Good gravy: Recipes get to the thick of it

Sausage gravy with hot biscuits and scrambled eggs BY JACK CLEMONS
December 2, 2013

This is the second of two articles on the subject of gravy. Last week covered different kinds of thickeners, so this week we’ll focus on a common challenge: It’s difficult to make good gravy. When serving multiple courses and dozens of dishes to a large group of people, there’s lots of pressure for everything to be ready at the right time, which often leaves gravy as an afterthought. Or, as has happened to me more than once, completely forgotten.

By way of definition, gravy is a sauce made from the juices and browned bits (called fond) left in the pan once you’ve cooked your fish filets, chicken parts, lamb chops or beef steak. A chemical transformation of the proteins, through a process known as the Maillard reaction, creates rich morsels of flavor, the basic building blocks of wonderful gravy.

The easiest type of gravy to make is a simple au jus. Once the meat is removed to a platter and tented with foil, pan drippings are deglazed with broth or wine or both. This is then simmered to reduce slightly and concentrate the flavors, which can be enhanced with herbs, salt and pepper. I’ve included a recipe for making an ersatz au jus, useful when you don’t have any pan drippings available for your French dip sandwich.

Adding a thickening agent will take you one step further along the gravy spectrum. Whisking in arrowroot (a good choice for gluten-free gravy), cornstarch (typically used in Chinese sauces) or flour will add body and a creamy texture. Remember that flour has just half the thickening power as the other two. The other difference with flour as a thickener is removing its somewhat dull, flat overtones.

One way to address the unwelcome addition of white flour to your brown gravy is to toast it in a dry skillet. Sprinkle about a quarter cup of flour in a dry metal pan (not nonstick) over medium-high heat. Watch closely and shake often so it doesn’t burn; after about 5 minutes you’ll have nicely tanned flour that will help thicken your gravy and enhance its dark color.

Another way to thicken and flavor your gravy is to add a roux. Melt one tablespoon of butter over medium heat; when it starts to bubble, stir in an equal amount of flour. This quickly forms a paste that will become darker the longer it’s cooked and stirred. Once your roux is a rich caramel color, whisk it into the gravy.

Lumps are a common problem with gravy, but there are ways to prevent them. Starting with the au jus, once you’ve deglazed the pan and dissolved all the bits, you shouldn’t see any lumps, unless there’s skin or gristle that’s fallen from the chicken or meat. Pour the au jus through a strainer to remove any unwanted particles. To keep lumps out of thicker gravies, don’t add the thickening agent directly to the pan of juices; instead, stir some of the hot liquid into the flour, returning it all to the pan once the flour is dissolved.

Although lumpy gravy is not usually desirable, there are times when the lumps are the prize, as in the Southern specialty of sausage gravy served with buttermilk biscuits (see photo). The recipe for this thick, creamy, savory gravy is impossibly easy. Crumble bulk sausage in a skillet and cook until it’s browned. Stir in flour, milk, lots of freshly ground pepper and all you need for a hearty breakfast are piping-hot biscuits.

As you think about your holiday menus, don’t be tempted by the packets, cans and jars that promise instant turkey gravy. You don’t have to consume all those unpronounceable ingredients and additives. The beautifully roasted bird will provide what you need to make the perfect gravy.

Turkey Gravy

1 1/2 C broth
1/4 C flour
1/2 C dry white wine
salt and pepper, to taste

Once the turkey is done, remove it to a carving board and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Place the roasting pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Add the broth and begin scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Stir until the solids are dissolved. Pour the deglazed pan drippings into a glass measuring cup and place it in the freezer for 15 minutes. Remove the measuring cup from the freezer and lift off about 1/4 C of solidified fat, reserving the liquid below and discarding any excess fat (or save it for another use). Melt the fat in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to create a paste and cook, stirring continuously, until nicely browned. Pour the reserved pan drippings through a strainer into the saucepan. Whisk until combined and add the wine. Continue to cook, stirring often, until reduced to the desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper; keep warm over very low heat.

Au Jus

1 t olive oil
1/4 C chopped onion
1 t minced garlic
2 T dry red wine
1 T Worcestershire sauce
2 1/2 C beef broth
1 t flour

In a saucepan, sauté the onions in olive oil until deep golden. Stir in garlic and cook for one minute. Deglaze the pan with wine; add Worcestershire sauce and simmer for one minute, stirring constantly. Add broth and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over low for 30 minutes. Strain broth and return to pan, discarding solids. Add flour and whisk until smooth over low heat.

Southern Sausage Gravy

1 lb bulk pork sausage
1/4 C flour
1 C milk
1 C half and half
1/8 t cayenne
salt and pepper, to taste

Crumble sausage in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, breaking up meat with a spoon, until completely browned. Sprinkle flour over sausage and stir until dissolved, about 1 minute. Add milk and half and half. Simmer, whisking frequently, until the gravy is thick and bubbly (add more milk if consistency becomes too thick). Stir in cayenne and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over hot buttermilk biscuits.

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