11 Gumbo Cooking Mistakes You May Be Making
Learn from professional chefs the dos and don'ts of gumbo making.
Gumbo is the ultimate thick and hearty dish to warm up with. It's a melting pot recipe of sorts too, drawing influence from multiple cultures. The name "gumbo" is similar to a West African word for "okra," which suggests that the original dish used okra as a natural thickener. The spice choices are Cajun inspired, and the dish's base is a roux, the French technique of frying flour and fat as a thickener.
What is gumbo exactly? "Cajun gumbo is generally based on a dark roux and is made with shellfish or chicken," says Chef Cedric Harden of River Roast in Chicago. "Sausage or ham is often added to gumbos of either variety." A third, lesser-known variety, the gumbo z'herbes, is essentially a gumbo of slow-cooked greens, he says.
Tomatoes don't appear in every gumbo recipe, but are traditionally found in Creole versions of the dish.
After the base is prepared, vegetables are cooked down, and then meat is added. "The dish simmers for a minimum of three hours, with shellfish and some spices added near the end. If desired, filé powder is added after the pot is removed from heat," says Harden. Once finished, the gumbo is served with a big scoop of rice.
While it may sound simple, there are a few mistakes you could be making when cooking gumbo, which might impact the consistency and flavors of the dish. Here's what to watch out for:
1. Undercooking the Roux
In order to develop a deep roasted flavor in your gumbo, you should cook your roux — being careful not to burn — until it is a deep dark brown color.
"Roux needs to be cooked low and slow to bring out the nutty flavor and rich dark color without burning it," says Chef Dickensauge of Houndstooth Saloon in Chicago.
Constantly stir the roux until it develops a light brown, peanut butter color. Continue cooking, while stirring continuously, until it develops the color of dark coffee. This can take up to 45 minutes to an hour, but it will be worth the wait.
Not getting it dark enough is a huge problem, agrees Executive Chef Joseph Rizza from Prime & Provisions in Chicago. "Make sure to toast the flour; if you don't, don't even bother to continue with your gumbo," he says.
2. Not Adding Enough Flour
If you don't use enough flour, the roux will be watery. "Often times people do not make the roux thick enough and it will result in a gumbo that is more like a soup than a stew," says Dickensauge. You want to add enough flour to your fat until the roux is like a paste.
3. Using the Wrong Vegetables
Another mistake made when cooking gumbo, says Rizza, is forgetting to add in the "holy trinity" at the start of the process, or even using the wrong veggies. People will often use a classic mirepoix consisting of onions, celery, and carrots, but instead your vegetables should consist of onions, celery, and green bell peppers.
"The trinity is based on celery, onions, and peppers, you can find this as the base of most Creole cuisine because of the savory characteristics that come along with it," says Dickensauge.
4. Adding the Proteins in the Incorrect Order
Rizza says the main proteins are regularly added in the wrong order. "Ideally, add the chicken first, then the andouille, and shellfish last because it cooks the fastest," he says. Mess it up and you may not get the texture you wanted from the meats, which could negatively impact the dish overall. "Make sure to add shellfish at the end of the cooking process, otherwise it will become rubbery if added too early," says Ken Biffar, Corporate Chef of Siena Brands.
5. Using Water and Not Stock
Some people begin cooking gumbo with water rather than a stock, resulting in a less flavorful finished product. "Stocks to use vary based on the type of gumbo you would like to make. For instance, a chicken gumbo should use a chicken stock, a pork gumbo should use a stock made from ham hocks or other hog bones, a seafood gumbo should be made from a stock made from shellfish," says Dickensauge.
6. Adding Okra Too Early
Okra acts as a thickening agent. Sautéing or adding the okra too early will break down the structure of the vegetable and it will lose its ability to thicken the gumbo to its final consistency. "You should add your okra towards the end of cooking, allowing it to steep and the okra slime to develop in the finished product," says Dickensauge. Mix in your okra about 30 minutes before the gumbo is finished.
7. Rushing the Timing
Cooking the gumbo for a good three to four hours on simmer is imperative. "The long cooking time adds time for flavors to develop and ensures a burst of flavor," says Biffar. Make sure to give it time to let everything mesh together, this is not a dish to be rushed!
8. Chopping All Veggies to Different Sizes
Make sure all veggies are chopped in the same fashion for similar size. This will help create even cooking. "Chopping all vegetables to a dice ensures that everything will cook at the same rate, instead of getting some vegetables overcooked. This will also provide you with an evenly flavored bite," says Biffar.
9. Using Butter
When making the dark roux, if there is butter in the recipe substitute it with oil instead. "The reason is, once butter gets to a certain temp the fat and solids separate, this will occur before you get the roux to the color you want it, then the solids will begin to burn," says Harden. This will leave your gumbo with a burnt bitter flavor, so instead opt for vegetable oil or even lard as the roux's fat.
10. Walking Away From Your Gumbo
Don't walk away and let it cook without you there. "Within seconds your gumbo can be ruined, even if you are using oil. You have to continuously stir the flour mixture to get that even beautiful bark brown roux," says Harden. This is a dish of patience, with the reward of tasty gumbo at the end.
11. Not Using Fresh Ingredients
Make sure all of your ingredients are fresh. "To get an authentic flavor, try to source as many ingredients from Louisiana. There is a great andouille sausage made in New Orleans named Crescent City. It made a huge difference in the flavor of the gumbo, compared to using any smoked sausage on the shelf," says Harden. A pot of gumbo's quality relies on the quality of the ingredients used.