Kitchen Mishaps: Making a Roux

There are a lot of cooking processes that acquire a reputation as difficult--I am a member of the tribe that thinks of baking as black magic, mysterious and incomprehensible--and making a roux is one of them. While Top Chef is not the end-all of American culinary experience, the way in which its chefs will often go out of their way to avoid doing anything that requires making a roux lends credence to this belief. It is not, however, very complicated: melt butter over heat, incorporate flour into the butter until it forms a paste or dough, warm without burning, then slowly add milk (slowly, to maintain the temperature of the pan) while using a whisk to incorporate the flour-butter combination. The heat from the pan reduces the volume of liquid, the mixture thickens, and you're done. You will know the mixture has thickened because your thoughts will shift from "why am I constantly whisking milk for no conceivable reason?" to "huh, that definitely seems to be thickened."

Here is the way Cook's Illustrated describes the adding-milk-to-dough stage making a roux as an intermediate element in its Classic Mac and Cheese recipe:

"Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes."

As it happened on this occasion, the roux thickened while I was still waiting for the mixture to boil. I was done, but according to the objective-ish side of the recipe, still had the time to bring to a boil + 'about' 5 minutes to wait. The result was a perfectly fine roux-turned-cheese sauce, and a layer of burnt flour and milk on the bottom of the pan that took two days of soaking and scrubbing to definitively remove.

I think I've written elsewhere about my belief that A Recipe Is Not a Suicide Pact, and you should be willing to discard any suggestion in a recipe that seems likely to lead you into doom. The very best cookbooks, or perhaps those pitched to a slightly higher level of skill, will make clear when the chef is simply giving his opinion about best practices--there is no one who manages this better than Jacques Pepin. The Cook's recipe does none of this: it gives the impression of precision by listing times for each step, and hedges by qualifying all times with "about." The actual things to be doing are hidden in the text, and so it behooves the home cook to read against the text and determine what it is actually asking of them.

(Analogously: this Garden and Gun recipe (quite good) that speculates the old prevalence of Cream of Mushroom soup in older recipes as a sort of instant, no-fuss béchamel. That makes a lot of sense: fat and thickening agent and just enough liquid to not burn when put into a hot pan, to which more liquid must then be added. The thing about southern cooking, or midcentury American homestyle cooking, is that it all is quite logical, if you happen to have the right premises.)

1 comment:

Katherine said...

"... if you happen to have the right premises."

I think you hit the nail on the head, but I would amend it by adding "especially the right cooktop."
At times I cannot get the heat on our gas burners low enough; luckily, there's a gadget for that.

I'd be happy to send you one.