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Gumbo Basics

A peek into a pot of gumbo is a glance into the rich history of Louisiana.

What Goes into Gumbo

Gumbo is one of the most famous dishes to result from Louisiana's shared Creole-Cajun heritage. As varied as the recipes can be, there are a few ingredients that give the dish its identity as gumbo. Apart from good homemade stock, the first is the "holy trinity" used extensively in both cooking traditions: celery, onions, and green peppers.

The Pot Thickens

Most gumbos use two distinctive ingredients to thicken and flavor them: roux and either okra or filé powder.

  • Roux is a cooked mixture of equal parts flour and fat. The fat in the roux can be butter, oil, bacon grease, or lard.
  • Roux can range in color from white to brown to black, depending on how long it's cooked. The darker the color of the roux, the deeper the flavor.
  • Cajun gumbos tend to use very dark roux, usually made with oil or pork fat, whereas Creole gumbos might favor the more delicate flavor of a light roux made with butter.

The second thickener in a pot of gumbo can be either okra or filé (FEE-lay) powder.

  • Okra is a green pod-like vegetable native to Africa. It was brought to Creole households by African slaves who worked on the wealthy planters' estates. In Umbundu (a language spoken in Angola, where many Southern slaves came from) the word for okra is ochingombo, which was eventually abridged to "gombo."
  • Filé powder is made of ground sassafras leaves, native to the southern U.S. Filé was introduced to Cajun settlers by the Choctaw Indians who helped the settlers survive in the wilderness. And the Choctaw word for sassafras? Kombo.

A Few Gumbo Rules

Okra and filé powder are rarely used in the same batch of gumbo; some cooks think that using both will make the gumbo too thick, while others assert that the two flavors "cancel each other out."

  • If you're using okra, it should be cooked for long enough that it loses its slimy texture, about 45 minutes.
  • Filé powder, on the other hand, should not be added until the very end of cooking; boiling filé will cause the whole pot of gumbo to become stringy and gummy.
  • You can also wait to add the filé to each individual bowl of gumbo (about ¼ teaspoon stirred into each bowl). This is a handy method to use if you plan on having leftovers to reheat later.

The Gumbo Grab-Bag

Common flavorings include cayenne pepper and black pepper, dry mustard, paprika, sage, cumin, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley. You can also find pre-mixed Cajun seasoning blends at most grocery stores.

Gumbo can be a veritable grab-bag of ingredients, including sausage--especially Andouille and chaurice, tasso (cured pork shoulder), crawfish, crab, shrimp, oysters, chicken, duck, rabbit, or other game. Mirlitons (also known as chayote squash) sometimes show up in gumbo, as do tomatoes, depending upon the cook's preference.

Gumbo: Cajun or Creole?

The ingredients and cooking techniques involved come from a remarkable array of cultures and traditions--all of which have combined over the centuries to create a uniquely American story.

Creoles descended from the wealthy French and Spanish colonists who settled in southern Louisiana.

  • "Creole" also includes the African and Caribbean heritage of the region.
  • Creole cuisine was born in upper-class households and still carries the reputation of being more refined and fancy, and of using more expensive ingredients, than Cajun cooking.

Cajuns are the descendents of French colonists who settled in Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia).

  • The Acadians were driven out of Canada in the 1750s and many fled to southern Louisiana.
  • They survived with the help of Choctaw Indians who taught them how to hunt and fish and forage.
  • Cajun (shortened from "Acadian") cuisine was developed by these hardy people who made do with whatever they could grow or hunt in the bayous and prairies of Louisiana.
  • Traditional Cajun dishes are cooked in one pot--a throwback to when the settlers had no stoves and did their cooking over open fires.

