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It's In The Pan
Good gravy! Tips on how to turn those drippings into a mouth-watering holiday sauce

By B.A.

It has come to mean excess or luxury. Where “icing on the cake” is merely a completion, “gravy” is a bounty. And Thanksgiving is one of the few days of the year when it’s considered a standard menu item at home.

In dinner-table terms, gravy is a completion of sorts. It captures some of the flavors of the turkey’s slow-cooking process and adds them to the finished product. Traditionally (if a few more drops can be squeezed from an evaporating term), gravy is just the thickened pan drippings rescued from the roast. It’s the thickening that often proves troublesome and can result in an unpleasantly lumpy sauce, but that’s easy to avoid, as you’ll read below.

If you’re going by tradition, you’ll have a panful of drippings as the bird comes out of the oven and is removed to set for a while. To guard against a drippings shortage, use the neck and giblets to make a stock, which is simmered with carrots and celery, an onion and some herbs.

Deglaze the drippings pan with a flavorful liquid—wine or beer or cider or such (a friend recommends a good dry vermouth)—which just means pouring in the liquid while the pan is hot, and scraping the good stuff off the bottom. Although many recipes call for the addition of flour, I prefer to make that a separate process.

Thickening with flour is actually thickening with a roux, a combination of equal parts flour and fat that is browned over low heat. Butter is the tastiest of the fats, but anything you can skim off the drippings pan will be good, too. Figure about a 1/4-pound of fat and flour per 3 cups of gravy.

Melt the fat in a saucepan and add the flour. Combine and stir with a wooden spoon. As you stir (and this can take a while) the mixture will brown slowly. Watch out for hot spots where the roux might burn. The darker the roux, the richer and nuttier the flavor, but I’d only go for a fairly golden color. Pour in the liquid (strain those drippings) and whisk rapidly—and a smooth, dark gravy will appear before your eyes. Season with soy or Worcestershire sauce; I like to add a little Dijon mustard as well. For a silky sheen, melt a pat of butter atop the gravy and whisk it in just before serving.

Because I’ll be deep-frying a turkey next week, the gravy will be based on a separate stock, but I’ll roast the components (including some sausage) first to caramelize the sugars, and get some of that pan-drippings flavor.

Orange peel and rosemary sprigs add a nice tang; a little tomato paste added at the end imparts some sweetness. Chop the giblets and/or mushrooms into it for more body. Make a vegetarian gravy by basing it on a vegetable stock—with mushrooms a good flavor addition there, too.

Other thickening techniques are possible. The easiest, but most time- consuming, is to do nothing but simmer the liquids until they get more body, but you’ll never get it thick enough to really cling to the meat.

If richness is no object, try heavy cream. The trick is to keep it from curdling in the hot liquid, so pour the cream into a bowl first, and ladle an ounce of the liquid into that bowl, whisking constantly. This raises the temperature of the cream gradually. Add the now-warm cream mixture to the bulk of the liquid, and simmer it without bringing it to a boil. You can approximate the effect of heavy cream by mixing milk or light cream with an egg yolk.

Cornstarch lets you thicken any hot liquid at the very end, although the texture is pastier than a roux-based sauce, and the gravy will be cloudy. Mix a few tablespoons of cornstarch with water to make a slurry, which then goes into the boiling liquid. Whisk it in slowly until you achieve the thickness you like, keeping in mind that it will thicken even more as it cools. Use arrowroot in place of cornstarch to avoid cloudiness.

Like all sauces, gravies come from a tradition documented back to the early Romans and to Europe of the Middle Ages. Madeleine Kamman speculates (in The New Making of a Cook) that the strong-flavored, acid-rich recipes were concocted to offset the flavor of meat highly salted to keep through the winter. “Gravy” derives from an old French word “grane,” describing a grain-thickened drippings sauce. Brown gravy is brown because of the Maillard reaction, a chemical change among proteins, amino acids, sugars and other materials. Combined with the caramelization of the sugars, this reaction gives you both the rich color and the toothsome aroma.

It’s one of the defining characteristics of this holiday meal, so even though I like to prepare oddball side dishes for the Thanksgiving table, there’s always a flagon of traditional brown gravy (with a hint of strong red wine) at the center of the table.

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