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The smell that wafts up from a pot of bubbling gumbo is unlike anything else I've ever cooked or eaten. No matter how much gumbo I eat, no matter how thoroughly it satisfies my cravings for comfort food, no matter how plainly delicious it is, it somehow manages to taste just beyond what's familiar. In his 1978 book, Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz, the chef Howard Mitcham expressed a similar sentiment: "Gumbo is a mystique. Like jazz and the blues.... Oh, it’s just impossible to describe it." I can't think of another dish as singular and perplexing. This is the mystery at the center of the gumbo-verse.
Just as difficult to understand is why gumbo has such an elusive quality. Its basic building blocks aren't all that unusual. There's the roux, and the aromatic base of vegetables that are common to plenty of other Cajun and Creole dishes, like étouffée and jambalaya. There are the various meats, sausages, and seafoods that might make their way into the pot, depending on the recipe. Sure, the thickeners, okra and filé powder, aren't so common, but those alone don't fully explain it.
Somehow, it's all of those elements combined. A lot of dishes get smacked with the "more than the sum of its parts" description, but with gumbo, I find it to be more literally true. Any one of gumbo's components would add an interesting flavor to another dish, but all of them together tie a culinary knot that isn't so easily untangled. That's part of what makes gumbo such fun to eat and to cook—it beguiles as much as it pleases.
What Is Gumbo?
Perhaps I've oversimplified it. Gumbo isn't a single stew (or, as some might call it, a single soup) with a distinctive flavor. Gumbo is more like many stews, at times strikingly different ones, making it hard to always spot the common threads.
There are gumbos with every meat you can imagine, and some you probably can't, unless giant-rat gumbo is on your radar. There are gumbos with chicken and shrimp, with turkey, with crabs, with duck and beef and pork, all manner of sausage and frog and, yes, nutria (the rodent). These can be combined in freewheeling ways, or not combined.
Then there's gumbo z'herbes, a Lenten version made with an acre's worth of sundry greens and not a scrap from the animal kingdom. Speaking of vegetables, some gumbos, Creole ones, have tomato; others, Cajun ones, do not. But I wouldn't be surprised if there are Cajun gumbos that sneak in a little tomato and Creole gumbos that don't use it. (I'm not sure I've seen such exceptions, but I've also never gone looking for them.)
What do all gumbos have in common? First, they're thickened and flavored with a roux—a paste of flour cooked in fat—that's grown toasted and dark. They also share an aromatic base, known in Cajun and Creole cooking as the "holy trinity," of diced onions, green bell pepper, and celery. But an étouffée also contains a roux and the holy trinity, so those components alone aren't enough to signal that you're in clear gumbo territory. And, as we've seen, there's hardly a meat that doesn't have a place in some form of gumbo or other.
Therefore, the defining element is something else. Really, it's two things, each of which acts as an additional thickener on top of the roux. One is okra, the vegetable famous for its slimy consistency. The other is filé powder, made from ground dried sassafras leaves. Some cooks use one, some the other, some both. (See what I mean? Even when you get down to the essence of gumbo, it slithers between your fingers, refusing to be pinned down to any single explanation.)
Gumbo is perhaps the most literal melting pot. Its influences are African (okra), French (roux), Choctaw Indian (filé powder), German (sausages), Spanish, Italian, and more. Like almost everything else about gumbo, even its name evades a clear origin story. Some think it came from the Choctaw word for filé powder, kombo. Others suspect it's derived from a West African word for okra, ki ngombo. I think it's cool that there could be two such equally credible etymologies, leaving nearly everything about gumbo perfectly obscured, almost as if it were fated to be this way.
Making gumbo follows the basic method for most stews:
- Brown the meats.
- Sauté the aromatics.
- Add liquid, like stock, and seasonings, like herbs and spices.
- Cook until the meats that need tenderizing are tender and the flavors have concentrated and melded; add any quick-cooking proteins, like shrimp and oysters, at the end.
Since those steps are so familiar, the questions, for me, revolved around the roux (how to make it, and when to add it) and the thickeners, okra and filé powder (what each contributes to the pot, and how a cook should decide on which to reach for). I worked for weeks on a recipe for Cajun gumbo, with chicken and andouille sausage, to learn more.
The Roux Roulette
A roux is one of the most basic of thickeners. When flour is cooked with butter very briefly and then thinned with milk, you end up with béchamel, or white sauce; add stock and pan drippings to a roux, and you have gravy. Toast the flour more (in butter or oil), and it progresses through shades of darkness until it's the color of chocolate, just shy of black.
As I explained in my guide to roux, as the starch in the flour toasts, it becomes less and less effective as a thickener; this is because the starch molecules themselves break down into smaller pieces, reducing their thickening ability. That means the darker your roux, the more of it you'll need to get the same level of thickening power.
Since the roux in a gumbo is often cooked quite dark, you need to be fairly generous with it if you want it to contribute much thickening power at all. This heavy dose of dark roux gives gumbo one of its signature and, for most of us, unfamiliar qualities—there's nothing quite like the smell of that deep, dark roux. The closest thing I can think of is the crust on a well-baked loaf of bread, but even that's not quite the same.
How you cook the roux and when to add it as part of the basic stew-making framework are fundamental questions, with significant implications for the overall cooking time, taste, and texture of the gumbo. Let's start with how to make the roux.
The Best Way to Make a Roux for Gumbo
Traditionally, a roux is stirred over moderate to low heat as it gradually transitions from white to dark; exactly how dark is a matter of taste, though most gumbos lean toward a darker roux. The low heat is an insurance policy—you can raise it and cook your roux faster, but your margin of error shrinks accordingly. The higher the heat, the higher your chances of scorching the flour and ruining your gumbo. It's a tightrope walk between just-dark-enough and acrid, and going low and slow makes it a lot easier to get it right.
