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What Do You Mean, the Roux Broke?

A broken roux can leave any home cook in panic. But don’t toss it just yet—it’s easier than you think to turn it around.

Chicken gumbo sounds like a perfect dinner. You’ve prepared everything. You’ve followed the recipe to the letter yet, something isn’t right. The roux, rich chocolate brown, has butter on top. The flour is in the bottom of the pan with butter sitting on top. What happened?

The roux broke. The best solution to this problem is to scrape the excess butter off the top, heat the roux slowly, and you’re good to go. We’ll get to the why that happened part, but let’s start from the beginning.

What’s a Roux?

Roux (pronounced “roo”) is a mixture of flour and fat used to thicken soups and sauces.

Auguste Escoffier, the famed classic French chef and author of Le Guide Culinaire, the book that first codified French cuisine, recommends clarified butter as the fat of choice for a roux. Escoffier identifies three stages of roux by color: white, blonde, and brown. The stages happen in order the longer the roux is cooked.

Gumbo, the famed New Orleans dish, used a roux so dark it is almost burnt. Gumbo’s flavor depends on the dark roux for flavor. Creole/Cajun cooking turns roux into an artform, something Escoffier never considered. In the dishes Escoffier created, the roux function was not to add flavor but only be a thickener.

What Is Clarified Butter? 

Clarified butter is made by slowly melting whole butter until the various components are separated. The whey protein rises to the top. They form a thin foam and should be removed by lifting them off with a spoon. We don’t want them in our butter, but they are not to be wasted; add them to Fido’s kibble.

Butterfat, that yellow good stuff, is what we want. Below that is the milk solids. They are not used in clarified butter. They can be used in cream soups and offer excellent flavor.

Carefully ladle off the butterfat into a clean container—and that’s clarified butter.

Making the Roux

Most recipes read to use equal parts of clarified butter and flour. For us at home, that will be teaspoons or tablespoons.

Unless specified, flour always means all-purpose wheat flour.

The amount of roux we need for home use is pretty small compared to the amount restaurants use. We can use a small saucepan. Heat the clarified butter on medium heat and add the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon. At that moment, the roux isn’t even what Escoffier would classify as a white roux.

Raw flour and butter will look like roux. For Escoffier cooking the roux even a little eliminated the raw flour taste which would take away from the final dish.

How to Know When the Roux Is Done

According to Escoffier, all roux should be cooked to eliminate the raw flour taste.

White roux takes a minute or two, depending on the amount and heat, to turn from a yellowish-hued mass to slightly white. You’ll see the flour start to turn white on the bottom of the roux. Near-constant stirring is necessary to ensure as much of the roux encounters the bottom of the pan to turn white.

The longer the roux is cooked, the darker it becomes. Watch the color closely; there is no way to undo the coloring of a roux. Blonde roux starts to look yellow-brown after about 4-5 minutes. Brown roux, darkest of all, may take up to 10 minutes.

Think of a toasted cheese sandwich: Plain bread is like plain flour. Even lightly toasted, the bread develops a bit more flavor. The nicely golden brown sandwich is a bit like the brown roux: good color and a mild flavor.

In all roux cases, take care to avoid flicking some roux on your skin. Despite the low stove temperature, the roux will be hot and it sticks. It will burn your skin. We used to comment that it was like melted plastic.

How to Add the Roux to the Stock

When I was in culinary school, the chef/instructors taught us students to keep one element hot and one cool, relatively speaking. If the stock to be thickened is boiling, then room temperature roux was okay.

The thinking was that the difference in temperatures would ensure the roux would not end up with a mass of lumps. That’s what I learned and that’s what I taught when I was a chef/instructor and also when I was a head chef.

Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking, The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, shares “[w]ith both the roux and the liquid hot, the thickening takes place right away. The trick is to pour in the hot liquid and whisk like crazy for a few seconds.” I’ve had line cooks succeed with the same technique when success was mandatory.

Thickening does happen almost immediately. Full thickening can take 20 minutes or more depending on the amount of finished product. As the roux is cooking, protein from the flour will rise to the surface. That should be skimmed with a large spoon and discarded.

All these successes were with a roux that wasn’t broken. So, how do you prevent a broken roux?

How to Prevent a Broken Roux

Roux made with a 1:1 ratio is the standard. But the more you cook it, the more buttery it will become. A white roux will hold the butter. A brown roux will not. What’s going on?

The more you cook the roux, the more buttery it will become.

As flour browns, a complex chemical reaction happens between the protein and the sugar in that flour grain. That process is called the Maillard Reaction.

It seems that the flour grain, when browning, is also getting smaller. It shrinks.

Let’s say a flour grain, which isn’t round, resembles a teeny-tiny softball. When it’s starting to get some color, it shrinks. By the time it is a brown roux, the flour grain is smaller, say ping-pong ball-sized.

When we first made our roux the butter coated every flour grain evenly with no extra butter. As the flour grain shrinks, there is extra butter. Less butter is needed to coat a smaller flour grain.

That’s what makes our roux look like it split, or is broken.

Why Not Use Less Butter?

Using less butter to avoid excess butter on a brown roux seems a savvy enough approach. The biggest challenge is we need that amount of butter to coat each flour granule.

Too little butter coating too few flour granules might risk small lumps in the finished soup or sauce. It’s probably a low risk, but not zero.

It Looks Wrong… So It Must Be Right?

Here’s a roux-making secret you won’t find in any cookbook: Extra butter on a brown roux is going to happen. It’s just a fact of life.

That extra butter doesn’t have to go into the finished product. Homemade croutons are best with butter. The extra butter from a brown roux already has a lot of flavor—so croutons might be a good use for that butter.

During the cooking process, some butter, along with the protein, will rise to the surface. That can be carefully skimmed off.

Do I Have to Use Butter?

Escoffier recommends butter. Butter is a neutral flavored fat and also the most complimentary. Most of the butter flavor dissipates or is skimmed off, but a small portion remains.

I have used bacon fat for a chowder and beef fat for a beef stew. Chicken fat, shmaltz, would be a great fat for a thickened chicken soup. Sausage grease from browning sausage is the way granny used to make sausage gravy. And that’s the way I make it.

Fats to avoid (always) are seed-based oils that are liquid at room temperature. They’ll function as fats should, by keeping the flour granules separated, but the issues with seed oils make them worth avoiding entirely.

What About Gluten-Free Roux?

For gluten-free people, I can tell you that sorghum flour is my go-to flour for homemade macaroni and cheese (with gluten-free noodles).

Of the various gluten-free flours I’ve tried, sorghum is the closest to wheat flour and works well as a roux. Not all gluten-free flours do that. I have not tried making a brown roux with sorghum, however.

Bringing It All Together

We started with a broken roux. What to do and how to fix it?

Our broken roux is really a sign of doing the thing the right way! We know we’ll have butter on top of the brown roux. Trying to prevent what is expected to happen seems nearly impossible. Accepting the outcome and knowing how to respond seems our best choice.

Know your author

Written by

Dann Reid is the author of Cooking For Comfort. He started in commercial kitchens at 13, washing dishes. Dann worked his way up to head chef, then head baker and pastry chef. Dann also worked as an assistant bakery manager for a major grocery store chain. Now, he develops recipes at home and challenges himself with gluten-free baking for a family need. Follow Dann at Culinary Libertarian.