Why It Works
- Carefully measuring tomato liquid and the right amount of chicken stock to top it up ensures the correct ratio of liquid to rice.
- Baking the dish in the oven prevents the rice from scorching and eliminates the need to stir midway through cooking.
- Stirring in the shrimp and scallions at the end keeps them from overcooking.
My first trip ever to Louisiana was exactly what it should have been: a debauchery of food and drink. I'd flown into New Orleans late one night with my best friend, and within an hour of landing, we were tucking into platters piled with oysters. The next morning, we got up and headed to breakfast at Mother's before driving to our ultimate destination—a friend's house in Lafayette, where her family was boiling up 400 pounds of crawfish for lunch. That breakfast, though.
We ate as if we were never going to eat again; the fact that we were mere hours from consuming our body weight in crawfish was immaterial. The highlight of that breakfast, for me, was a bowl of jambalaya covered in a flood of debris. "Debris," I learned giddily, was the rendered fat, meat shreds, and drippings from a roast beef. That jambalaya was the best I'd ever had up to that point.
I've eaten a lot of jambalaya since, in New Orleans and elsewhere, yet I still haven't tasted it in half its forms. I've been poring over cookbooks and recipes for the past few weeks, and the variety I've found within the broad category of jambalaya is impressive. It always contains rice; some mixture of aromatics, like onion and celery; and some kind of meat and/or seafood. (At least, every version I've seen has meat or seafood, but there are enough renditions out there that I'm sure you can find a few vegetarian ones.)
Many accounts of the history of jambalaya point to paella, which was brought by Spanish immigrants to New Orleans in the early 18th century, as its ancestor. New Orleans is without question a singular amalgam of global influences—African, Caribbean, Native American, French, and more—so the role of paella can't be ruled out, but that explanation prioritizes European influence while overlooking a much likelier primary ancestor: jollof rice from West Africa. The similarities between jambalaya and jollof rice, which is also cooked in a pot with a flavorful reddish base of tomatoes and peppers, are much more striking than those with paella. Add to that the profound influence of African cooking on Southern American food, and jollof is the much stronger explanation. Then again, Spain has its own close historic ties to North and West Africa, so perhaps the threads crisscross over distance and time in more complex and interesting ways.
Two main categories of jambalaya exist: Creole (or red) jambalaya, which is associated with the city of New Orleans and contains tomato, and Cajun (or brown) jambalaya, which contains no tomato and is more common in other parts of Louisiana. The recipe I'm focusing on here is the former, with tomato.
Beyond those two categories, though, it gets more difficult to pin down specifics. Meats often include pork (ham or sausage), chicken, shrimp, and crawfish, but oysters, turtle, duck, alligator, and more can also find their way into the jambalaya pot. Many recipes call for the "holy trinity"—Cajun cooking's signature aromatic mixture of onion, green bell pepper, and celery—but I've found examples that omit or alter some part of it.
Leah Chase, the proprietor and chef of Dooky Chase, for instance, doesn't call for celery in her Creole jambalaya recipe from The Dooky Chase Cookbook; the chef John Folse, meanwhile, swaps out the more common green bell pepper for a sweeter red one in some of his recipes. Scallions, while not a classic part of the trinity, seem to be a more consistent jambalaya ingredient.
For my own Creole version, I decided to stick with some of the most common choices: a mixture of chicken, smoked andouille sausage, and shrimp, along with the trinity in its most typical form. My main task, as usual, was to drill down on the details.
Let's start with building flavor.
The Flavor Factor, or Why You Shouldn't Just Dump Everything in the Pot at Once
One of the features I've seen most often in recipes and videos for making jambalaya involves dumping a whole bunch of ingredients into the pot at once—the meat, the seafood, the aromatics, et cetera—sautéing them for a bit, and then adding the liquid and rice. What that is, really, is a recipe for insipid food.
There are two things wrong with that approach. First, you're unlikely to get sufficient browning, and browning is the result of the Maillard reaction, and the Maillard reaction is flavor. Second, you're gonna overcook your seafood like that. Shrimp need only a few minutes to cook through, not a several-minute sautéing step followed by a 40-minute rice-cooking step followed by a 15-minute resting step. I mean, if you want shrimp mush, sure, but otherwise...not a good idea.
So what's a better way to do it?
