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Can you believe the holiday season is upon us again? October is the beginning of my favorite time of year. I love everything, from talking skeletons to Christmas bells. But, I love the food even more. It’s the time for moist pumpkin bread, warm apple pie, and dozens of other decadent treats that we all willingly ignore our growing waistlines to consume.
For some, I know, the holiday season also means being busy. School is in full swing, kids are consumed by after school activities, Thanksgiving plans must be made, and Christmas shopping starts.
Which…brings me to this post! I realized after my Deep Fried Cheesecake Bites post that all my recipes so far required some sort of wait time! While I truly believe the waiting is worth it, sometimes we just don’t have time, myself included.
So I considered what I like to whip up when I’m pressed for time. A LOT of it has to do with pasta or rice, lovingly coated by some sort of delicious sauce: alfredo, mac and cheese, herb gravy and chicken. When I tried to decided which recipes to share I quickly realized that they all had something in common. Each sauce is thickened with roux. I knew it was time to refine my technique and learn the ins and outs of how to make roux.
So, What is Roux?
Put simply, roux is a thickening compound made from fat and starch. Most commonly this is butter and flour. Other starches can be used for thickening, such as cornstarch, tapioca, potato, etc., but each have their own attitudes and tricks. When it comes to how to make roux, we’ll stick to good ole’ all-purpose flour. The fat, or the lipid, used can be interchanged between animal fats, oils, and butter. One of my favorite fats is bacon grease! Soon I’ll be sharing my Jalapeno White Cheddar Bacon Mac as a perfect example of using that.
Starch is Essential…and Sticky
Flour, all-purpose more than most others, has a high starch content. Starch swells when it absorbs liquid causing it to thicken. But…adding the flour straight to your hot liquid is probably not going to work out for you. Starch is sticky when it heats, which is necessary when you’re making a sauce or baking, but not so great when you’re trying to avoid clumps. It’s a pickle, I know.
Basically, when a hot non-lipid liquid (say that five times fast) is added to flour, the starch begins to stick, but it sticks so fast that it ends up sticking to each other. These are your gravy lumps. All those pesky little lumps are just starch granules that got too excited and stuck together before they could absorb their max amount of liquid. Those poor stuck starches got cut off from the party, and the only way to to save your sauce is to strain out the lumps.
Sure, we can do that, but isn’t it easier just to know how to avoid it all together?
Fat = Flavor + Smoother Sauces
To avoid any lumpy misfortunes, you bring in the savior of cooking, the goddess of flavor, to the party – fat. Lipids, in whichever form you choose, are like the wing-men to those starch granules. When you add flour to a hot fat first, you and your whisk are coating all the starch granules with lipids, giving them each a little protective barrier from each other. Then, when the liquid hits the pan, each starch granule has a chance to absorb its max amount of liquid before they start to stick to each other. The thickening you see as you whisk is literally the swelling of starch granules slowly sticking together.
Who figured this out and why, I don’t know (yet), but I’m damn glad they did.
Where can Roux lead?
I love knowing how to make roux because it’s the starting point of so many things I love to eat. In fact, roux is the foundation for three of the five ‘mother sauces’ in french cooking: Bechamel, Veloute, and Espagnole. And from those mother sauces, whether you know it or not, sauces that we eat on a regular basis are built. By adding different components, flavor profiles, and ratios we can turn a Bechamel into a Mornay sauce (cheese sauce) for mac & cheese, we transform veloute into a rich silky gravy for pot pie, and Espagnole becomes that decadent demi glace you love to drizzle over your steak. Each mother sauce is like a blank canvas for your flavor imaginings. They are the foundation for so much of what we eat, and their foundation is the roux.
Knowing how to make roux can seriously free your cooking on a day to day basis. It used to be that when I got a craving for some fettuccine alfredo, or a bowl of good gumbo, I had to go out and get it at a restaurant. Or, I’d buy boxed or canned, pre-seasoned versions of them.
Now, I can literally make alfredo any day of the week. I always have milk, butter, and parmesan in the fridge, and with my trusty AP flour on the counter, dinner is done. Say goodbye to canned cream of mushroom for this year’s Thanksgiving green bean casserole. Make your own cream of mushroom, and I guarantee it will be so much better.
4 Types of Roux
Before we get to the actual steps for how to make roux, we should talk about the types. After you’ve picked your fat, next is to figure out what color roux will suit your finished dish best. There are 4 distinct stages of roux, ranging from white with the most thickening power to almost black, with the least amount of thickening ability.
