Making File (Filé)

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Making file (filé) from scratch. If you don't know what it's made from you might be surprised, I know I was. You may already know that it is a spice made and used primarily by the Cajuns of Southern Louisiana. It's used as a thickener and flavoring in soups and stews.

Most people have heard of file gumbo, but this seasoning can be used in so many different ways, even beyond Cajun cooking. I use it in most soups and stews that I make, and it adds character (that doesn't mean HOT!) to everything I use it in.

I lived in South Louisiana for 12 years, where I learned a bit about Cajun cooking - Gumbo, Jambalaya, Sauce Piquant , and the absolute best seafood anywhere on the face of the planet!

I learned early on about using file, but it took several years before someone told me what it was made of. When I found out I was absolutely astounded at the simplicity of it. Surprisingly, it's made simply from dried, finely ground sassafras leaves. Here's how I do it.  Prior to learning that, my only experience with consuming sassafras was with making sassafras tea which is a culinary experience all in itself!

Making File - Collecting and Drying Leaves

Start by being able to identify Sassafras trees.  If you're not sure, use a good field guide to identify the tree.  I like "Audubon Field Guide to North American trees".  Don't try until you're sure you have the right tree. 

The unusual thing about Sassafras is that the leaves take three different shapes (all on the same plant!). Some leaves are oval shaped, while some have a single lobe so that the leaf is kind of shaped like a mitten. Others leaves have three lobes so that they are almost trident shaped.

If you look at the photo of a fresh cut branch, you can see all three shapes. If you're still in doubt, crush a leaf and smell it. It will have a spicy sweet smell to it that no other native plant comes close to.

Sassafras Leaves

The first step is collecting fresh green sassafras leaves. Late spring or early summer is the best time, but you can collect up to early fall.

I have lots of small sassafras saplings that grow along the edges of my property. Every spring they send branches growing out into the way of mowing the grass. These branches have to be pruned back anyway, so I cut some sassafras branches to hang for drying.

When they are cut, you need to look through your branches and remove any leaves that look like something you wouldn't want to eat (buggy, dirty, damaged...). Find a dry, out of the weather place to hang them up.

I hang branches on chicken wire in my barn. The cut ends of the branches can be weaved into the holes of the wire. Depending on temperature and humidity, it can take as little as a week or up to a month for the leaves to dry enough for the next step.

Making File - Stripping and Crushing
Dried Leaves

Once the leaves are dry and brittle enough that they shatter into pieces when crushed in your hands, you're ready to strip the leaves. Remove them from the branches, and crush them up into coarse pieces. As you go, you should remove any twigs and leaf stems you find, as these items won't grind up very well later.

Dried and crushed sassafras leaves

These dried leaves can be stored in this form for processing later, or they can be taken directly to the next step. Storing the crushed leaves can be done in a zipper seal bag, since the air can be mostly pressed out before sealing it up.

Making File - Grinding the Dried Leaves

Mortar and pestle

I use a mortar and pestle to grind the leaves. I suppose you could use a food processor, to do this, but to me there's something satisfying about watching (and participating in...) the transformation from bright green leaf fragments to the olive green sweet smelling powder.

Crushed sassafras leaves in mortar.

Start by filling the mortar about half full with crushed leaves.

Breaking down sassafras leaves in mortar.

Use the pestle to break down the fragments into a bit smaller pieces.

Breaking down sassafras leaves further in mortar.

Then start rotating the pestle around in circles in the bottom of the mortar.

Finished filé in the mortar.

The transformation takes less than a minute after you get the feel for it. Not many people have had the experience of using a mortar and pestle before, and it takes a bit of getting used to.

Freshly ground filé

The finished product can be stored in a clean empty spice jar, or some other airtight container.

Using File

To me, file doesn't necessarily ADD flavoring to soups and stews, as much as it ENHANCES the flavor of what's already there. Keep in mind that is should be added at the end of cooking, after the pot is removed from the heat. There are two different schools of thought about how to use it. First is to add it directly to the pot. This is the one that I subscribe to. Add it at a rate of about 1-2 tsp per half gallon - give or take.

The other approach is to put it in a shaker and let folks add it to their taste. Problem with that is most people outside of Southern Louisiana would have no idea as to how much to add, or in many cases even what file is. Some might be a bit uneasy about stirring green powder into their dinner. Add it yourself, let your family or guests try it. THEN tell them what it is after.

Making file at home from sassafras leaves you collected and dried is another (and unique) way to extend your knowledge of self sufficiency. Give it a try and see for yourself.

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Sassafras Tea