Gumbo is an undisputed Louisiana staple, right up there with jazz and fluffy beignets. But what exactly is gumbo? Like all Cajun and Creole cooking, gumbo pulls its flavors and techniques from a diverse combination of African, Native American, French, and Spanish cultures. The name “gumbo”, while often thought to have French origins, is actually derived from the West African word for okra, ki-ngombo. Okra, one of many crops that made its way to the American south via Trans-Atlantic enslaved trade, was commonly used as a thickener for this earthy stew. Now it’s much more likely to find okra in seafood and Creole variations, and omitted from meat-heavier Cajun ones, like this recipe.
• Be thickened by a dark brown roux (see below)
• Be served over rice (or with potato salad if you’re extra southern)
• Feature the holy trinity of Southern cooking: onion, celery, and green bell pepper.
Every Cajun household has its own bespoke recipe. But the true spirit of Cajun gumbo is using what you have on hand. If you can’t find andouille, grab some kielbasa. Prefer drumsticks or chicken breast? Go for it. If your grandma always topped her gumbo with file powder (another classic thickener and flavoring made from ground sassafras leaves), have at it. Like with any stew, gumbo only gets better as it sits, so be shy on that second bowl (if you can help yourself) and save some for leftovers.
One thing that all Cajun gumbo connoisseurs can agree on is that it starts with a good roux. Roux is a thickening agent, commonly used in soups and sauces, made of equal parts flour and fat. Cajun gumbo will typically call for oil or lard as the fat while Creole gumbos rely on butter. The flour is toasted in hot oil until it reaches the desired shade of brown. Lighter (or blonde) roux is primarily used for thickening, but for the unmistakably deep flavor you’ll want here, you’ve got to go dark brown. By the time it’s done cooking, the roux should resemble the color of a melted milk chocolate bar.
Do yourself a favor–don’t walk away once you’ve started cooking the roux. Once the mixture burns, there’s no going back; starting over will be your only option. Be sure to keep it low and slow, whisking to make sure it cooks evenly. Patience is key here. Unless this is your 17th time making gumbo, there’s no need to rush it with high heat. If your roux is too light, your gumbo will be too, and in the sage words of every Cajun aunty ever—“That’s just dish water, baby”.
freshly ground black pepper
boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 4 thighs)
Vegetable oil (1 tbsp. + 1 cup, divided)
andouille sausage, sliced into coins
low-sodium chicken broth, divided
large yellow onion, finely chopped
large green bell pepper, finely chopped
stalks celery, finely chopped
cloves garlic, minced
green onions, sliced (whites and greens separated)
fresh thyme, chopped
Steamed white rice or potato salad
- In a small bowl, combine the salt, paprika, pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, and cayenne.
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Pat the chicken thighs dry and season all over with spice mixture. Sear the chicken thighs in the hot oil, turning occasionally for even browning, until cooked through, about 12 minutes. (The chicken should have a brown crust on both sides.) Transfer the chicken to a large bowl.
- Add the sausage to the same pot and cook until it starts to brown slightly and the edges begin to curl, about 3 minutes. Transfer the sausage to the bowl with the chicken.
- Add ½ cup of chicken broth and deglaze the pot, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits left behind. Pour the deglazing liquid over the chicken and sausage and set aside to cool.
- Make the roux: Wipe the pot clean and return to medium-high heat. Add remaining 1 cup oil and heat until you start to see wisps of smoke. Add the flour all at once, reduce heat to medium-low, and whisk continuously. Continue cooking and occasionally whisking, allowing the roux to darken until it reaches a deep brown, milk chocolate color, about 20-25 minutes. (The texture should resemble wet sand.)
- As soon as the roux is done, add the onion, bell pepper, celery, bay leaves and a big pinch of salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to keep the roux from burning. Add garlic, scallion whites, and thyme, and cook for an additional 1 minute. Whisk in the remaining 6 cups chicken broth.
- Using clean fingers or a fork, shred the chicken into bite sized pieces, then return the chicken, sausage, and deglazing liquid to the pot. Bring everything to a simmer and cover. Allow the gumbo to simmer for at least 1 hour (and up to 4 hours) to give the flavors a chance to meld. Remove bay leaves and top with green onions before serving.