1. White Roux:
This is the first stage of roux, taking only a few minutes from the time you begin whisking the flour in, until the the roux is ready for liquid. From a white roux, the Bechamel is made, and from the Bechamel, you can make creams for casseroles, mac & cheese, creamy soups, scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach…the list goes on and on. With a white roux, the liquid added most commonly is milk or cream that is brought to a boil to thicken and then seasoned. It’s cooked lightly to maintain the pure white color that is characteristic of a Bechamel.
2. Blonde Roux:
If you allow the white roux to cook longer, whisking still to prevent burning, the color will begin to change as the flour cooks. This next stage is the blonde stage, a slightly darker version of the white roux, distinct by the nutty aroma your roux will begin to give off. Stop here to make Veloute, or gravy. You’ll notice as you cook the roux, that the longer it cooks, the thinner it appears, this is the breaking down of the starch in the sauce. The further it breaks down, the less it will thicken the final product. White is the strongest, but a blonde roux will still thicken a sauce significantly.
There is no hard and fast rule on when to pick blonde roux over white roux, they are incredibly similar. I often use a blonde roux with stocks, meat drippings, and other more powerful flavor components. The flavor difference between blonde and white roux are subtle in a finished dish. My own rules on when to pick which are simple. If I’m using dairy as my liquid, then I stick with white roux, if only to maintain the pristine white color. If you accidentally cook your roux past the white stage and you’re making alfredo sauce, I promise you’ll still be fine with a blonde roux.
3. Brown Roux:
Here is where things really start to change, both in flavor and thickening. It comes around 15 minutes after the blonde roux, and the flavor is a far cry from the delicate flavor of the white roux. With frequent whisking, the flour will continue to cook evenly, eventually darkening to a rich brown, like peanut butter. Because the starches have been cooking for longer at this point, the thickening power is beginning to break down, meaning you’d need more brown roux to thicken 2 cups of liquid than you would of the white roux. Brown roux has a lovely, rich roasted nutty aroma and it’s a beautiful base for gumbo, stews, or beef gravies.
4. Chocolate Roux:
This is the hardest, and most intense stage of making roux. By this stage, you’ve been whisking somewhat frequently for around 40 minutes, and the flour has cooked to almost burnt. It’s taken on a lovely, deep milk chocolate color and it’s giving off a roasted scent that falls between warm chocolate and deeply roasted nuts. This is the pinnacle of roux making for southern cooks and their gumbos. The chocolate roux is not used for the same purposes as a white roux. With almost no thickening power left, this roux is used more for flavor than thickening, though it will still thicken a liquid slightly. You’ll notice how much thinner the roux looks here compared the thicker bubbly white roux.
This isn’t the easiest stage to get to, but if you’re up for putting in the time, I can tell your from experience that making homemade gumbo with a chocolate roux you made yourself is extremely satisfying, both in flavor and self-esteem.
How to Make Roux
Alright, let’s finally get into how to make roux. For every 1 part fat, you’re going to need just over 1 part flour. For two tablespoons of bacon grease, you’ll need two heaping tablespoons of flour. My best advice to you, the advice I live by, is to start with an equal 1:1 ratio, and add a little more flour at a time from there, until you have the proper consistency. You’re looking for a paste, sort of like the wet sand on a beach just before you hit the water, saturated and thick.
Step One: Pick your Fat & Amount
Over medium low heat, warm your fat of choice. I advise using a pan that doesn’t spread the roux too thin. If you’re making a cream sauce, you’ll only need about 1 tablespoon of both butter and flour, but if you’re going for a gumbo, you’ll need much more. I usually use a full cup of butter for a darker roux, it will be the bulk of the sauce.
If you’re using butter be aware that most butter does contain some water content. What this means, is that it’s not pure fat. It’s ideal to let the butter simmer to let the water cook off a little first. My method is to let the butter foam and simmer, when the foaming and bubbling subside (it’s audible too, if you listen close!), it’s time to add your flour.
If however, you’re using fat from meat like bacon or ground sausage, I find that it is always preferable to let the fat cool down before adding my flour. Bacon is cooked over a higher heat than you’re going to cook your roux, and adding flour to sizzling bacon grease will burn your roux.
If you’re concerned about burning your roux, my suggestion is to pick a fat with a higher smoke point, this will allow for a higher cooking heat and less room for error.
Once your fat is at the ideal temperature, add your flour. Just dump it all in. Now whisk!
It’s entirely possible to use a wooden spoon instead of a whisk. I’ve tried it both ways, and depending on which pan I use, I have my preferences. I usually begin with a whisk to make sure all the flour and fat are smoothly combined, then switch to a wooden spoon if I’m going past the blonde stage, to make sure I don’t leave any corners untouched where my roux can stick and burn.
