Goodbye Lumps, Hello Flavor
Gravy isn't the kind of sexy, chef-style sauce you see on TV cooking shows, but what it lacks in "cool" it makes up for in solid, flavorful comfort. It used to be one of those skills you'd pick up at your mother's knee as a youngster, but if you missed that opportunity it's not too late: Homemade gravy is easier than you'd think, and doesn't need to take a lot of time.
Drippings, Broth and Crunch
Gravy usually, but not always, starts with a roast of some sort, or at least a skillet that's been used to fry whichever meats the gravy will go with. The bottom of the pan will contain stuck-on bits of browned meat and juices, and a good roast will usually contain some cooking juices and drippings as well. These are what give your gravy its flavor.
Unfortunately, doing justice to the roast can hurt your gravy-making by keeping those juices in the meat instead of cooking them out. You can compensate for that by using homemade or store-bought broth in place of cooking juices if you don't have enough to make a decent batch of gravy. With a turkey, for example, making broth from the neck and giblets – or even better, the carcass of your previous turkey – can give you enough liquid for a very large batch of gravy indeed.
Classic Pan Gravy Method
To make pan gravy in the classic style, start by pouring all the drippings and cooking juices into a measuring cup. The fat will rise to the top; skim it off, and reserve 1 tablespoon of fat for every cup of gravy you want. Then discard any fat that's left over. Put your pan over a medium burner, and add the fat, along with an equal quantity of flour. Stir until they're well combined, scraping up any browned-on bits from the bottom of the pan. Whisk 1/2 cup of your pan juices or broth into the flour mixture, which will turn it into a thick goop. Whisk in another 1/2 cup of the liquid to thin it, and then another half-cup, until you've added all of your liquid. A ratio of 1 tablespoon fat and 1 tablespoon flour per cup of liquid makes a smooth, slightly thin gravy. If you like yours a bit thicker, you can increase the flour to as much as 1 1/2 tablespoons per cup of liquid. Keep simmering for 10 minutes or so until it's thickened, and doesn't taste of flour anymore.
Quick Slurry Method
Combining fat and flour to make a "roux," or thickening paste, gives you a velvety-smooth gravy – but it's time consuming, and you might prefer to avoid using that much fat. Making your gravy with a slurry instead fixes both problems.
To follow this technique, separate the fat from your drippings, and then pour the pan juices and all but 1/2 cup of your added broth back into the pan. Bring it to a simmer, scraping up the flavorful browned-on bits from the bottom. In a separate large bowl, measure 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of instant-thickening or "gravy" flour for each cup of gravy, and then whisk the reserved broth into it. Once it's thoroughly whisked, ladle the hot broth into your mixing bowl, 1/3 to 1/2 cup at a time, until you've added a full cup. Now pour the slurry back into your pan, and whisk it in thoroughly. Your gravy will thicken almost immediately and be ready to serve.
A Few Variations
Not all gravies are based on the juices from a roast, or the stuck-on bits from a chop or steak. Country gravy, for example, might use butter or – traditionally – the rendered fat from sausage patties as the base for its roux, and you'd use milk as the liquid rather than broth. If you're avoiding saturated fats, plain vegetable oil will also work but won't add any flavor. Other starches can thicken your gravy through the slurry method, as well. Arrowroot and cornstarch give a clearer, less substantial gravy, and you'll only need to use about half as much as you would with flour. Potato starch works in much the same way, but gives a thicker result that feels more like flour gravy. All three of these purified starches are gluten free, which sometimes is a consideration.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.