It’s hard to find a dish in the South that is more celebrated—or debated than gumbo. Well, there’s also cornbread (sugar or not), chili (beans or not), and the old East versus West barbecue debate. Southerners like to argue about food. But gumbo is a particularly controversial subject, especially among Louisianans. What goes into a gumbo varies as much as the cook making it, but there are a few rules to keep in mind. Read on for six guidelines for making a good pot of gumbo, whether you’re a seasoned pro or a first-timer.
1. Watch your roux
Most gumbo recipes begin with roux, and for good reason: it's the foundation for the entire dish. Roux is flour that's browned in fat (like oil or butter) to thicken and flavor gumbo and other Cajun dishes. Although it’s just two ingredients, the color of a roux is fiercely debated among gumbo aficionados. Many say a proper gumbo roux should be chocolate brown, for the richest flavor. Our Test Kitchen prefers butter over oil for the rich, nutty flavor. But butter burns easily, making a lighter golden brown roux. But Leah Chase, the chef behind New Orleans’ legendary restaurant Dooky Chase, is not a fan of butter in gumbo. She uses neutral oil in her gumbo roux because it has a higher smoke point, which means you can cook it darker. Whatever color you prefer, you’ll need a heavy-bottomed pan (cast iron is best) and a whisk for constant stirring. Keep a close eye on it—once you see black specks, it's burned and you will need to start over.
Related: Classic New Orleans Gumbo
2. Don’t forget the trinity
Sauteed chopped celery, onions, and bell pepper form the “holy trinity” in Cajun and Creole dishes. This aromatic trio is also a source of debate—some use green bell peppers, others favor red. And some cooks add garlic to the mix, which we entirely approve of.
Related: New Orleans Recipes for Mardi Gras
3. Use water instead of stock
For the most flavor, use stock or broth in your gumbo instead of water. Whether you use chicken or vegetable stock, homemade or boxed, stock will give your gumbo more depth and complexity.
4. Go low and slow
Gumbo is a project. And you can’t rush it. A really great gumbo takes the better part of a day to make, from prepping the ingredients, to making a roux, to simmering everything low and slow. Slow cooking allows all of the flavors to marry together and keeps the gumbo from burning or over-reducing. Some people say that gumbo tastes better the longer it sits, and even recommend making it a day in advance.
Related: New Orleans Red Beans and Rice
5. Finish with filé
Gumbo is traditionally served over steamed white rice (and sometimes potato salad!), with sliced scallions and hot sauce on the side. But there’s another important finishing touch: Filé (“FEE-lay”) powder, which is made from sassafras leaves. It is typically sprinkled on individual servings to thicken and season gumbo. While you can certainly make gumbo without it, we like the spice’s earthy, slightly floral flavor. If you can’t find filé powder at a supermarket or gourmet store, order it from penzeys.com.
6. Don’t worry about what others think
There are so many rules to making gumbo that it can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never made it before. But don’t get too hung up in what’s “right” and “wrong.” No two gumbo recipes are alike, and chances are, there is something to debate in all of them. We’re not saying that you should go wild and add kale and quinoa to gumbo. Start with a fairly classic recipe, learn the fundamentals, then tinker with it to make it your own.