Friday, December 14, 2007

The Dangers and Joys of Roux

By The Foodist

Bob's last post and Jennie/Tikka's comment about using roux in Alfredo sauce got me thinking.

Most of us rarely, if ever, use roux these days. There are a few reasons why:

A) It's time consuming

B) It's fatty/Considered not-healthy

C) It can sometimes be hard to work with

But there are a few cases where nothing else but Roux will do. So what do you do? How do you ensure it works out well for you? Well here are a few steps and hints to ensure that your product comes out tasting good and looking swell.

First, we need to understand what Roux is. Anyone who has taken the basics of a culinary course could tell you that its the combination of a flour and fat. But to really understand how it works we should take a page from that foodie-chemist Harold McGee:

"Flour is about 10% protein by weight, and much of this fraction is insoluble gluten. Gluten aggregations probably get caught in the starch network and so slightly increase the viscosity of the solution, through the pure starches are generally more powerful thickeners overall...

Finally, Fats are usually present in the form of butter, oil, or the drippings from a roast. They do not mix with water or water-soluble compounds, but they do slow the penetration of water into starch granules. Fat does contribute the sensation of the smoothness and moistness to a sauce, and when used to precook the flour in a roux, it coats the flour particles, prevents them from clumping together in the water, and so safeguards against lumps."

Ok so ... in English please?

Here's how I think it works. The gluten in the starch of flour is combined with the fats in the butter, oil, or fats from drippings and bond creating a mushy mess we call "roux." Think of making a basic vinaigrette, you combine oil and acid with a binder to hold the emulsion, same basic principle applies. Cooking the roux allows moisture to evaporate leaving a stronger bind between flour and fat.

So now that we have an understanding of what it is, what's the problem?

There are a few things you need to know when using roux. First off, starch takes awhile to cook away. That floury/starch flavor you get from roux means that it needs to cook longer. Starch needs time to break down leaving only the gluten and fat bond to add viscosity and texture to the product.

Secondly, Roux is very very finicky. It takes a trained eye to judge the correct amount of roux to use. There is no set rule on XX Amount of Product requires XX Amount of Roux mainly because different products are different viscosity to begin with and chemical composition is different between products. For example, chicken stock will generally have less natural thickeners than veal stock made with joints and connective tissue.

The worst part of this is that the only thing you can count on with a roux is time. Allowing a product to cook out the starches and hence thicken the product correctly is the only way to judge if you need more or, worst case, less.

So you're probably asking yourself, Why on earth would I choose to use roux ?

Well, roux imparts a very unique flavor and texture that modern food science has come close to copying but hasn't quite gotten right. It is also safer to use roux to thicken dairy based sauces because of the impartial flavor of roux, cornstarch tends to create an unappetizing look and mouth feel, as does potato starches.

So when do you use roux?

I haven't thickened a sauce with a roux in a long time. Mostly because I don't mess with a lot of dairy based sauces . But if you're making a homemade Bechamel, need to thicken an Alfredo sauce, or want to make a classic veloute (Chicken stock thickened with roux) then there's your chance. But a word of warning, it is almost always best to season a sauce made with roux after you are sure the starches have cooked out and you have your desired thickness, even then its always a good idea to strain the sauce as well in case any wayward flour lumps survived your whisk.

In cases like Jennie/Tikka's Alfredo sauce, it's also best to add the roux to thicken the cream, then add the cheese. This way you prevent the cheese from burning and becoming bitter, just remember to under thicken slightly, the cheese will also act as a thickener.

Hope this helps with any roux related questions and concerns, and remember sometimes the classics are the best!


IdahoRocks said...

Hi Bob,

Your comment on using the roux mostly with dairy was interesting. What about stews? Or even soups? I often make a pseudo roux by first browning the meat, removing it from the pan, adding a bit more oil/fat, cooking my mirepoix, then adding flour. After that has begun to brown, I add my liquied of choice and the meat.

For soups, vegetable or otherwise, I also add the flour to the veggies, cook, then add liquid. Not all soups, obviously. I also love having an immersion blender for blending, which in turn thickens....

