Cajun Country Gumbo: Murky Food

The first gumbo I watched being made was in the kitchen of my dear friends Todd & Jen Mouton near Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

My second gumbo was made in the Hurst Street, New Orleans kitchen of my dear friends Hans Andersson and Whitney Stewart.

Mindful of these introductions, Gumbo is as sacred to me. My attention rests on the value and beauty of these friends whenever I begin this dish and when I serve Gumbo, our table is always full of friends. There is no need to show off. No one to impress. This is honest, beautiful – and as my friend Susan Hessey would say – murky food.

Gumby, Gumbo & The Holy Trinity

Last spring, we decided to have a gumbo making party where I taught a bunch of friends the technique I’d learned in Breaux Bridge and New Orleans. Do you feel the richness of this friend-to-friend transfer? You are about to take part in it. Thanks for that.


The word ‘gumbo’ comes from a west African word for okra, a common element in stews there.*

The filé comes from the Native American thickener: dried and powdered sassafras leaves.

The roux comes from the French.

The chiles, from the Spanish.

The dish is rich with the history of the land and cultures from which it came.

*I actually don’t use either okra (or tomatoes in my gumbo). For some folks, this automatically disqualifies it. But gumbo is more a technique than a recipe. And you’ll find that Louisianans themselves will scrap about this right to the edge of the table, and then open a beer for each other and happily dig in.

“First, You Make A Roux…”

…Most distinctive Louisiana dishes begin with this phrase.

A roux is essentially equal parts fat and flour cooked together as the base for the dish. In classic French cooking there are 3 roux designated:  light, blond and dark.

In Louisiana, I’ve heard of 17: When you couldn’t vary the ingredients of your diet, you could vary how long and how hot you cooked the roux.

I like the roux as dark as I am brave enough to get it: coffee, dark chocolate brown.

But first: The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Green/Red Peppers

Playing of the sacredness of Gumbo and friendship, we have what Louisianans call ‘the holy trinity’: green peppers, celery and onion.

Before you start a roux, these need to be chopped and at hand. They are the brakes you will apply when you think the roux is about to get away from you. (A burnt roux signals the Monopoly rules: Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Give up or start again.)

The proportions of these three are negotiable, though in my gumbos there are often a scosh more onion and pepper in the mix than celery. You’ll want a nice pile of each ready before you heat the pan.

Making The Roux

For a gumbo large enough to justify the time, I usually use 3/4 – 1 c of fat and the same or a little bit more all-purpose flour. [Don’t be tempted to use whole wheat: the germ will burn.]

I heat the oil in a heavy, enameled cast iron pot and then whisk the flour in all at once when the oil is hot.

There are brave chefs out there who get a skillet smoking hot, add the oil and then the flour and whisk like crazy.

The advantage of this boldness is it’s really fast. The danger is you’ll burn the roux and have to throw it out. I consider this technique interesting and exciting, and for a practiced hand. If you are making gumbo three or four times a year as the seasons and ingredients change, what’s the rush? Easy does it.

Once the oil and flour are combined, then the stirring begins. Set the whisk aside and choose a heat-proof spatula or a wooden spoon or spatula. While the surface of the roux looks fine, the bottom of the roux can burn if you take a phone call, get distracted, or are dicing up ‘the holy trinity’ (a subversive phrase, I suppose), so pay attention.

The roux will begin soupy. It will often then get lumpy as it darkens and the glutens are cooked up, then it may relax again into a darker soup as it progresses toward the point where I chicken out and add vegetables to slow it down.

Here’s a progression of photos of our roux in progress:

Onions First!

From books of the wonderful New Orleans chef John Besh, I learned to selectively add just the onions when the roux is frighteningly dark and close to burning. This allows the carmelization of the roux to progress a little further. Once the moisture from the celery and peppers gets in the roux, it’s darkening days are over.

Now, if you like a dark roux like this, you may have broken down all the gluten in the original flour. If the gumbo doesn’t thicken up the way you’d like at the other end of cooking, you can either add some beurre manié (equal parts butter and flour blended at room temperature) to thicken it at the last minute, or make a second lighter roux just for thickening.

For me, getting the flavor in that dark roux at the beginning sets the dish. There have been times when I’ve added the onions to a roux and let them begin to sweat that the whole mixture looks like a brownie mix of melted dark chocolate. This is a thrilling thing to see in a pan on your own stove. Take it from me.

