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Thanksgiving is approaching (at least for my American readers – sorry this is late for you, Canada!), and that means it’s time to talk about how to make the best gravy. I know gravy scares a lot of people, but it’s really not so bad – I promise! And once you know how to make amazing gravy, nothing can stop you. Muhahaha. Not to mention it gives you lots of cold-weather dinner options.
Gravy is also budget-friendly, because it lets you stretch pan drippings and stock – both things that are otherwise thrown away (or not made at all). If you read my post about rotisserie chickens, you’ll know that I love making stock from those – and it’s so simple and so flavorful. You won’t need to buy canned or boxed broth again! But if you haven’t gotten around to making your own stock yet, there’s nothing wrong with broth from the store. I also use and recommend Better than Bouillon (it’s cheaper at Costco); it’s less expensive and takes less space to store than fully liquid broth or stock. Speaking of which:
What’s the difference between broth and stock, anyway?
Technically, in culinary-school terms, broth is made from meat, and stock is made from bones. But if you’re buying something already-made from a store, the distinction isn’t quite there. Some brands use the terms interchangeably, or will say “stock” to appeal to a more foodie sort of market. Basically, it doesn’t matter.
That said, if you’re making gravy, the best flavor (in my opinion) comes from stock made with roasted bones or meat – like the stock you can make from a rotisserie chicken! If you think about it, you usually make gravy to go with a roast, so you’re working with the deeply browned flavors associated with that. But the point of gravy is that it’s an extra, an add-on, so make it with what you have or can get easily.
The first step to gravy is a roux.
It’s pronounced “roo” and is just a cooked combination of fat and flour. If you are making gravy for something you’ve roasted, you use the fat from the pan drippings. If not, use butter. Here’s how it works:
- Use equal amounts of fat (or butter) and flour. This is the fat-to-flour ratio, and it’s 1:1, so it’s fairly easy to remember! It’s actually by weight, so if you are measuring with tablespoons, use 1T butter or fat and 1 heaping tablespoon of flour; the flour is a bit lighter by volume. If you have a kitchen scale (and I highly, highly recommend you get one – so useful) you can simply weigh. 1 tablespoon of butter weighs 14.2 grams, and you’d use 14.2 grams of flour. Or just call it 14g!
- For every cup of liquid, you need to start with 1 tablespoon fat and 1 heaping tablespoon flour. This will make a fairly standard medium-thick gravy consistency. If you like super thick gravy, you can double that and use 2 tablespoons fat and 2 tablespoons flour per cup of liquid.
- 1 cup of liquid makes 1 cup of gravy. Pretty easy.
- The standard gravy allowance is 1/3 cup per person. I think that’s too little and allow 2/3 cup per person, at least; for Thanksgiving gravy, I make 1 cup per person because there are so many leftovers. Gravy makes leftovers vastly better, so it’s better to have too much than too little; you can always have some on toast as a hearty snack! So, for example, for four people, the standard allowance would say to make 1-1/3 cups of gravy (use 1T + 1t butter or fat and about 1T + 2t flour); I say make at least 2-2/3 cups (2T + 2t butter and 3T flour) for a normal roast, or 4 cups (4T butter and 4 heaping T flour) at Thanksgiving.
- You will need to cook the roux. This helps to eliminate the raw flour flavor. There are plenty of subtleties involved, if you feel like geeking out on roux, but the important points for our purposes are that a lighter roux has more thickening power and showcases the flavors of the liquid more; a darker roux has less thickening power (i.e. your gravy will be thinner) and adds a browned flavor to the gravy.
How to make a roux
- Place your measured fat or butter in a saucepan. If you have a saucier, use it! That’s a saucepan with very rounded sides and it allows you to move your whisk around easily. If you don’t, a standard saucepan is just fine. Just make sure you stir into all the corners often.
- If you’re using butter, melt it and wait until it just starts to look a bit frothy (that’s water cooking out; more on that another day). If you’re using fat from a roast, you want it to be warm but not hot enough to deep-fry, for example. Really, it only needs about a minute to heat up, especially if it’s recently come out of the oven. Do this over medium heat, which is often a lower setting than the middle of your stove burner. Stoves are wildly variable, so you might have to experiment a bit.
- With a whisk in your dominant hand, sprinkle the flour over the butter or fat and stir vigorously until it’s well combined. Continue stirring almost constantly; leave it for a few seconds then stir, leave a few seconds and stir. Don’t leave the stove, though!
- For a light roux, cook and stir for 3-5 minutes. It will start to smell toasty and delicious instead of just like raw flour. It will be a fairly light blonde color.
- For a darker roux, continue to cook and stir. Remember that the longer you go, the less it will thicken your gravy. It will go from blonde to a caramel brown to a deep red-brown eventually. You probably don’t want to go quite that far, though!
…and how to turn it into gravy
- Have your broth or stock heated up. It combines more easily if it’s hot!
- Add a small amount of the liquid to the roux while you whisk continuously. I pour with my left hand and whisk at the same time with my right. Keep whisking until it’s thoroughly combined.
- Continue to add the liquid in small increments, about a fifth of it at a time, whisking the whole time, until it’s all combined. Whisking is what prevents lumps from forming, so just keep the whisk moving constantly.
- Increase the heat slightly and bring the gravy just to a boil, again, continuing to whisk and stir. You can pause here and there now that all the broth is in, but at least give it a stir every five or ten seconds. Once it’s at a boil, lower the heat so it simmers and cook for a few minutes.
- The gravy will start to thicken as it simmers. Keep in mind that it will thicken more as it cools, so stop cooking a little bit ahead of your ideal texture. Resist the temptation to add more flour if it doesn’t seem thick enough, and hang in there for a few more minutes. See if it comes together for you. It will, as long as you started with an appropriate quantity of roux!
- Remove from the heat and taste it to check for seasoning. An adequate amount of salt makes a huge difference, but it’s easy to go overboard, so just add a little bit at a time, stir, and check again. I don’t put pepper in my gravy, generally, but I’m not a huge black pepper fan, so add some if you like it!
- That’s it! This entire process, written out, looks a little intimidating, I know. But it really only takes 10-15 minutes, and it’s not really difficult as long as you remember to just keep stirring, just keep stirring…. Plus, you’ll feel like a champion when you can make the best gravy on demand.
So, if we make stock from the leftover bones and meat, and we don’t have leftovers until after Thanksgiving dinner, how do we get stock for our Thanksgiving gravy? My preferred way is (and this will not surprise anyone) to, er, stock up on rotisserie chicken stock ahead of time. Even if you don’t feel like making stock, you can collect the gelatinous drippings from the tray and add those to storebought broth to give it more of a roasted flavor.
Alternately, if you are up for it, you can spatchcock your turkey. This means partially taking it apart, and you will be left with the backbone, which you can roast and use to make a stock for gravy. This is how I prefer to prepare my Thanksgiving turkey, as the roasting time is easier to manage, but it is a bit involved. Not difficult per se, but messy. But I saw it in Family Circle this month, so it must be becoming more mainstream. It’s worth a shot, anyway!
If neither of those are an option, I prefer Better than Bouillon to canned or boxed broth; it just has a more complex flavor. When you combine with the pan drippings, though, it will all be fine. So don’t sweat it too much, unless you want to!
You are now a gravy expert!
Hurrah! Enjoy the um… gravies of your labor. Oh – you CAN pour the gravy through a mesh strainer if you really prefer it to be absolutely and totally free of even the smallest lumps. I don’t often bother, although I will for company or for Thanksgiving or something like that. It’s generally very smooth without bothering with that step, definitely no big chewy lumps so long as you have done enough stirring and whisking!
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