In The Pan
Good gravy! Tips on how to turn those drippings into a
mouth-watering holiday sauce
By B.A. Nilsson
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
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
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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