Gravy Theory

Submitted by John on Mon, 08/24/2020 - 13:27

I made some emergency gravy earlier this week and posted about it on Twitter. That got me thinking of writing down my "theory of gravy" and how I make it. This is not going to be a traditional recipe, as much as it's going to be a series of guidelines on how I make gravy. Hope you enjoy it.

What equipment do you need to make gravy? You need a pan of some sort. And a whisk. 

Gravy is a combination of four things:

  • An oil
  • A liquid
  • A thickening starch
  • Spices / flavorings / possible other additions (little bits of mushroom, for example)

Let's discuss the most flavorless gravy of all time:

  • Use flavorless vegetable oil
  • Use water
  • Use white flour
  • No spices

You will get bland goop. Some recipes call for bland goop, and I've been told some folks love it, but I am not a fan. Let's replace these flavorless ingredients with flavorful ingredients and see where we get.

Good oils to use:

  • Butter
  • Bacon grease
  • Roast meat drippings

Good liquids to use:

  • Again, roast meat drippings
  • Broth
  • Milk
  • Sometimes wine, or wine for a portion of the gravy (be careful of cooking wine, which might have too much salt in it. Don't add more than a small splash of salted wine to your gravy.)

Good spices / additions (pick some of these from this list):

  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Pepper
  • Garlic or onion powder
  • Chopped shallots
  • Tiny bits of mushrooms
  • MSG
  • Small amounts of vinegar (like, a capful)

Good starches:

White flour (I use this 99 percent of the time)
Freshly ground whole wheat flour (also works well)
Corn starch (I have very little experience with this)

How much of each ingredient?

In general I aim for a 50 percent water 50 percent oil situation, with just enough starch to thicken it to the right consistency.

NEVER add salt. Salt will intensify and concentrate, many of the ingredients (salted butter, broth) will already have salt in them.

Secret knowledge

Lets talk about food. You heat it up, and different parts of the food will turn into flavors. Some flavor components dissolve and become accessible in water. Some flavor components dissolve and become flavorful in acid, like vinegar or lemon juice. And some flavor components will only dissolve and open up in the presence of alcohol. If you really want to go all out, add a tiny splash of vinegar, and a tiny splash of white or red wine to your gravy when you add in the main liquid.

How do I get rid of lumps?

I have no idea because I don't give a shit about lumps. "Lumps in gravy" looks to me like some shit that someone made up to make other people feel guilty or inferior about their cooking. But hey, maybe you have a hangup about lumps. So if you really care about gravy lumps, my advice is to figure out how to make it taste good first, then google someone else who can give you instructions about avoiding gravy lumps.

Emergency Gravy

This is gravy from scratch, without any roast meat drippings.

  • Butter (or bacon grease)
  • Chicken Broth (or beef broth, or vegetable broth)
  • Flour
  • Dried thyme or cracked rosemary
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Get chicken broth ready ahead of time in a cup near the stove. At least one cup worth. Once you run out of broth you can use a little milk. Or wine if you have it. (If you run out of broth and need to thin the gravy you can use water, but you'll have watery gravy.)

Melt your butter but don't burn it. I usually have the stove on the lower side of medium.

Dump in a fair amount of flour, and start mixing right away with the whisk. If I have 4 tbsp of butter, maybe 1-2 heaping tablespoons of flour. I just eyeball it, I dunno.

Anyway, just start whisking and it will form a thick paste. Now quickly and smoothly add a small bit of broth. Do not stop whisking. The water will loosen up the paste. It will feel loose, then it will thicken up again. Add a small bit of broth again, it will loosen, and thicken. Do not stop whisking. Keep adding liquid, a small bit at a time, until the gravy is at the desired consistency.

At any point in the above process, add some dried thyme, cracked rosemary, and/or ground pepper. Putting it in with the melted butter is best but often I forget and it usually winds up fine anyway.

Roast chicken or turkey gravy

Okay, so you have roasted your bird. And you have some leftover drippings, and you don't want them to go to waste. What next?

This is what I do. I usually make the gravy with all of the drippings, but maybe you have a massive amount of drippings and only want to use some. Whatever. Maybe you don't have enough drippings because you just know you don't from eyeballing it, that's fine.

Assemble butter, flour, and broth. Again, any fresh or dried herbs, and also have your pepper grinder at hand.

Either decant drippings into a medium sized saucepan, or, depending on how you roasted your bird or meat, you can make gravy right in the pan you roasted the meat in.

Get those drippings lightly simmering over a medium low heat. Taste. This is a good time to add herbs, ground pepper, and/or a capful of vinegar and a splash of wine.

Are the drippings very very heavy on the fat? Then you'll roughly proceed as with emergency gravy above.

But maybe they are more watery than oily. In this case, whisk and slowly add flour to thicken. With emergency gravy, make paste with all flour and oil, then add water to consistency. But with most drippings, you'll be adding flour to thicken it.

Now, this is usually where I get the lumps in. I'm terrible at evenly sprinkling the flour so I don't get lumps. I just keep whisking and don't bother with the lumps, personally.

If you accidentally add too much flour and it gets too thick, cut off a few pats of butter, and add a little chicken broth or milk to the gravy in progress, and get it back to the right consistency.

I cooked meat in a pan and it has all of these wonderful browned bits and now I want mushroom gravy

Remove pan from heat. Be honest: are those wonderful browned bits, or did they get a little blackened? If you cooked your meat at too high of a temp and the browned bits have verged on burned bits, don't make gravy with it.

Those browned bits are called "fond" by the way.

Anyway your pan is off the heat, right?

Chop up your shallots, and your mushrooms. Figure out what oil you will use for the gravy. This is a case where you could use a neutral vegetable oil if you don't want a very buttery gravy, because the fond will be providing so much flavor. Also you can use water here, because you will be making a broth out of the fond. But also be ready with some chicken or beef broth (or light white wine) for adjustments as you go. Get your flour out.

Heat up your pan again. Pour in a bit of oil, and the mushrooms and shallots. Let them sit in the oil a moment, then quickly, before the fond starts to brown any further, add a half a cup or so of water (or wine, or broth if you want). The goal is to dissolve all of that stuff crusted on the bottom of your pan.

Taste what you have going on. It should be watery, and you are going to simmer off some of that moisture and concentrate it. This is also the time to add any additional herbs or additional flavorings here. Add a tiny splash of vinegar as well.

If you are going for a very mushroom forward gravy, then brown the mushroom bits in some oil in a separate pan for additional flavor.

Add oil if needed. Taste, see how it's coming together. When you like it, start slowly adding flour to thicken, whisking continually.

Okay, now what?

Go find some gravy recipes. Pick an interesting one and try it. The more times you make it, the better you'll get at it. You can add more liquid or less to change up the consistency. You know the basics, so you understand what's going on.