A classic dish of Creole cuisine, gumbo blends meat and seafood with vegetables in a thick, rich, spicy sauce. Gumbo can be thickened with roux, a blend of cooked flour and oil. As an alternative, it can be thickened with okra or file powder, both of which give gumbo a different texture and taste.
Okra is a small, ridged vegetable used throughout the South to make pickles, fritters and stews. When cut, the vegetable oozes a substance that helps sauces and foods thicken. Okra can be chopped and added to gumbo to thicken the stew. It was traditionally used in gumbos during the summer in Louisiana, when it was in season. During the colder months, other thickeners were used.
Use fresh rather than frozen okra in gumbo for optimal thickening, taste and texture. Look for:
- A deep, dark green color
- Dry and firm exterior
- Between 2 to 4 inches in size
Spoiled okra shows a dull appearance and may have brown or mushy spots. Okra longer than 4 inches are likely overgrown, and will be tough and fibrous when cooked.
Okra in Gumbo
To use fresh okra in a gumbo:
Rinse the pods, removing all debris and dirt.
Cut off the stem and tip, then chop the okra into 1/2-inch-thick rounds.
Add the chopped okra to the gumbo at the beginning of the stewing process, with the meats and long-stewing vegetables, such as the onion and celery.
Adding okra at the beginning gives it a chance to cook down completely.
Using File Powder
File powder can also be used to thicken gumbo in place of either a flour roux or okra. File powder is made from dried sassafras leaves, a tree found throughout Louisiana. In some cases, okra and file powder are used together, although this is uncommon. The dried leaves are ground into a fine powder to use as a natural thickening agent.
In addition to thickening the stew, file powder gives gumbo a distinctive sweet-herbal flavor similar to root beer. Traditionally, the powder was used in place of or in addition to roux and okra to thicken gumbo.
Adding File Powder
Unlike okra and roux, file powder is added at the very end of the cooking process. This means that gumbos thickened with okra or roux can be further thickened, if needed, with file powder. Only a very small amount is needed, around one pinch of powder per gallon of gumbo.
To add file powder:
Turn off the stove and remove the gumbo from the burner.
Sprinkle the powder onto the surface of the gumbo.
Use no more than 1/8 to 1/4 of a teaspoon of powder per every 2 liters of gumbo. Too much will give gumbo a strangely aromatic taste.
Stir the file powder in, mixing thoroughly. The lingering heat cooks the powder, instantly thickening the stew.