its ability to trap (and thereby thicken) liquid as well as its ability to keep the fat in it from separating and pooling on the surface. This is where okra and filé powder—secondary thickeners—usually come in, but I stuck to my decision to keep them out of the pot.

At this point, I considered a less-common approach that I had initially dismissed: a dry roux, where the flour is toasted without fat. The benefits were clear: no hot oil-flour paste to stand over, no skimming, and—while it hadn’t been my original goal—a gumbo with less fat overall. What, if anything, would I be losing if I ditched the oil?

A dry roux, made by eliminating the oil common to most recipes and instead toasting the flour to the appropriate color, is appealing for its relative ease and reduced cooking time, but we needed to find out if there was a trade-off in terms of flavor and texture.

To find out, I would need to produce a dry roux comparable in color to the wet roux I’d been using. Dry roux can be made on the stovetop or in the microwave, but each method has the same challenges as a wet roux does, so I stuck with the oven. Conveniently, a hands-off dry roux cooked faster than the wet kind, clocking in at about 45 minutes. That’s because a hot pan transfers heat more rapidly to dry flour than to oil-coated flour, as oil is a much poorer conductor of heat energy than hot metal is.

The Right Hue for Roux

After making a traditional wet roux (cooked flour and fat) in the microwave, on the stovetop, and in the oven, we opted for a less-traditional method that calls for toasting the flour with no fat. This dry roux can be made on the stovetop or in the microwave, but we found that baking the flour in a skillet in a 425-degree oven until it was the color of ground cinnamon gave our gumbo just the right amount of nutty toastiness along with an appealing rich color. That toasty flavor happens when flour is heated to the point where its starch breaks down and undergoes the Maillard reaction, forming dark brown pigments and flavorful compounds.

I moved forward, making two batches: one with a dry roux and one with a wet roux. Happily, the dry-roux gumbo boasted a dark color, rich flavor that compared favorably to that of the wet-roux gumbo, and a minimal grease slick. What’s more, thanks to the dark-meat chicken and sausage, the dish didn’t taste lean, even though I’d cut out ½ cup of oil. Satisfied, I shifted my focus to the gumbo’s consistency.

The most obvious way to make the gumbo thicker was to increase the amount of roux. I gradually added more flour until I hit a full cup. It helped, but it wasn’t enough. Rather than up the roux amount even more, which might have overwhelmed the dish, I decided to compensate by decreasing the amount of broth. After a few tests, I found that using just 4 cups finally gave me the perfect ratio of liquid to dark roux, yielding a rich, glossy, emulsified gumbo with body that coated the back of a spoon.

The Thick (and Thin) of It

In addition to a roux, gumbos are thickened with okra (in fact, the name “gumbo” likely stems from ki ngombo, which is the word for okra in several central and southern African dialects), or filé powder (ground sassafras leaves). Because both ingredients can be polarizing—people either love or hate the slippery texture of okra and the root-beery taste of filé­—we turned to the roux alone to thicken our broth. But this decision was not an easy fix.

The Problem

Browning flour, dry or in fat, causes its starch chains to break down into smaller molecules, which are less effective at trapping (and thereby thickening) liquid. The darker the roux, the more compromised its thickening power.

The Solution

We increased the amount of roux and decreased the amount of broth we called for in the recipe to achieve a satisfyingly thick consistency.

So Efficient

My gumbo was coming along and, at this point, took just under 2 hours from start to finish. I wondered if I could speed things along by adding the roux at the end of cooking instead of the beginning. That way I could prep my other ingredients and start cooking while the flour toasted.

Whisking the roux directly into the simmering broth made it difficult to incorporate without clumping, so I decided to reserve half the broth used for cooking the chicken to make a paste with the flour, allowing me to break up any lumps beforehand. Bingo: The paste whisked seamlessly into the remaining broth. Now I had rich, dark, luscious gumbo in just under 90 minutes.

Whisking together the toasted flour and some reserved broth prevented any clumping that might occur when we added the roux to the simmering stew at the end of cooking.

All that was left to do was enliven the flavors. I stirred in ground black pepper, paprika, and minced garlic to mimic and highlight the seasonings in the andouille. I also incorporated some sliced scallions, a common garnish. The gumbo needed acidity to lift its rich, meaty flavor, but rather than add hot sauce (the usual final flourish), I stirred in clean-tasting white vinegar, letting my guests choose whether to add hot sauce to their own portions.

Using a slew of timesaving techniques, we were able to prepare rich, full-flavored gumbo in under 90 minutes.

As I ladled my gumbo over a pile of white rice, I was satisfied with my recipe, and as I watched it disappear from the pot, I knew everyone else was, too.

Keys to Success

  • Easier—but still flavorful—roux

    Making a dry roux by toasting flour in the oven produces deep, nutty flavor and is more hands-off than the traditional oil-and-flour roux.
  • Nicely thickened, not brothy, consistency

    Increasing the amount of flour to 1 cup while decreasing the amount of liquid to 4 cups made for a gumbo that nicely coats the back of a spoon, without the need for additional thickeners such as okra or filé powder.
  • Gumbo that doesn’t take all day

    Prepping and starting the gumbo while the roux cooks in the oven streamlines preparation.
  • Brightness without overwhelming heat

    Finishing the gumbo with vinegar rather than the usual hot sauce gives the rich dish some much-needed acidity.