Before I launch into a thousand words about this subject, spoiler alert: The sausage you put into your gumbo is more important than whether you use store-bought or home-made roux.
The good folks over at 93.7 The Dawg posted The Ten Commandments of Gumbo. They had me at hello — or at least at Commandment One: Thou Shalt Never Use Tomatoes. I’m in complete agreement and have very strong feelings about this.
But it went off the rails with Commandments Two and Three. I was on board with the spirit of Commandment Two — Thou Shalt Not Use Un-Cajun Sausage — if not the letter of their law (more on that in a bit), but Commandment Three brought me up short: Thou Shalt Not Use Store-Bought Roux.
Call me a heretic and a heathen, but I strongly disagree with this one. (And, yes, I realize The Dawg was just having fun. So am I. I’d much rather have debates about this than about politics. In fact, arguing about gumbo is one of the things that made me a writer.)
In fact, the first tip I give non-Cajuns about making gumbo is to quit freaking out over roux and get some store-bought shipped to you. I know we’re all supposed to fall down on the sword of slow-food, home-made, artisanal this or that, but there are a few things about roux that out-of-staters should know and that certain snobby Cajuns might as well admit.
- Store bought was good enough for Mawmaw. Don’t lie. You know she used it every once in a while.
- It’s easy to mess up. Quit stirring to answer your text or retweet the trailer to Thor: Ragnorak and you might have a burnt offering on your hands. During every other step of a gumbo, you can correct your mistakes. You mess up the roux, you have to start over (likely after using a chisel to get your mistake out of your pot).
- Gumbo roux isn’t some magical blend of secret ingredients. It’s flour and oil. End of story. Those are pretty shelf stable items with fairly predictable flavor profiles.
I know there are people who say they can taste the difference between home-made roux and store-bought. There are also people who claim they can taste the difference between a Bloody Mary made with store-brand vodka, one made with Stoli and one made with Ketel One. Science has proven these people to be — and this is a scientific term — “liars.” (Maybe you can FEEL the difference the next day, but you can’t taste it).
Home-made roux might have a slightly different mouth feel in the end — MIGHT — but unless you’re using different kinds of oil, the process doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. I know this because I’ve done home-made roux and I’ve used store-bought and … as long as the oil and flour are the same, the end result is.
That said, NEVER use olive oil to make a gumbo roux. Just like clown meat, it tastes funny. Most of the cooking oil I saw growing up was plain old vegetable oil, typically Louana. Vegetable oil isn’t strong on flavor and can mean any number of vegetables. You can get away with Canola as well. Some folks may use peanut oil, but that has a bit of a flavor to it that may rise an eyebrow or two. Kary’s Roux, one of the popular brands, uses soybean oil. Savoie’s Roux, likely the most ubiquitous brand, uses “vegetable” (which can mean in this case, cottonseed, corn or rice oil and/or hydrogenated palm oil).
You can also choose the “color” of the roux you’d like, dark, light, etc. I use Kary’s Dark, myself.
If you’ve got a thing about certain oils or preservatives, perfectly understandable. And if you LIKE the process of closely watching your pot of flour and oil, also perfectly understandable. There are other gumbo shortcuts that people take that I don’t take. To each his or her own. But considering the time and effort, I don’t find a noticeable difference in the final result.
Which cannot be said about the sausage (or other smoked meats) you might be chucking into the pot.
A quick side note for the gumbo amateurs out there: I’m talking about chicken-and-sausage gumbo here, not seafood. I agree with The Dawg’s admonition not to mix chicken-and-sausage gumbo with seafood gumbo. Sure, it can taste okay, but in my mind you ruin one with the other. And you also end up masking the flavor of some very expensive seafood with four dollars worth of sausage.
Because a good sausage should come close to dominating the gumbo. Perhaps dominate is the wrong word. If the roux is the beat, the sausage is the bass line? If the roux is the subflooring, the sausage is the flooring? I don’t know. I always hated analogies. They’re like something that somethings my something.
For the person growing up in Louisiana who doesn’t do much of the cooking, you might never realize this. But move out of state and get cut off from your sausage supply and you find out real quick how important the sausage is. Hillshire Farm? Nope. Too bland, too greasy, no smoke. Italian Sausage? HELL nope. Fennel is an overpowering flavor and it does not belong in gumbo. Kielbasa? Nope. Not quite right. Texas sausage? Close, but no cigar.
But even if you have grown up in Louisiana and are a citified Cajun, you may have noticed the difference but never put your finger on it. The Dawg suggests Savoie’s and Richard’s sausage brands. These are perhaps the two biggest players and can be found in any grocery store in South Louisiana. It’s probably what most Louisianans who don’t have a smokehouse or butcher nearby use for most dishes. It’s great on the grill. It’s fine in gumbo. In fact, you get used to it in gumbo and think, “Mais, that’s what a chicken and sausage gumbo should taste like, yeah!”