The cost of this approach is the tedium of standing over the pot, stirring frequently to make sure the layer of flour on the bottom of the vessel hasn't burned. This can take a rather boring hour of your limited lifespan to do.
You can make the most of that time by using it to dice your trinity of aromatic vegetables, bouncing back and forth between stirring and chopping. But, once again, multitasking adds to the risk: Get too caught up in the bell pepper you're cutting up, and you may accidentally burn your roux.
Another approach is to cook the roux in the oven. At 350°F (180°C), an oven roux will take several hours to reach the chocolate stage. If you're trying to cook a pot of gumbo to eat the same day, that's likely too much time devoted to the roux. If you have lots of time near the kitchen, as I did one day when testing this recipe while working from home, it can be a great approach. It's largely hands-off, since the roux won't scorch nearly as quickly as it can over a direct heat source like the stovetop, and it's so slow that it makes it almost impossible to overcook the roux. (Go ahead, prove me wrong; I know someone has it in them.)
A third option, popularized by Cook's Illustrated, is to cook a dry roux by toasting the flour without the oil. I liked this idea in theory, but I didn't warm to it in practice. Without the oil to help distribute heat more evenly, I found that my flour cooked irregularly, making it easier to burn some particles while I waited for others to catch up. Even more frustrating, I had a much harder time judging doneness visually without the presence of the oil, since toasted flour grows a few notches darker once it's wet with oil.
Ultimately, I'd encourage you to use whichever method you have time for. If you're under the gun, do it on the stovetop, and, if you want, take a risk with higher heat and more stirring. If you don't feel comfortable with that level of roux risk (rousk?), do it on the stovetop at a lower heat. And if you have plenty of time, use the oven, since it'll free you up to do other things while the roux cooks.
When to Add the Roux to Gumbo
One of the things most experienced cooks think about is how to nest their tasks: If you can start a lengthier task first, and then take care of quicker ones while it chugs along, you'll save time overall. But this assumes the nesting doesn't create problems for the recipe. As someone who already spends more than enough time in the kitchen, any minutes I could shave off my gumbo recipe without compromising it would be a win. The only question was if it would work.
Think of it this way. You can make the gumbo step by step, all in the same pot—browning the meats, then cooking the roux, then adding the aromatics, and finally simmering it all together. This takes forever.
Or, you could try to nest the tasks, making the roux in one pot while you brown the meats, sauté the aromatics, and simmer everything together except the roux, then adding the roux when it's done. By overlapping the roux-cooking step with the stew-simmering step, you stand to save a lot of time, but it's only worth it if the results are more or less the same.
Strangely, the results aren't the same. Everyone at Serious Eats who tried separate batches representing each approach preferred the flavor of the gumbo cooked in consecutive stages. I agreed; it was deeper, richer, and sweeter, though it was also thinner and had a pool of grease on top. The gumbo that cooked alongside its roux, and had the roux added toward the end, was less complex and deeply flavorful, though it was also better emulsified and thicker, with a glossier sheen.
I have a thought about why: A roux acts as an emulsifier, holding the oil molecules evenly dispersed throughout the water and not allowing them to separate. (Think of gravy, which shouldn't have grease pooling on top despite the presence of liquid fat.) When the roux is in the pot from the beginning and simmers throughout the entire cooking time, the emulsion is more likely to break, allowing fats to pool on the surface and leaving a thinner liquid base behind. Those pooled fats can then be skimmed off completely, leaving a cleaner-tasting and clearer broth behind.
When the roux is added later on and simmered for a shorter period of time, it has a better chance of holding a more stable emulsion. Any fats in the pot that didn't get skimmed off before the roux was added remain suspended in the gumbo. It makes for a nicer-looking gumbo, all glossy and perfectly emulsified, but one with a duller flavor.
Is that a reason not to ever overlap the roux and stewing steps to save time? No, especially if you're in a rush. But if you do have time, my tests seem to indicate you'll get a tastier gumbo if you let it all cook together from the beginning.
Okra or Filé?: Getting Into the Thick of It
The roux gets you only so far. Yes, you could increase the quantity of roux even more to thicken the gumbo further, but the toasted flavor and fat can really start to weigh the gumbo down if you get too roux-heavy. So you still need a way to push the liquid in the gumbo to a more spoon-coating texture. Enter okra and filé powder.
Okra is a seed pod. When stewed, it becomes mucilaginous, an unappealing word if ever there was one—meaning that it turns slimy. Many people despise okra for its sliminess, but in gumbo, that slimy quality can help to thicken the cooking liquids.
Okra also has its own green, vegetal flavor, which adds another layer of complexity to the gumbo if you use it. There's not too much more to say about it than that. You likely already know how you feel about okra. If you hate it, you're going to want to get some filé powder instead. If you love it, as I do, go to town. The more, the slimier!
Either way, filé is worth trying. Made from sassafras leaves, filé powder (also sometimes called gumbo filé) is finely ground, with a green-brown color that makes it look like Japanese matcha tea that's been sitting on a shelf for a few too many years. Its similarity to tea doesn't end there—it also tastes distinctly tea-like, with a clean, green, herbal vibe. Despite coming from the same plant whose roots are used to give root beer its taste, filé powder itself has no obvious root-beer character.
If you want to use filé as a thickener, add it to your gumbo once it's finished cooking, since it loses its thickening effect the longer it's simmered. Go easy; even a half teaspoon can be enough to gloss up the liquids and give the gumbo an herbal edge. You can also sprinkle filé on each serving tableside as a seasoning, either in addition to using it as a thickener or in place of it.
Remember, the okra and filé are not mutually exclusive—you can use both. As with most things in the gumbo-verse, you have options. Lots of them.