Sep. 26, 2009 6:07 am
Extremely informative article for a Northwesterner who loves the taste of gumbo, but didn't know the history!
Jammin J 
Oct. 8, 2009 12:01 pm
I am from the Midwest,but love the taste of Creole food. This article was very helpful. Now I know that I can use ingredients I have in my pantry. Ready to grab a ketle and start cooking
P. Lee 
Oct. 9, 2009 10:44 am
I am from louisiana and i thought the article was great and informative. thanks
Jan. 31, 2010 10:50 am
wow Debbie in Houma! I always heard you have to stir your roux almost constantly. I am making chicken and sausage gumbo for Super Bowl Sunday and I'm going to try your way. Thanks! Cindy
Feb. 5, 2010 10:39 am
it looks good
Feb. 7, 2010 5:31 am
I make gumbo for my Mississippi hubby.Discovered if you "cook" everything too long, gumbo gets watery. Guess long cooking pulls out water from the contents. I've learned my lesson the hard way
Feb. 8, 2010 12:54 pm
Feb. 9, 2010 4:41 pm
great article, now I know the difference.
Feb. 15, 2010 11:08 am
Wow! Very informative! I am from just north of the New Orleans area and I never knew that about okra in your gumbo. And I make gumbo all the time! I never put okra in gumbo for the pure reason that it gets real slimy. I'll have to try cooking it first. Thanks!
Feb. 24, 2010 11:07 am
My grandmother from Welsh Louisiana made roux using the oil rendered from chicken skin and chicken fat for gumbo. Not the most healthy way, but gave an unbelievable flavor to the gumbo!!
Nov. 27, 2010 6:02 pm
Both my parents grew up in New Orleans but neither ever made gumbo, despite the fact that Dad's Cajun. (His mother was a Bourg and hers was an Ozenne.) Since Mama's passing I make this (from scratch)every Saturday for Dad and it is the simplest instruction I've ever come across. Cannot thank AR enough!
Feb. 1, 2011 4:16 pm
what other uses could you use file powder for? is it only for thickening?
Feb. 9, 2011 4:07 pm
Im a geographically lonely Cajun out here in KC! I grew up on gumbo, crawfish stew, etoufee, dirty rice, etc. This is how i remember where my mom came from and i could be more happy to find new versions to try on here. thanks and Let the good times role!
Feb. 19, 2011 6:51 pm
is it possible to double your roux amount, only to freeze 1/2 of the final product for another day? has anyone had success or failure with freezing it?
My Little Sister 
Feb. 20, 2011 12:56 pm
just to add a quick note about the roux: you can't really use the roux once it turns black -- it just tastes burnt! also, when alton brown did gumbo on his cooking show, he actually made the roux in the oven -- put it in at 350-400 degrees and keep an eye on it. it really reduces the chance of burning your roux and less stirring, too!
Feb. 23, 2011 5:36 am
I have made gumbo all my life. I always make it very, very dark. As to freezing it, I freeze it a lot. I always make a double batch so I can freeze some also. It is just as good when thawed as when just made.
Mar. 7, 2011 6:42 am
I like to cook my roux my way, very slow and constant stirring until milk chocolate brown. My gumbos are always delicious. Another thing, if you like a wild game gumbo, try doves and andouille with a little cut okra. It is the best gumbo I ever ate.
Feb. 17, 2012 8:24 am
I make a large roux that is very dark. I freeze it in quart containers or I simple put it in pint mason jars and immedeately put the lid on so it will seal properly. I love to use a tablespoon of roux in my spagetti sauce for add flavor. I also use it for stews and dark cream gravies for dishes like cube steak with mushrooms. There are many creative ways to use it aside from gumbo. I never use strong flavored meats like sausage with seafood. It kills the seafood flavor. I want to taste my shrimp and oysters in my gumbo.
Feb. 21, 2012 4:08 pm
My mother used to make roux with a 5 lb. pkg of flour. She kept it in the frig. for as long as she needed it. It stays fresh in any jar with a tight lid. I make a little at a time, if I have any jleft over I save it in the frig. and use it in any gravy I'm making. It makes delicious gravies just by adding a teaspoon in your chicken or steak gravy.
Jul. 14, 2012 10:09 pm
this simple more quicker and delicious for any meal
Jul. 21, 2012 6:16 pm
Very interesting information. I'm growing okra and will attempt to make some gumbo!!
Sep. 24, 2012 1:20 pm
Most common gumbo mistakes - not enough roux, roux cooked too fast (burns or does not brown evenly) not cooked long enough (should be about the color of a well oxidized copper penny) and if you want it true cajun, leave out the okra (except for a shrimp and okra gumbo - an entirely different type) and leave out the tomatoes. Cook it very slow for a long time - the extra effort and time will reward you with a gumbo that is truly exquisite. Gumbo should be cooked slowly and chicken added about an hour before time to eat. Shrimp, crawfish and oysters should be added about 5 to ten minutes before serving, depending upon whether they have been parboiled or are fresh.
Dec. 20, 2012 6:29 pm
Can gumbo be successfully dried for later use? I'm on a drying jag.
Lesa Rasbury 
Dec. 30, 2012 2:05 pm
I am in Louisiana and my neighbor made some gumbo which my husband just kept bragging on. Needless to say, I have acquired the 'want to know how' to cook this for him myself. And because of this information, I have learned that there are many ways to make gumbo. So, wish me luck as to making my own...with every one's tips, I will be able to make a tasty pot. Happy New Year to all!
Feb. 14, 2013 9:22 am
Wow! Impressed with the history!
Mar. 31, 2013 6:34 am
I grew up on the Pearl River and visited with an old river gentleman known as Uncle Ted. Shared many a night coon hunting with him and he always had some "gumbo" on hand. Craw Dads, okra, maters, robin breasts, onions, peppers (red & green) and a little salt. Roux made from lard, salt, pepper, flour, and a little goat milk mixed in. A few freh water mussells never hurt but that was 50 or more years ago.
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