So, aren't those a type of roux? What do you use for thickening stews, civets, daubes, etc?

IdahoRocks said...

Make that, Hi Foodist!

The Foodist said...


Thanks for pointing out the flaw in my otherwise genuis plan...jerk.

Just kidding. Your absolutly right, I was on a roll saying sauce and it didnt dawn on me till after I had made the post about soups.

The method you describe (Which you might already know) is called Sange(spelling is probably off). it works on the same principle as a roux, is actually a roux in a the sense, by adding flour to the fat your cooking with at that moment.

Its a great way to start the thickening process early and get the most time to cook out the starch. The down side is its easy to overcook and you may over/under thicken.

to answer your question I use the sange method most often when making cream soups, like cream of broccoli etc etc. The best, and traditionaly sound, method for it is in Gumbo. Its a (or should be) a sin not to use a roux in a gumbo.

I usually dont try to use any thickeners in a stew though, to me a great stew is one thats thickened with the gelatin of the item your stewing, by reduction and slow cooking. But to each their own :-)

Thanks for bringing this up, I almost forgot about it!

Egaeus said...

Aha! Now I know where the ever-helpful Bob delGrosso hangs out (bookmarked!) when he's not over at Ruhlman's blog.

But back to roux. Would you guys have any pointers for making a gluten-free roux...substitute. This one has me a bit stumped so far (though I've far from exhausted my options). My first experiment was with corn flour which does okay, but the flavor isn't neutral enough.

I've tried superfine rice flour, and it turns into a lumpy mess. It acts like flour until I add the liquid (typically milk) so I don't know if it's poor technique (very possible) or poor choice of ingredients.

For example: I made a quick and dirty pan sauce tonight from he cooking oil, rendered fat, fond, rice flour, and milk that was reasonable with the pork chops I cooked just for the experience. Again, it lumped after the milk is added. I strained it and got about 1/2 nice sauce, and 1/2 lumpy goo.

Could it be the low protein content of the rice flour? Should I perhaps mix in a high-protein flour like soy? Or maybe just quit my job and go to culinary school? :)

The Foodist said...


First, welcome to the party.

Secondly your search for a gluten free roux is going to be tough, as the major thicker in Roux itself IS gluten.

in place of a roux try a slurry. Cornstarch and warm water. Cornstarch is a pure starch so you wont need to heat it before applying to the product. Mix about 2 Tb of cornstarch in about 1 cp of warm water. When your ready to thicken your soup/sauce add the starch when it (the product your thickening) is at a steady simmer. Like the roux give it time to cook out a little.

Its not as pleasant of an appearence sometimes as roux would give, but its a very good thickener and can add a nice sheen to soups and some sauces.

Also Arrowroot powder works in the same fashion. In the meantime Im going to look into IF a gluten-free roux is even possible (though I stand by my oringal thought of no)

The Foodist said...


I did a little reading up on our friends Rice Flour and your milk.

The reason adding milk to your roux wouldnt help it is because the whey protiens in the milk weaken any gluten strength. You can inactive the protien by scalding your milk first. Though this is in association with using flour that is not gluten free.

Rice flour it seems does make an excellent thickener for batters like Tempura, and can be used as a roux substitute for thickening sauces and soups. The thing with rice flour is its 90% starch. Be aware then that it might take less rice flour then regular AP flour to thicken something.

From what youve told me I would say either try scalding the milk first, giving the sauce more time to cook out any starches, or create the roux on the side and add it slowly to the sauce.

By the sound of it you were trying for a southern gravy style I take it?

Pan gravys, even more so ones with dairy added, are tough to do very well. Try, like suggested, doing your roux on the side and adding it in slowly. Also try adding another liquid to the gravy as well as the dairy. My suggestion would be a little chicken stock to help deglaze, thicken with roux till a little thicker then you want to serve, then add in your scalded milk slowly and in parts till you get your consistency.

Hopefully that helps with the gluten free issue!

Bob del Grosso said...