Peppers, Celery, Garlic, Cayenne/Seasonings and then a Flavorful Stock

When you’ve judged either that 1) you’re weary of the stirring, 2) you’ve run out of time for this part of the dish, or my favorite 3) you’re in danger of burning the roux even with the onions in it – add the diced celery, peppers, garlic, cayenne pepper and some salt and pepper.

Many ‘cajun’ spice mixes consist of salt, cayenne, onion and garlic powder in various proportions. If I grab one of these, I get it without the salt. The rule of thumb advanced by some manufacturers for their product is ‘when it’s salty enough the spice is just right.’

Maybe for someone.

I prefer to control the salt and spice separately.

That said, I do like having a little “Slap Ya Mama” in the cupboard. It always gives me occasion to say, “It’s so good it’ll make you wanna slap ya mama, and you KNOW you’re not supposed to do that!”

Available at:

I am often using a few of my favorite dried Mexican chilés in my gumbo. Know who you’re cooking for and follow your nose.

The Stock

The roux and the stock are critical to the distinctive flavor of a gumbo.

When I make seafood gumbo, I make a roasted shrimp shells & fish racks, bay leaf, celery, carrot infused stock.

When I make smoked sausage and smoked turkey gumbo, I’ll use the bones and shards of my home-smoked Thanksgiving turkey and make a stock with onions, celery, bay leaves, parsley, carrot and parsnip trimmings. You get the idea. Same with duck.

The marvelous thing about gumbo is that what actually goes into the gumbo depends on what’s available and what you want.

I’ve made vegan gumbo with vegetarian sausage, fried tofu and tempeh. It’s vegan food that is off the chain. The diet may be restrictive, but that shouldn’t stop any cook from making remarkable food.

When making stock, take care to begin with the ingredients in cold water and only add cold water to replenish the stock as it evaporates, as needed. Skim it regularly and try to keep it from boiling: a simmer is what you want. Boiling stocks cause them to be really cloudy. For gumbo they don’t need to be clarified, but a nice stock is a nice stock. You might use some of it for something else….

Oh, and a beer or some portion of one usually also winds up in the gumbo. A little red wine in a dark roux is also not a bad thing, but I lean toward an amber beer or a lager.

Strategies for Different Gumbos

With a seafood gumbo, like the one we were making in these photos, you have to make a flavorful seafood stock. The seafood itself goes in minutes before it is served to keep it from overcooking and becoming tough and lifeless: shrimp, oysters, portioned fish fillets (deboned)…any seafood will do, including crab, lobster, etc. There is no way to get the flavor into the pot early without a nice stock.

With sausage or meat gumbo, you can brown the sausage and the meats to get a flavorful fat with which to make the roux. Once browned, remove the meat from the pan, take a sight measurement of the fat there and add what you need to bring it up to the amount you want, add the flour and proceed with your roux.

I always make or adjust a store-bought stock. I’m nourishing my friends and family. That’s sacred to me. I only cut a corner when I don’t have time. If I have time, I spend it on my friends and family.

Simmering and Serving The Gumbo

Some simmering is in order once all the vegetables have been added and sweat out, and the roux has been thinned with stock, a little beer, etc. At this point, it can be consigned to a medium over, covered. (There are those who darken the roux in the oven, too, but I prefer being with it. If I’m too busy for that, I’m probably too busy to make gumbo.)

The fully cooked meats and sausage,  or the uncooked seafood and shellfish are added in the last few minutes of cooking and just heated or cooked through.

Gumbo is served over rice.

There are those who put a scoop of chunky cold potato salad with dill pickles in it right in the middle of a serving. I don’t, but I understand the urge.

I always put some filé powder in the gumbo just before serving and have some on the table for people to add to thicken up and flavor their own servings as they like.

A nice, crusty French-style or sourdough bread is nice to have at the table to mop up the last little bits of the gumbo in the bottom of the bowls.

And if your guests make the mistake of serving themselves gumbo by fishing out all the meaty parts and leaving the broth, take over the serving:  this is a poor people’s dish, more like a soup with a few ingredients in it.

It’s not a beef stew and shouldn’t be treated as such.

It’s more civilized: a dish of at least four cultures coming to a table of friends near you.




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