Good Gumbo=Easy. Great Gumbo=Just a Little Less Easy
Gumbo, pizza, and hamburgers are in a special category of food. There is such thing as a bad gumbo, pizza, or burgers, but this is rare and one can generally say that they are all generally good, but some are better than others. There are certainly exceptions to this rule. I once had a gross hamburger is Spain. I think the meat was boiled and that the chef had a salt allergy. Eating it was a surreal experience because it was the first time I’ve had a hamburger that was bad all-around. Unfortunately, I’ve had just a few more unpleasant Gumbo experiences. These have been mostly outside of the state of Louisiana. I’m not sure why out of state chefs seem to completely destroy gumbo because it is not very hard to make. Perhaps one must have a taste for it to know what to shoot for when cooking it? Even with this consideration, I am still puzzled.
I’ve tasted quite a few tasty gumbos whose chefs simply boiled chicken stock, chicken, the cajun trinity, roux from a jar, and a commercially prepared spice blend. The creators of these gumbos believe that the taste hinges upon how it is seasoned. Seasoning is important, but we are trying to produce depth of flavor that comes from following these bits of advice.
To make a great gumbo, you just need:
- A little more time
- To make your own roux
- To make your own stock
- To brown your chicken or duck
- To saute your vegetables
- To not allow your chicken to become stringy
- To avoid commercially prepared spice blends
All of these steps take a little more time. Shocker. You can just throw in all of the ingredients into a pot of boiling water and impress your friends from north of Marksville, but you will be making mediocre gumbo. I have a cousin who tells me that my gumbo is the best he’s ever tasted. He has asked me how I make it. When I begin to describe the above process, he will start to say, “you don’t need to make your own roux, you don’t need to debone your chicken, you can just let it boil and remove the bones later,” and so on. He makes a good gumbo, he could follow these guidelines and make a great one.
Make your own roux.
Confession. You don’t really have to make your own roux. Any roux in a jar is going to comprise of just oil and all purpose flour in roughly equal proportions that has been carefully heated and stirred until the desired color is attained. The desired color is that of a milk chocolate, which is to say very dark brown, not black. Black is burnt.
If you do not make your own roux, you should still start from where a roux maker would. Put your store-bought roux in your large gumbo pot, heat it up on a high flame until it is extremely hot, and then throw your veggies as described above. This somewhat levels the playing field. I still encourage you to make your own roux. Master this key technique and you will be armed with the confidence and skill to move on to sauce piquantes, shrimp stews, and many other cajun delights.
To make a roux, place a black iron pot on a medium to high fire, pour in two cups of flour and two cups of vegetable oil. Stir constantly for about 45 minutes until it is the color of milk chocolate, done.
Make your own stock.
While using a store bought stock is better than using water only, I recommend making your own. Though Cajuns almost never refer to it as such, gumbo is a soup. The stock provides the bulk of the gumbo; therefore, a good stock is essential.
Store bought chicken stocks are made by just boiling chicken bones with a few veggies. I debone the chicken and boil the bones to make my stock, the difference is that I brown the chicken bones before boiling. This produces that delicious flavor that derives from the maillard reaction as described in my number one step. This adds a depth of flavor that no commercial stock provides. This step should signify the importance that the author places upon creating flavor.
Brown your chicken or duck.
This works best with a black iron skillet or pot. This is done by covering the bottom of your pan with oil or lard over medium to high heat and throwing your chicken or duck on the skillet without overcrowding.
The meat must be turned occasionally but allowed to darken considerably. This produces what food scientists refer to as the “Maillard reaction” which is similar to the process of caramelization except this occurs when heat, amino acids(from the meat proteins) and a reducing sugar are combined.
The intent of this process is not to cook the meat all the way through, it is simply to produce a delicious flavor that is completely absent from non browned meats. By browning properly, you will develop brown/black bits at the bottom of the pan that cajuns call gratons. These gratons are pure flavor and the production and retention of these gratons in your gumbo is the number one factor in elevating your gumbo game.
Saute your vegetables.
This is my favorite part of making gumbo. Once your roux has just reached its perfect milk chocolate complexion, you immediately throw in your vegetables. Your vegetables are diced onion, bell pepper of any color, and celery.
All of the vegetables should be thrown in at once. This will arrest the darkening of the roux and it will generally not burn or enrich in color once the veggies have been thrown in. The timing is critical because you cannot further darken the roux if you have thrown the veggies in too early.
Do not allow your chicken to become stringy.
Many chefs will just boil the chicken in the roux/broth/veggie concoction until it starts to fall apart. This step will provide tender chicken, but it will be less flavored and worst of all, it will start to behave as a sponge as the gumbo runs low in the pot. You will not be able to separate the chicken from the gravy. When the gumbo pot has reached this sad level, the party is over.
If you’ve already deboned your chicken to brown the bones and make stock, then cut your chicken up into bite size pieces and brown them well as mentioned earlier. They will firm up and the browned chicken should be returned to the gumbo after the stock has been added. The stock is added after the veggies are sauteed. The veggies are sauteed after the roux is made! Throw in your cut up sausage after the chicken is added. Once the chicken is tender to your liking, the gumbo is ready to serve. This will allow your guests to distinguish the broth from the bits of chicken and sausage.
Do not use a commercially produced spice blend.
Sorry, friends who make commercially produced spice blends. I just have not found any that does not impart an unwelcome, unbalanced flavor to my foods. This is especially important in gumbo. Gumbo has protein and veggies in it, but the broth is where the flavor is. All of these steps are to make the broth perfect. Commercial blends just throw it off.
I may still use a blend if on a burger or if I’m out of state, or eating food from an out of state chef, but never in my gumbo. I just use salt, pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder. I also cut up a few jalapenos and saute with my veggies. This adds a more flavorful heat and cuts the amount of cayenne needed.