Rice, corn, wheat, potato, tapioca, arrowroot starch are all different and do not behave the same way (no room for the science of this here).

Therefor, if you want to make something that is close to roux made with flour, you're best be is to use wheat starch -I have been able to find this in Asian markets.

Another option is to try Spelt flour. Spelt wheat is very closely related to ordinary wheat (same genus-Triticum- different species). They have very similar flavor and physical profiles but contain different types of gluten forming proteins. Some people who are allergic to the proteins in regular wheat flour can eat spelt with no problem. (My son is one of these).

So you might try spelt.

The Foodist said...

There you have it..Bob to the rescue.

You managed to get me extremely curious about gluten free rouxs, Im going to have to make a visit to a certain chef I know for more details!

Egaeus said...

Wow, what a response! Thanks guys. The gluten-free thing has been a real pain (though not as painful as eating gluten), and this one has me stumped. Xanthan gum works well for making bubbles in bread, but there's nothing that I've found that's a true replacement for gluten as far as thickening and the stretch factor.

I haven't recently experimented with eating spelt or kamut to see if I react. I haven't reacted to it previously, but I seem to be more sensitive as time goes on though. I had to quit drinking beer because of it. I do react to oats, though they're often contaminated with wheat, so who knows?

I guess I'm going to have to break down and get myself a copy of McGee. With a better understanding of the mechanisms at work, I'd have a better chance of creating a suitable substitute. I mean, besides the lumps, the rice flour made a decent sawmill gravy-type pan sauce. I just don't understand why it lumps worse than flour. I'm sure McGee will tell me.

(rant) So far I've found that gluten-free recipe books are just that. I notice very little understanding of cooking in the instructions, like the admonition to stir muffin batter until just mixed, which makes no sense when you don't have gluten formation to worry about. They're a good starting point for those who have no idea where to begin (me, about a year and a half ago), but they start to annoy me after a while. Of course, a cookbook that calls for 3 teaspoons of an ingredient that's added at the same time annoys me, so I guess I'm easily annoyed.(end rant)

Bob del Grosso said...

Rice flour lumps worse than whaet flour up bec

A) it contains much more starch
B) the type of starch it contains absorbs water much faster and a lower temp than wheat starch

Bottom line is that you typically have to disperse the rice flour in cold water or stock before you add it, then beat the carp out of it with a whisk to make sure it does not lump.

Do buy McGee's book though, it'll get deeper into this than I am able to do here.

As for your allergy, it will get worse with repeated exposure to the allergen. So if you have any reason to believe that you will react to spelt protein, you may want to avoid it.

The Foodist said...


I may have a solution for you in regards to bad Gluten Free cookbooks.

Chef Richard Coppedge will be releasing a gluten free cookbook in just a few months. The man is highly respected so I am sure the recipes will be outstanding.

Good luck!

IdahoRocks said...

Thank you, foodist, for the long explanation. I've been looking in my Larousse Gastronomique for the term you used - songe - but can't find it anywhere. Is it even French? If you (or anyone else) can give me the correct spelling, I'd really appreciate it. Thank you!

Bob del Grosso said...

I just now revisited your earliest comment here and found myself thinking 'Sh-t, if half of what she has written is true, the girl can cook.'

I'm not sure what you call flour that you roll meat in before browning and that lends suppleness to the final gravy or whatever. But I'd like to respond to your comment about the effect of the immersion blender.

When you stick an immersion blender into a mixture of water and fat and turn it on. You are creating an emulsion. Really, it's not different than putting the mixture into a conventional blender of beating the crap out of it with a whisk, but it is easier.

I cannot get into the physics that explain why emulsion get "thicker" (really more viscous) with more agitation here. But think mayonnaise. They more vigorously you beat it, the thicker it gets no?

Same thing. The only difference is that the stew you blend has a finite amount of fat and water so it's only going to get "so thick." If you kept adding more fat the gravy would eventually become as thick as mayo.

Temp. plays a role too, but my fingers are hurting. Sorry.