Step Two: Pay Attention & Stir
Constant whisking is not necessary, I promise. BUT, you will have to whisk frequently enough that wandering away is not a good idea. Once you’ve whisked the flour into a paste allow it a few seconds between whisks now and again to let the paste simmer. As it cooks, it will thin out and appear like it is releasing water.
If you’re stopping at the white roux stage, your cook time is less than five minutes. From the time you add the flour, I usually cook the roux for 2 to 3 minutes, ensuring the raw flour flavor has cooked out, but stopping it before the mixture begins to darken. When the faintest of aromas, like buttered popcorn, begins to release from the white roux you can add your liquid.
If your moving on to the blonde stage, brown roux, or the chocolate roux, continue to stir and cook the roux over medium low heat until the desired color is achieved.
Step Three: Adding your Liquid & Thickening
When you’ve reached your color, you can add your liquid. It’s important to note that the temperature of your liquid and roux matter. If you have a freshly made, hot roux, the liquid can be anywhere between cold and slightly warmed, but never hot. Adding hot liquid to hot roux will lead to lumps. If however, you’ve stored roux for later use (more on that later), then the rule is flipped. Cold or room temperature roux must be added to a hot liquid.
Add the liquid slowly, pausing between additions to whisk it together until you’ve whisked all the liquid in. I typically add it in thirds, like I would add flour to a cookie batter.
Once your roux is smoothly combined with your liquid, increase the heat to medium. Bring the mixture to a boil then simmer and season according to your recipe.
While making roux is simple, there are a few guidelines to remember, to help the process be successful every time. If you remember these few simple notes, you’ll have success more often than not.
- Under-cooking the Flour : This is one of the easiest things to do, especially if you’re making a white roux. Cook for at least 2-3 minutes to cook out the raw flour taste, and to prevent the graininess that under-cooked roux will add to your sauce.
- Using too high of heat : I’ve found other resources that recommend using high heat to make roux, but in my own experience that is not successful. Too hot and the roux will quickly darken and burn. A tell tale sign of burnt roux, aside from the smell, are little black flecks in the paste. As granules of flour burn, they will spot your mixture. Bear in mind that if you’re using animal fat, such as bacon grease, some residual pieces of meat will likely color your roux. Don’t mistake that for burnt, but you’ll have to use your nose for that. When using a rendered animal fat, be sure to let the fat return to a medium low heat before adding the flour to prevent burning. Whether fat, butter, or oil, be sure to heat and whisk the roux over medium low heat, increasing the heat to medium only after your liquid has been fully whisked in. This may take longer than using a high heat, but it allows less room for error.
- Infrequent stirring : This is a must, without a frequent stir, the flour will burn on the bottom quickly. This is another reason I use lower heat to make roux. I find that I can stir a little less often with a lower heat. My advice is to make sure you’ve done your mis en place before you get started. That will ensure that your next steps are ready to go and allow you to focus more on the roux.
Alternative Thickeners & Storing Roux
Despite my own personal love for the many applications of roux, not everyone shares that love. Thankfully, there are alternatives!
There are other ways to thicken, cornstarch being one of the simplest ways. Heavy cream will also reduce to thicken if you replace milk with it, and cream cheese is also an excellent way to thicken a cream sauce. The overall flavor will be affected by the thickening method you choose.
IF, however, you don’t mind making roux…but don’t want to have to make it every time, you’re in luck! Roux can be made ahead of time in large batches and stored in the fridge or freezer. Just increase your ratio to produce a large amount of roux and cook to the color you’re looking for. This will work best for white or blonde roux, and they will still thicken when added later.
From there it can be stored together or portioned. One of the best suggestions I’ve seen for this is to use ice cube trays to portion out cooked roux. Once it has cooled and solidified in the tray, remove the molded roux and refrigerate in an airtight container. I’ve never had roux longer than 6 months in my fridge, but my research has indicated that it would be alright. If in doubt, pop it in the freezer. Remember, you’ll have to pull it out prior to cooking!
Mastering How to Make Roux
I’ve loved how much I learned by building this post. Now I approach roux with a confidence that I hope I have brought to you too. Learning how to make roux felt like an essential step on my journey to learning how to cook like a professional chef. It’s opened the door to learning other classic french technique, and I look forward to sharing my future exploration of the French mother sauces. First up, I’ll be tackling my favorite, the Bechamel, to make my Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese. You’re going to love it.
What do you use roux for? Whether old favorites or new experiments, I’d love to hear where roux takes your cooking. Let me know in the comments below!
Nutrition information and cooking times are provided as a best estimate. Values may vary based upon ingredients and equipment.