The Jambalaya Calculator could only exist in Louisiana
The Jambalaya Calculator is a labor of love devoted to a Louisiana specialty. It’s the equivalent of a detailed cookbook, but an interactive one, in several ways. For starters, it’s crowd sourced from expert cooks.
Instead of a hardback book or an e-cookbook, the calculator is in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, one that could only have come from Louisiana — the land of big-batch outdoor cooking of all kinds. Want to make jambalaya for 150 of your nearest and dearest? Change the numbers in the pink cells. You will need 60 pounds of meat and 24 pounds of long-grain rice.
The Jambalaya Calculator lets the user sort the recipe according to several criteria: The size of the pot, by number of quarts or gallons to prepare, by serving amounts in various sizes.
Creator Jay Grush has worked on it for years, and has just released version 7.0, which can be downloaded here (Excel spreadsheet).
When I wrote about version 6.0 of the Jambalaya Calculator two years ago, one commenter wrote, “best spreadsheet ever.” At that point, Grush had been working on it for a year.
“I just keep adding on it and adding on it,” Grush said. “I really think now I’ve pretty much exhausted all my ideas.”
In this latest version, Grush added some new tabs to the spreadsheet and dumped a couple. He has added a “How To” tab, with tips on using the spreadsheet, as well as tabs for jambalaya resources all over the state, including equipment and ingredients, and a Lagniappe tab with links, other recipes and more.
For resources, Grush asked the many correspondents on the food-and-drink board of www.tigerdroppings.com, the LSU fan website where Grush — or Stadium Rat, as he’s known there — got the idea for the calculator in the first place.
Grush grew up in New Orleans and had jambalaya occasionally, but it wasn’t a staple at home. He truly fell in love with it when he went to Louisiana State University.
“That’s the first time I remember having the good brown jambalaya. It was really good,” Grush says. “I love it.”
On the TigerDroppings.com food-and-drinks board, Grush was struck by the fact that ratios always were given as the answer to various jambalaya-cooking queries.
“The answers were ‘3 cups rice to a pound of meat,’ or ‘in this size pot you can feed 25 people.’ It was always a ratio. I wanted to learn how to cook (jambalaya), so I started to keep track of those.”
Then he realized he could put it on a spreadsheet.
“There was this post by PocheJP, where he outlined how he did his classic Gonzales jambalaya. He’s somebody who really knows what he’s talking about. I did a preliminary spreadsheet and sent it to him.
“He wasn’t very encouraging at the time,” Grush says. But Stadium Rat knew he was onto something.
“It’s the board’s knowledge that went into the calculator,” he says. “I just knew how to work the spreadsheet.”
Volume was one of the trickiest things, and important, Grush noted. He wanted to be able to predict it for different size cooking vessels, but the ingredients of jambalaya work at cross purposes: The rice expands, while the meat and vegetables shrink.
To accurately be able to predict how much of the pot the jambalaya would fill, he cooked, and measured, the expansion of rice and shrinkage of meat.
“One thing I did not know, but learned, is that if you are cooking in a pot over a fire, the bigger the pot, the less liquid you need. At 8 or 10 gallons, you start reducing” liquid, Grush said. “The surface area doesn’t increase, but as the pot gets bigger, less and less moisture is escaping. If you keep using a 2 to 1 ratio, you’re going to end up with wet and mushy rice.”
Grush is gratified by the fact that he has never had any negative feedback at all on the jambalaya calculator.
“I’m really proud of it,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
A retired attorney, Grush is the son of an engineer, which might account for his ease with spreadsheets and ratios.
He has not been to an LSU game in many years, and has never been to a tailgate party where the Jambalaya Calculator is in use.
He does love to cook, although not for other people.
“I don’t cook big batches of jambalaya. I cook maybe six-quart batches at home,” he said.
But Grush does have specifics for making an excellent jambalaya. For starters, get andouille from LaPlace.