The Foodist said...


its pronounced "San-g-a". Ive been trying to find the actual definition.
Its a term thats used around school to describe dusting flour into a pot/pan with product your sweating. The fat in the pot works with the dusting flour to create a roux.

If I can find a book or location that has the correct spelling and definition Ill let you know.

Egaeus said...


Now that's a gluten-free cookbook I'll spend some money on. I'm willing to bet than anyone teaching at the CIA is not going to make those types of mistakes. I remember reading about him in The Making of a Chef.

For the time being, I stopped by Borders last night and grabbed my very own copy of McGee. Now hopefully I can answer my own stupid questions. :)

Thanks again!

IdahoRocks said...

Hi Bob and Foodist,
Thanks for the compliment, Bob. I cook because I love food. I'm not professionally trained; actually I'm an anthropologist living in the far, far north of Idaho where, if one really wants good food (like you'd make) then necessity becomes the mother of invention and one learns to make it oneself. And I read a lot about food. We have so much "plenty" here in north Idaho that I'm always inspired, from rose petal jelly to a civet of venison to making Batali's Babbo Maple and Mascarpone cheesecake for a friend's birthday. Also, in another lifetime, I did put myself through university as a waitress in southern California so I have had some good restaurant experience and I do enjoy the adrenaline rush of working in that environment.

Anyway, thanks guys for all the roux information. I guess one of these days I'll have to read McGee's book "On Food and Cooking," from cover to cover. But that science stuff doesn't always appeal to the emotional attachment I have to food; I always think that if my little, old Italian grandmother could do this by hand and by memory, then why can't I. Of course, it's a different matter when it comes to pastry....but I'm learning. And this and several other food blogs both teach and inspire me. Thanks.

The Foodist said...

Idaho and Egaeus;

Enjoy McGee, but be forewarned.. its about as close to a science textbook as a food related book can get lol.

I use it a lot as a reference tool.

Egaeus: read pages 546 (See Milk In Bread at bottom*), 475-76.


Egaeus said...

Thanks, foodist. I started at the beginning last night (milk), but it's nice to know where to look for my particular problem. And don't worry, I'm not afraid of the science. I may not be able to make a decent roux, but I can do long as it has nothing to do with my Master's thesis. :)

Johane Levesque said...


I was looking for a gluten-free roux and came across your site. I read everything here and I learned a few things, but I also noted a few issues.

First: the cooking term everybody has been looking for is "Singer" (pronounced "se3eI" in phonetic spelling = S+the e sound in ten+the s sound in vision+ay") It's a French word, and as a francophone I can say that this is the closest correct pronunciation of the word. The idea is to singe the flour.

The Larousse Gastronomique defines the word as "Poudrer de farine des éléments revenus dans un corps gras avant de leur ajouter un liquide de mouillement clair (vin, bouillon, eau) pour lier la sauce. Autrefois, "singer une sauce" c'était la colorer avec du "jus de singe", appelation familière du caramel à sauce." Translated this means "To dust with flour items that have been sweated down in some type of fat before adding a clear liquid to moisten (wine, broth, water) to bind the sauce. In the past to "singer a sauce" meant to colour it with "monkey juice" which was a common name for sauce caramel." (and a French pun...)

One thing that was not necessarily addressed with Egaeus' problem was if he used the "hot/cold" method - adding cold liquid to hot roux (or vice-versa).

The other problem is that Egaeus doesn't identify if he has Celiac Disease - if so there really is no "Wheat option" available to him. Spelt, Kamut, are ancient forms of wheat and are no-nos too. Even wheat starch is off limits because it still contains trace amounts of gluten, and to use it in the amounts required to make a roux would add more than the maximum amount of gluten that is allowable in a product which declares itself Gluten-Free (in the US that's 20ppm, in Canada it's 10ppm...)

I realize this blog post is a few years out of date, and I'm sure the original (and following) questions where answered long ago. I just thought I would answer the "I know the word but don't know how it's spelled and what it means precisely, but this is kind of how you say it and this is about what it it means." that was never really answered by the end of the conversation. ;)