This week’s post on how to make gravy is part of my month-long series on how to make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never done it before. You can start with the first post, on getting organized and planning your menu, and download a checklist, then read up on what you do and don’t need. Next week, we’ll look at how to cook a turkey.
So, the bus won’t come for another half hour, and I’m killing time with a half glass of very good pinot blanc at the local wine store, Everson Royce, and the kid behind the bar points out that if I miss my bus, I can have another glass of wine. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but, I say, I have to get back home and make gravy for my blog series on how to make Thanksgiving Dinner.
“Gravy,” says another nice young man sipping wine. “That’s the most important part of the meal!”
His girlfriend and the kid behind the bar both agreed. Strongly.
This is why we’re looking at making gravy now. You do not want to make a bad gravy for Thanksgiving. I know. I’ve done it. For my in-laws. [She shudders.]
The thing is, gravy is the trickiest part of the whole shebang. The good news is that you can make it ahead. You can make enough to float an oil tanker or just enough to drizzle on the turkey slices you’re eating by yourself. And if you make too much, it’s a terrific leftover. The bad news is that making gravy involves actually cooking rather than following a recipe. It’s the technique that counts and you have to practice.
I’ll try and keep the rant short, here, but it’s the basic problem with cooking by numbers (i.e. following a recipe). Even the best recipe writers can’t account for your specific circumstances. Maybe you have an oven that runs hot. Maybe the onions that are grown in your area give off a lot of water. Cooking means you’re actively involved in the process and keeping an eye on it. When you’re cooking and the recipe says to add another cupful of water and what you’ve got is already too soupy, then you know you don’t add that extra cup of water. If the stew needs to cook longer, then it needs to cook longer. If you smell something burning, you check what’s in the oven, never mind what the timer or the recipe says.
Gravy is a process, but it’s not a hard one. You need the following items, some all purpose flour, some stock (aka broth), a fat-separator cup (not really necessary, but really handy to have), a pan and a whisk. The whisk will make your life a lot easier. Also, you want everything close at hand, because when it comes time to stir, you have to keep stirring and it helps to have everything within reach so you can grab it with your free hand. I made my gravy for these pictures from a roasted chicken – and you can make your practice gravies this way.
You also need fond. That’s the French word for all that grease and goop in the bottom of your roasting pan when you’ve taken whatever it was you were roasting out. Now, Thanksgiving Day, that’s supposed to be your turkey. Most turkeys these days come pre-brined, and if yours isn’t, it’s a very good idea to brine it. But brining means there’s a lot of salt in the fond or drippings, and that can be a bit much for the gravy. So for your make ahead gravy, you’ll buy some turkey wings and roast those a day or two before the big event, then make the gravy with those drippings. Figure one wing if you only need gravy for, say, four people, then buy more wings depending on the size of your crowd and how much they love gravy. You can butter the wings first or not, but do make sure you salt and pepper them, then roast them in a 325-degree oven until the skin is brown and there are plenty of juices, maybe an hour, maybe not. Take the wings out. You can do whatever you want with the meat on them. The real gold is in the roasting pan.
What I’m doing in the picture below is something that’s called de-glazing. You will love de-glazing, I promise you. Not only does it result in some totally awesome sauces, it makes the pan a lot easier to clean later. What I did was pour some chicken stock into the hot roasting pan (from which I had just removed a roasted chicken). I put that over medium-high heat on the stove – and you can’t see it, but I’ve got my whisk in there, mixing everything up and scraping up all the meaty bits from the bottom and sides of the pan. You know, the bits that usually get glued to the bottom of the pan and make it insanely hard to clean. You could add wine instead of the stock, if you like. You could add water – it just doesn’t taste very good.
Once everything is mixed up and the pan is mostly scraped, I pour all that meaty goodness into the fat separating cup. And wait a couple minutes.
See… All that golden goo at the top? That’s fat and if you get too much of it in your gravy, it’s going to taste greasy. But notice – the cup pours from the very bottom where the good drippings are. If you use a regular cup, you’re going to have to pull all that fat off the top before you can use the drippings on the bottom.
The best gravies are made with a roux – a mixture of fat and flour (aka starch) which combine to suspend particles in the stock (or other fluid) and thickens it. I discovered this next trick on my own, but have since learned that a lot of others knew about it as well. Anyway, I take some of that clear fatty goo from the fat separator cup and use that as my fat instead of butter. You don’t need a lot of it. I put three spoonfuls (maybe a tablespoon) into my pan. Then turn on the heat to medium-high.
Now, I add the flour, just enough to get the fat all grainy and gloppy. This is where great gravies live or fail. You have to keep stirring that flour and fat together so they combine smoothly.
I pour the remaining drippings into the flour and fat mixture, making sure as little of that extra fat in the separator cup gets into the gravy as possible. And you’ll note, I’m still stirring. It’s going to lump up again, but don’t stress. It will smooth out. Or it should.
Now, I add the broth. This is again where it gets tricky, because you want enough to make a nice, smooth gravy, and it can be thicker, if you like it that way, or a little runnier. Add a little at a time. You can always add more. You can’t add less (although you can sometimes get the gravy to cook off the water and thicken up that way). But whatever you do, keep that whisk stirring.
This is what you’re looking for, thick enough to coat the spoon, but not a sullen pool of Jello, either. Turn the heat down as low as possible. Now, taste it. You will probably need to add salt, but don’t assume that. Taste it first. You can add some pepper, maybe some sage (I don’t, but you can) or some other flavor you like.
It does occasionally happen that no matter how much you stir, you still have lumps. There are three ways you can deal with this. You make a new batch with new turkey wings or whatever (a bit of a problem on the day of – another reason why I recommend the make-ahead approach). You can run the gravy through a sieve, picking out the meaty bits and adding them back. Or remember that immersion blender I mentioned last week? You can whiz the bejeebers out of the gravy. You do lose the texture of your meaty bits and you may have to put the heat up afterwards to boil off the water and re-thicken it, but the lumps will be gone.
And don’t sweat it – as long as the gravy tastes good, you’ll probably be okay. And practice. Roast some chicken pieces or a bit of beef (using the appropriate broths with each). There are worse things in the world than having to eat roasted meats with gravy.