Food & Drink

Classic Cajun Jambalaya

Yes, the onions take forever—but this perfect base works with shrimp, pork, sausage, crawfish, crab, or oysters

Photo: Denny Culbert

Of all the dishes in the Cajun canon, jambalaya is the trickiest. You have to pay attention to it and make some judgment calls as it cooks. Start with room-temperature onions that have not been refrigerated. Your onions cannot be mushy; they need to be fresh and crisp. You’ll know they’re fresh by the tears in your eyes when you dice them. Cook the onions for a long, long time. Caramelize them, then take them past caramelization to a point where they are so dark, you might think you should throw them out and start over. But stay with it. As the onions break down and get darker, they get sweeter and sweeter.

This is how I make the simple shrimp jambalaya I grew up on. If you like, you can add meat to a jambalaya: salt pork, smoked sausage, or andouille. You can make jambalaya with oysters and crabmeat and crawfish. You can make a duck confit jambalaya; you can save leftover chicken and make a chicken-and-sausage jambalaya. Use this recipe as a base to create your own. —Melissa M. Martin


  • Yield: 6 to 8 servings

    • ½ cup canola oil or leaf lard

    • 2½ lb. yellow onions, finely diced

    • ⅓ cup finely diced celery

    • ½ cup finely diced green bell pepper

    • 3 bay leaves (see Note)

    • 2 lbs. peeled and deveined medium shrimp

    • 1 tbsp. kosher salt

    • ¼ tsp. cracked black pepper

    • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

    • 1 tbsp. hot sauce, such as Original Louisiana Hot Sauce

    • 4 cups medium-grain white rice

    • 5 cups unsalted chicken stock, shrimp stock, or water

    • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

    • ¼ cup finely chopped green onions, for garnish


  1. Warm a heavy-bottomed 12-quart Dutch oven over medium heat for 3 minutes, then add the oil and heat for 1 minute. Add the onions to the pot and stir, stir, stir. This starts the very long process of browning the onions. Cook the onions for 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes, depending on how hot your stove runs, watching them very closely and stirring every 2 minutes. If the onions start to stick too much, add a little bit of water or stock to loosen them, then stir to incorporate the browner onions and scrape up any stuck-on bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir, stir, stir. If you’re worried about burning, lower the heat. You really don’t want to walk away from the pot at any point. This is your time with your onions. All the other steps will be easy. Stir, stir, stir until the onions are deeply caramelized and resemble dark chocolate in color.

  2. Add the celery, bell pepper, and bay leaves to the pot and stir. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. 

  3. Meanwhile, put the shrimp in a large bowl and season with the salt, black pepper, cayenne, and hot sauce. Set aside to marinate at room temperature while the vegetables cook.

  4. Add the rice to the pot with the vegetables and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, letting the flavors mingle and marry, for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and stir to incorporate them.

  5. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid has almost completely evaporated or looks like little puddles of water, 8 to 10 minutes. When you’re at the point of puddling—this is a judgment call based on temperature, pot size, and your stove—put the lid on the pot and reduce the heat to its lowest setting. From here, the cooking time is going to be 45 minutes total, and you can’t remove the lid the entire time. This is a tough, long 45 minutes. But trust yourself. You’ll want to peek, but don’t.

  6. Set a timer for 20 minutes. When it goes off, turn off the heat and let the jambalaya sit, covered, for 25 minutes before you lift the lid. (If you live with a lot of people, you might want to make a note and place it near the stove: “Please do not lift the lid off the pot.” This lets everyone know you did not stir onions for over an hour just to have someone uncover the pot and ruin your dish.)

  7. After 45 minutes, uncover the pot and stir the jambalaya. There may be a little burnt rice on the bottom—this is called the “grat” or “gratin.” It’s some folks’ favorite part of the jambalaya.

  8. Serve the jambalaya garnished with the parsley and green onions, with white beans alongside.

  9. Note: I like to leave the bay leaves in the final recipe. They’re not meant to be eaten, but it makes for a beautiful, rustic presentation.

Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa M. Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020.