Then you go to your uncle’s house out in the country and think, “DAMN! Now THAT’S what a gumbo is supposed to taste like!”
You might figure your uncle made his own roux. But no, there’s a giant jar of store-bought on the counter. You might think it’s because he walked outside the day before and strangled a couple of six-year old roosters. But while the meat might have a little more character, it doesn’t taste that much different.
So what is it? It’s the sausage (or some other meat) that been smoked and smoked right. Savoie’s and Richard’s sausage likely has the same meat and seasonings as this particular sausage, but what they don’t have is the smoke. Even if real smoke ever touches these big brands (I’m gonna bet it’s liquid smoke flavoring), it’s not nearly the amount of smoke that gets up on home-smoked sausages or sausages made by smaller butchers.
I think I first discovered this not via sausage but via over-smoked ribs. During my early barbecuing days in Brooklyn, I way over-smoked a rack of ribs that I’d luckily only seasoned with salt and pepper. I was about to chuck them when I said, “Hmmmm. That kinda looks and tastes like tasso. Let me save that.” So I used it in my next gumbo and it was perhaps the best gumbo I ever made and the light bulb went off. “It’s the smokey flavor that I’m looking for!” (Tasso is kinda like ham. But not.)
Chances are, you don’t have a smoker in your backyard. Or, even if you do, you don’t have a meat grinder and sausage maker and boxes of sausage casing or the time to make your own. That’s fine. If you’re in Louisiana and you’ve only had Savoie’s or Richard’s, ask your cousins or a local restaurant chef where they get their sausage. Maybe it’s some place close by. I’ve been using Kelly’s Country Meat Block in Opelousas since I made the switch.
Sadly, Kelly’s doesn’t have a fancy website or online ordering for those of you out of state. If you call, they can probably ship it to you. And look, if you’re not in Louisiana, Savoie’s and Richard’s will do in a pinch and you can get both of those on CajunGrocer.com.
Or, if you want the real deal, you can try Teet’s out of Ville Platte, Louisiana. My cousins turned me on to Teet’s. And by turned me on, I mean they kept after me, “Paw. Kelly’s. Mais, I guess dat’s okay, but Teet’s is better. Get you some.” Eventually, my cousin Lori got me a box of Teet’s for Christmas, winning the 2016 “Best Cousin” title (and it was the ONE year I didn’t bring her a Junior’s Cheesecake).
Teet’s is good, yall. It’s stayed good despite gaining in popularity. And it has a slick e-commerce site. For gumbo, what you’ll want to get is either Smoked Pure Pork or Smoked Andouille or Smoked Mixed sausage.
Some people don’t like too much smoke flavor. Some can’t get enough. (I’m talking smoked-meat flavor, not charred wood flavor, just to be clear). So how do you up the smoke flavor without filling the entire pot with sausage?
The other thing that might set your country uncle’s gumbo apart from your city-fied version is he’s got other smoked things floating in the pot: smoked turkey necks, smoked pig tails or some such.
Those things don’t have a lot of meat on them, but they do hold smoke very well. And they let you use cheap cuts or throw-away things as smoke delivery vehicles. It’s also easy enough to do smoke these yourself — certainly easier than making sausage. If you’ve got a smoker or even a Weber grill and know the basic steps for indirect cooking (and smoking), you can get some of these things and just leave them on the smoke for as long as you want. Freeze them and chuck them in your next gumbo. Do it while you’re barbecuing something else. For the Super Bowl this year, I did a small brisket and some ribs. While I had the smoker going, I threw in some pork neck bones that I’ll use in the next gumbo (along with my Teet’s sausage). Hell, I even smoked some chicken, thinking I could boost the smoke profile with that AND have more chicken in the pot. But I ended up using the smoked chicken in a white bean soup I made (I’ll post that at some point).
After 1500 words, we’re back where we started. Don’t beat yourself up if you use jarred roux. Chances are, people won’t know the difference. They will know the difference if you’re using substandard sausage. Pay attention to the sausage. And if you can’t get Louisiana sausage, smoke something like turkey necks or pork necks. It’s better to have the smoke flavor than to have some weird-textured, over-fennelled blobs of pork pieces floating in your pot. (Italian sausage is a fine sausage; it just doesn’t belong in gumbo.)
THE OTHER COMMANDMENTS
Oh, what about The Dawg’s other commandments? Well, I don’t use file in my gumbo or keep it in the house. It’s not something we grew up with. I don’t use wooden spoons for gumbo (and neither do the people in The Dawg’s photographs). I’m totally onboard with the bowl and the gumbo-to-rice ratio (gumbo is a soup, not a stew). And I couldn’t tell you how I stir the pot. I think some would even argue that you don’t stir a gumbo pot.
That said, special thanks to The Dawg and Jude Walker for a fun list and apologies for writing a dissertation. And if you like classic Country, be sure to check out The Dawg on Saturday nights. You’re guaranteed to hear at least one Conway Twitty song.