“There are four places in Laplace that have excellent andouille: Bailey’s, Jacob’s, Wayne Jacob’s Smokehouse, and Don’s Country Store — though (the latter) actually (is) in Reserve. (I) get good andouille from any of those places. And If I have tasso, I’ll put that in there. And boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat. Thigh is much better than breast meat, because it doesn’t dry out. It keeps its moisture and flavor.”
Grush’s six-quart calculator recipe is translated here into the NOLA.com | Times-Picayune recipe style, with the calculator’s amounts in parentheses.
The recipe references “popped” rice, Grush said, a term from jabalaya cookoff traditions. Correctly cooked jambalaya rice splits down the length of the grain, which professionals look for as a sign of a dish’s superiority. To get the split or pop, stock must be at a rolling boil when the rice is added; the goal is to get the liquid back to a rolling boil quickly. (If you look closely at the lower right portion of the photo of Grush’s dish, above, you may see some of the faint lines that indicate the rice has popped.)
Beginners may have more luck with parboiled rice, Grush writes, because it’s more forgiving. Parboiled rice is used in many restaurants, he added, because it looks a little more elegant and can take more abuse before getting mushy.
Jambalaya Calculator Jambalaya
Makes 6 quarts, or 23 cups (or 15 small servings, 11 medium servings, 8 large servings)
4-1/2 pounds (4.56 lbs.) meat (chicken thighs, sausage, pork, ham, etc.)
Salt, pepper and/or favorite seasoning mix
Oil for browning
4 1/2 cups (1.82 pounds) long-grain rice
9 (9.12) cups water or stock
3 tablespoons soup base if using water instead of stock
1 1/3 teaspoons salt (1.4 teaspoons)
1 1/2 cups chopped onions (.4 pounds, 1.55 cups)
1 1/2 bell peppers, chopped (1.7 bell peppers)
7 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup (.2 cups) chopped parsley
4 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon (.9 teaspoon) cayenne
1/2 teaspoon (.5 teaspoon) black pepper
1/2 teaspoon (.5 teaspoon) white pepper
Slice the sausage and cut the meat into cubes. (Try to keep a small piece of fat on each piece as it tenderizes the meat and adds great taste.) Season meat pieces well with salt and pepper or your favorite seasoning mix.
Brown the pork down really well in oil. Let it fry till it sticks, then stir. Do that over and over. Sometimes a little water is needed to cool off the grease. The sticky part (gratin) on the bottom of the pot will dictate the color of the rice.
You can remove the browned meat from the pot, but many cooks choose to leave it in while browning the other meats. Add chicken and brown it well.
Next, mildly brown the sausage. Don’t cook the sausage till fried dark brown because that tends to cooks all the taste out..
Drain the grease but don’t lose the gratin. Then add the onions, green pepper, celery and garlic powder. Cook until clear-looking. This is when you scrape the bottom of the pot, getting all the brown gratin from the pork. This is where the color starts to come in.
After the vegetables are cooked, add the meat back to the pot and mix well. Cook all the liquid out at this time.
Add water or stock. After it comes to a boil, start tasting the liquid and add salt and other seasonings as needed. It needs to be a bit salty because the rice will absorb much of the saltiness.
Skim the remaining grease off the top. The boiling action will help separate it from the water/broth.
Add the green onions, then bring mixture back to a rolling boil. Add the rice. Break it up to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Let it boil until it starts to expand and “jump out the pot” (some will rise to the top of the liquid). This is a very important time relevant to the “popping” of the rice. Let the rice get noticeably bigger/expanded before you cut down on the heat and cover. This can be achieved on a HARD boil, which is critical to the rice pop.
When you think it’s ready to cover, cut back on the heat and put the lid on. Do not lift the cover for any reason!
Let this cook for about 25 minutes or so. A longer cooking time may be needed for very large volumes of rice.
Then roll the rice. Don’t stir. Roll it from bottom to top. When you turn it this time, don’t scrape the bottom of the pot because one exposed burnt rice grain will ruin the pot. Re-cover and cut the heat off.
Let sit for another 15 minutes and then uncover and serve.