Gravy. A simple word for a simple food made with simple ingredients. But perfecting gravy is anything but simple. No matter where you are in the world, you will likely eat gravy in some form, flavor or consistency or cuisine. In fact, gravy literally might be what makes this world go round on its axis. And although many will only bask in gravy’s glory on that November holiday once a year, countless enjoy its warm, flowing goodness almost daily.
Gravy, at its most basic form, is a sauce made from the juices of cooked meat or vegetables. It’s typically, but not always, thickened with flour or cornstarch or arrowroot and often, but not always, seasoned with spices or herbs. In reality, it’s a supplemental condiment for food, not a necessary component. But without a doubt, chicken fried steak would be but a piece of brown, crispy meat without its peppery, white gravy counterpart and turkey would be very lonely on a Thanksgiving plate without the savory partnership it has with gravy.
In Asia, India and many Arab countries, “gravy” is typically served with rice, vegetables and meat, often with the addition of spices such as curry powder. Canadians and Brits, in my opinion, have this whole gravy thing figured out by smothering their “chips” or fries with the glorious sauce. Here in America, gravy is commonplace in the Southern states for both breakfast and dinner. The further north one travels, gravy makes the transition from staple to accompaniment, set aside for special occasions, Sunday dinners and holidays.
So come and climb inside the gravy boat with us. Paddle out into some unchartered territory as we explore the diversity and complexity of this versatile sauce.
White Gravy (aka Milk Gravy, Steak Gravy, Country Gravy)
Served over Chicken Fried Steak, biscuits and mashed potatoes, you’d be hard press to find a Southern home cooked meal without it. The secret to Milk Gravy is fat. There is no such thing as healthy white gravy. The grease, whether rendered from cooked bacon, sausage or a big dollop of lard, will be needed to get this gravy started.
Pan Drippings, butter, or lard
4 tablespoons flour
1 quart whole milk
Salt and Pepper to taste
After the fat has been rendered from your meat of choice, remove the meat and allow the grease to heat in the pan again over medium-low heat.
Sprinkle the flour evenly over the grease. It will immediately begin to sizzle. Using a whisk, incorporate the flour into the hot grease and cook, creating a golden hued paste. Keep cooking 3-5 minutes. It will continue to darken. If the paste seems more fatty than pasty, add a bit more flour.
With your whisk in full motion, slowly begin pouring in the milk, never letting up on the whisking motion until the paste and milk are perfectly married to a nice sauce-like consistency in the pan. Cook to thicken into gravy. You may need to add more milk as it cooks. Add salt and pepper to taste and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or until you have reached your desired consistency.
Turkey Gravy (Altered recipe from Ina Garten)
Everyone has their favorite turkey gravy recipe. This is mine. It packs a punch, which is perfect for the subtle flavors of turkey and mashed potatoes. You could use drippings or stock, depending on how many cooked turkey juices you acquire that day.
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups hot chicken or turkey stock (with or without pan drippings)
1 tablespoon white wine (optional)
1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional, but recommended)
In a large (10 to 12-inch) sauté pan, cook the butter and onions over medium-low heat for 12 to 15 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned. Don't rush this step; it makes all the difference when the onions are well-cooked.
Sprinkle the flour into the pan, whisk in, and then add the salt and pepper. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock mixture and cook uncovered for 4 to 5 minutes until thickened. Add the wine and cream, if desired. Season, to taste, and serve. If you prefer smooth gravy, whirl it (in small batches) in a blender before serving.
Red Eye Gravy
This gravy is an anomaly as it’s made without the use of any thickeners. Red Eye Gravy is simply made with pan juices from country ham and strong coffee (hence the term “red eye”.) If you are looking for thick, hearty gravy, this isn’t it. But if you’re up for something a little different and incredibly tasty, give it a try.Country Ham
Heat a sauté pan, cook a slice of salt cured country ham for about 6-8 minutes on medium heat until some of the fat begins rendering out and the ham heats thoroughly.
Remove the ham and keep warm under a covered dish.
Add to the pan along with the rendered fat, 1/2 cup of really strong coffee (some add a tsp. of sugar to balance the bitter/salt flavor of the coffee and ham.)
Turn the heat up just a bit and stir often as you release the tasty bits from the pan and let the gravy reduce about a third.
Serve with grits and ham.
I am saddened that after nearly a decade of living in the south, this recipe (considered a “southern staple”) didn’t cross my radar until now. Where’s the chocolate gravy in Kentucky?
4 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tbsp. flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
4 tbsp. butter
1 tsp vanilla
In a medium sauce pan whisk together cocoa, flour and sugar. Pour in the milk and whisk vigorously until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated. Heat over medium-high until it begins to bubble. Turn heat down to medium and stir until mixture has thickened to a gravy consistency. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla.
Serve warm over biscuits.
-Finding the Consistency-
The thickness or thinness of gravy is a very personal matter. Thankfully, whichever way you prefer yours, it’s easy to achieve the right results. Although flour is the natural thickener for gravy, refrain from adding more flour into finished gravy to thicken it up. Disastrous results will occur. The flour will immediately clump and float to the top and there will not be enough time in the day to smash all of those flour balls with a fork to make the gravy smooth again (believe me, in my younger gravy making years, this was a repeat offense.) The trick is to incorporate the flour through a smooth paste of flour and butter. Bring the gravy to a boil and gradually whisk the flour/butter paste into the gravy until you get your desired thickness. Cook the gravy for another 3-5 minutes to “cook” the flour taste out of the end result.
-Creating Pan Juices for Gravy-
Nothing is more frustrating than the need to make gravy for Thanksgiving dinner and then realizing when the turkey comes out of the oven there are no juices in the bottom of the pan (don’t confuse pan juices with the fat floating around under the turkey). To create juices, try adding stock to the turkey pan before cooking. As the juices from the turkey are released during cooking, they will incorporate into the stock and give you nice, flavorful pan juices to have on hand for gravy.
-Dress it up-
Often, gravy can go from good to great with the small addition of an unexpected ingredient. Although most would consider themselves gravy purists, don’t be afraid to take a walk on the wild side with one of these great flavors:
- Caramelized Onions
- Heavy Whipping Cream
- Sherry Wine
- Chopped Country Ham
- Fresh Herbs (Rosemary, Tarragon, Sage)
- Stout beer