A better way is to brown in batches, building flavor as we go. For my recipe, I start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I picked thighs and not breasts because thighs are fattier than lean white meat, meaning they'll remain tender and plump even with extended cooking. I brown those thighs in a tablespoon of oil, which is step one in building flavor.
I take the thighs out of the pan and set them aside—they'll get diced up and tossed back into the pot a little later. Next, I move on to step two of flavor-building: adding sliced rounds of sausage and browning them, too. That sausage can be andouille, a smoked Cajun pork sausage, or chaurice, a spiced Creole pork sausage, or something similar.
At this point, you'll likely have a bit of fond building up—that's the browned stuff stuck to the bottom of your pot. This is a good thing as long as you don't allow it to scorch, because fond is flavor. The key to building good fond while not letting it scorch, aside from controlling your heat as necessary, is to knock it back from time to time with liquid.
That liquid could be a splash of water, which will wash free all the fond stuck to the surface of the vessel, then evaporate, allowing you to let the fond build up again. Or you can do what I do here and add the aromatic vegetables. As soon as they heat up, they'll release quite a bit of their own liquid, which you can use to scrape up whatever fond is coating the pot.
Just check out the photos above and below: Right up until I added the vegetables, my Dutch oven was crusted in dark brown fond, threatening to burn. Then in went the vegetables, and voilà—a clean pot all over again, with all that wonderful fond flavor mixed in.
Next, I let all of that cook together until the vegetables begin to soften and turn golden, which is, once again, more flavor (what step are we up to here?). One small note: Adding water at any point can help keep the contents of your pot from burning, but so can adding oil. If you notice your pan has gone dry, it's a good idea to hit it with a couple tablespoons more oil to lubricate things well; that's usually more than enough to do the trick.
The final step for building flavor is adding...flavorings. In my recipe, I start by stirring in some tomato paste, which adds a deep, sweet, concentrated tomato flavor, then round it out with thyme, oregano, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, and plenty of black pepper. We want this jambalaya to have some kick, don't we?
Only later on, once the rice is cooked and the dish is nearly done, do I mix in the shrimp and scallions, letting them cook just enough. That's how we build flavor, while still treating each ingredient with respect. The jambalaya develops layers and layers of depth and intensity, the shrimp don't get hammered, the scallions retain a trace of freshness, and we all win.
The Rice-to-Riches Ratio
Next up is the good old question of ratios. Rice can be tricky, but as a rule of thumb, using twice as much liquid as rice by volume will more or less put you in the ballpark.
Fortunately, when it comes to jambalaya, the ballpark is about as close as we need to get—unlike some rice dishes, in which you're aiming for perfectly cooked grains that are still dry enough to not stick together at all, jambalaya can be a little bit moister. Fluffy individual grains are not a requirement here. So all we have to do is ensure that all the rice is cooked through, yet doesn't come out wet and mushy. As it turns out, a 2:1 ratio by volume of liquid to rice seems to be the sweet spot.
The main thing we need to account for in this recipe is the tomatoes, which introduce a lot of liquid on their own. My solution is as follows: Start with a can of peeled whole tomatoes packed in their juice (not packed in purée—the can should say which it is in the ingredients list), and separate the tomatoes from the juice. Then break each tomato with your hand, releasing the juices hidden within the seed chambers. Add those liquids to the strained juices.
What you should have now is the tomato flesh in one bowl and the juices in another. All you need to do is add enough chicken stock to the tomato juices to give you twice the volume of the rice.
In my recipe, I call for two cups of long-grain rice. That means you need a total of four cups of liquid—whatever you get from the tomatoes, plus however much chicken stock you need to make up the difference. Using this method, you'll have the right amount of liquid each time, no guessing necessary.
In case it's not clear, the reason I'm using canned whole tomatoes is threefold. First, they tend to be better-quality than crushed or puréed. Second, canned whole tomatoes tend not to have the firming agents that crushed tomatoes do—those firming agents can prevent the tomatoes from softening as they cook, so that they never fully melt into the dish. And third, because it's easier to separate the flesh of whole tomatoes from their juices than it is to separate crushed or puréed tomatoes from them.
Once you've correctly measured out your liquids, you can add them to the pot along with the diced chicken thighs, the crushed tomato flesh, and the rice. Season it well with salt at this point (and taste the liquid to confirm), since this is your best bet for getting an even and thorough salt distribution, as opposed to trying to stir the salt in later. Now you're ready to get cooking.
The Stirring Conundrum, Solved
Here's the final challenge of jambalaya: If you don't stir it at all, you're likely to end up with a layer of blackened, burnt crud on the bottom of the pot by the time it's done. Stir it too much, and the rice will break and dissolve into a starchy mush. I've come across whole articles online explaining the proper way to turn a jambalaya to prevent the bottom from scorching while also not gumming up the rest of it. It's nuts.
What to do? Well, easy—put it in the oven. Unlike the direct heat of a flame under the pot, which is what most recipes I've seen call for, the hot air of an oven is gentle enough to guarantee you won't burn your rice.
As soon as I switched from a stovetop method to an oven method, all my jambalaya-cooking woes went away. You literally don't need to stir it once. Well, at least, not until it's done, at which point you'll want to gently stir in the shrimp and scallions. What's even better is that you still get some awesome surface browning as it cooks in the oven, so the flavor development doesn't fall short.
Once the shrimp go in, cook it a few more minutes, until they're done, then let the jambalaya rest for 15 minutes or so before serving.
It's hard to remember in perfect detail that first real-deal jambalaya I ate at Mother's nearly 20 years ago—it's been a while. But, having eaten so many jambalayas since, I know for a fact that this one here is a true contender. If only I could get my hands on some debris...
The essay preceding the recipe has been edited and updated by the author to correct the record by acknowledging West African jollof rice's critical influence on jambalaya. Several of the sources originally consulted during the research phase of this recipe's development gave disproportionate credit to Spanish paella as the precursor to jambalaya while ignoring jollof rice's central role in its history.
1 (28-ounce; 795g) can peeled whole tomatoes, packed in juice (see notes)
About 3 cups (720ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium store-bought broth, plus more as needed
1 1/4 pounds (565g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable, canola, or other neutral oil, plus more if needed
3/4 pound (340g) cooked Cajun or Creole sausage, such as andouille or chaurice (or other similar smoked or spiced pork sausage), sliced into thin rounds
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 225g), diced
2 medium green bell peppers (10 ounces total; 280g), stemmed, seeded, and diced
4 celery ribs (6 ounces total; 170g), diced
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon (5ml) tomato paste
1 tablespoon (15ml) Louisiana-style hot sauce, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 bay leaves
2 cups long-grain rice (12 ounces; 370g)
3/4 pound (340g) peeled and deveined shrimp
6 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
Strain tomatoes and add juice to a 4-cup measuring cup. Place tomatoes in a medium bowl. Using your fingers, carefully tear each tomato open to release the liquid inside its seed compartments. Strain all this liquid into measuring cup. Crush tomatoes well with your hands. Add enough chicken stock to tomato juices to total 4 cups (960ml). Set aside.
Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C). Season chicken all over with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chicken and cook, turning, until browned on both sides, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes, then cut into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.
Meanwhile, add sausage to Dutch oven and cook, stirring often, until just starting to darken, about 3 minutes; lower heat and/or add oil at any point to prevent burning. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring and scraping bottom of Dutch oven, until browned bits have come loose and vegetables just begin to turn lightly golden, about 8 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add hot sauce, thyme, oregano, cayenne, garlic powder, and a very generous dose of black pepper. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato/stock mixture, diced chicken, and bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Season with salt, tasting liquid to ensure it is well seasoned.
Stir in rice and return to a simmer. Cover with lid and transfer to oven. Bake until liquid is fully absorbed and rice is tender, about 40 minutes.
Gently stir in shrimp and scallions and return to oven until shrimp are just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Cover pot and let rest 15 minutes. Remove bay leaves, if desired (see notes).
Serve, passing hot sauce at the table for diners to add to taste.
You'll need the juice from the tomatoes to function as a portion of the rice-cooking liquid, so be sure to check the ingredients and get canned peeled whole tomatoes packed in juice, not in purée.
Typically, the bay leaves in this recipe would be removed after the 15-minute rest following cooking. However, since over-stirring the jambalaya can cause the rice to break, I don't recommend digging through the rice to find the leaves. Just remove them if you see them, and otherwise be careful to avoid them while eating.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 23g||29%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||34%|
|Total Carbohydrate 27g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||11%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 69mg||346%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|