October 10, 2014
What's Cooking

My Gravy Train

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The Fords may not approve, but I make lots, in advance . . . . 

Mayor Rob Ford was always badmouthing “the gravy.” Sorry, Mr. Mayor, sometimes you just gotta have it.

Granted, Ford was talking in clichés about lavish spending. And I’m talking about actual lavish gravy. Savory, velvety gravy that you are tempted to guzzle like soup. Gravy that makes your lips smack. Better than crack, I say.

       My gravy boat runneth over. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

That kind of gravy doesn’t come out of a package or a can. It is gravy you make yourself. Good news: Even with minimal cooking skills, you, too, can jump on the gravy train. More good news: You can make gravy in advance. You don’t even have to wait for a roast. The best news: Never again will you have to skimp on the gravy.

Summer’s over and, poof, we are suddenly diving into feasting season. The best gravy is made from the drippings of a roast beast or bird. But this is never enough – especially at holiday meals, when everyone at the table is clamouring for a bucket of gravy. No wonder I have started to prepare basic gravy in advance. If I have a roast, I work some magic with the drippings, then supplement with my Hasty Gravy. (I call this combination Land of Plenty Gravy.) If I don’t have a roast, I serve Hasty Gravy impromptu – simple enough to make on a whim. In either scenario, presto, the gravy boat runneth over.

It’s election season as well as feasting season, with the seemingly interminable politicking culminating on Oct. 27. Mayor Rob Ford and The-Man-Who-Would-Be-Mayor Doug Ford don’t approve of lavish amounts of gravy. But who cares about Tweedledum and Tweedledumber? And who cares that we are talking about two different things? This weekend, my mind is on dinner, not politics. So pass the gravy. I want it, and lots of it, for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, and just because.

Recipes: Hasty Gravy and variations Hasty Cider Gravy, Hasty Curry Gravy, Hasty Herb Gravy, Hasty Red Wine Gravy, Hasty Wine & Bacon Gravy; Hasty Peppery Mushroom Gravy; Hasty Mushroom & Port Gravy and variation Pan Mushroom & Port Gravy; Hasty Gravy (Gluten-Free) and variations Hasty Cider Gravy (Gluten-Free), Hasty Curry Gravy (Gluten-Free), Hasty Herb Gravy (Gluten-Free), Hasty Red Wine Gravy (Gluten-Free), Hasty Wine & Bacon Gravy (Gluten-Free); Hasty Peppery Mushroom Gravy (Gluten-Free); Hasty Mushroom & Port Gravy (Gluten-Free); Land of Plenty Gravy and variations Land of Plenty Gravy (Gluten-Free), Land of Plenty Peppery Mushroom Gravy, Land of Plenty Mushroom & Port Gravy; Dripping Gravy and variation Dripping Gravy (Gluten-Free); Vege-Gravy and variation Mushroom Vege-Gravy; Southern Tomato Gravy; Black Cumin Gravy; Poutine Gravy.

       Stock + starch + fat = gravy.

The Elements of Gravy

Your basic gravy is a mixture of stock (and other liquids), thickener (usually flour or cornstarch) and fat, with flavour boosters thrown in, plus potential drippings from a roast.

Stock Etc: In an ideal world, you’d use homemade stock. But don’t let that stop you. Consider other stock options. Commercial chicken or beef stock (I recommend the low-sodium kind) is an acceptable base for impromptu gravy.

If you have juices from a roast, you can add them. To obtain juices, pour drippings into a gravy separator. The fat will float to the top and can be skimmed separately. Also, to capture more juices, always rest meat, tented with foil, before cutting it on a board with a trough. That way, the flavourful juices won’t puddle onto the counter. Add captured juices to your stock of, well, stock for gravy, or simply pour them into finished gravy.

If desired, throw some alcohol into the mix. Dry red or white wine, port, marsala or hard cider are all good choices. Note that acidity weakens the thickening power of flour or cornstarch. If you are adding an acidic ingredient such as wine, set aside some liquid (say 1 tbsp/15 mL per 1 cup/250 mL) at the start of the recipe. Then whisk some or all of that reserved liquid into the finished gravy to obtain the consistency you desire.

To make a super-velvety gravy, replace some of the stock with heavy cream (35%). Use up to 1 tbsp (15 mL) cream per 1 cup (250 mL) total liquid. To use less cream to greater effect, whisk it until thickened but not stiff, then stir it into the gravy. Alternatively, make gravy satiny by adding lower-fat evaporated milk.

A recipe starting with 4 cups (1 L) liquid will make at least 3-1/2 cups (875 mL) gravy.

Fat: Drippings from a roast beef or bird are ideal, if you have them. Otherwise, choose a tasty fat, such as butter, bacon grease, duck fat or schmaltz.

Thickeners: Flour and cornstarch are the two traditional choices. Gravy made with flour is velvety; gravy made with cornstarch is silky. Although cornstarch has its advantages, I prefer to use flour. Cornstarch has more thickening power, and creates gravy that’s lighter and gluten-free. Unfortunately, cornstarch gravy looks gelatinous (especially as it cools) and is less stable (so the gravy loosens and thins as time passes).

The techniques and ratios for gravy prepared with flour vs. cornstarch are slightly different:

  • Flour can taste “raw” unless it is stirred with fat and cooked briefly before the stock is added. This step also adds a pleasant nuttiness to the resulting gravy.

Per 4 cups (1 L) liquid, use 1/4 cup (60 mL) fat and 1/2 cup (125 mL) flour.

  • Cornstarch must first be stirred with some of the stock (cold, please) to make a slurry, or thin paste. Then it is gradually poured into hot stock in the pan. Always give the slurry a big stir before adding it to the pan, as it will separate as it sits. Food scientists say cornstarch has twice the thickening power of flour – in other words, 1 tbsp (15 mL) of cornstarch supposedly equals 2 tbsp (30 mL) of flour. Still, when using cornstarch to thicken gravy, I often add a couple of extra tablespoons as insurance. (Cornstarch is such a fine powder that volume measurements can vary a lot from cook to cook.)

Per 4 cups (1 L) liquid, use 1/4 cup (60 mL) fat and 4 to 6 tbsp (60 to 90 mL) cornstarch.

Flavour Boosters

  • If you’ve got giblets, use them. First, toss the wee liver to the family pet. Then place the gizzards, heart and neck in a small pan, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt, put on the lid, and simmer at least 30 minutes. Strain, then add this quick homemade stock to your stock of, well, stock.
  • Before using store-bought stock for gravy, you can simmer it with herbs, such as thyme stalks, parsley sprigs or sage leaves.
  • Don’t forget to add umami to your gravy, in the form of lip-smacking, savory glutamates. Soy sauce and worcestershire sauce are the best choices. A few dashes of Maggi seasoning, a favourite of old European cooks, will also do the job.

Per 4 cups (1 L) liquid, add 1 tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce or worcestershire sauce. 

  • Upgrade your gravy with wine, port, sherry, marsala or even a dash of scotch/bourbon in place of some of the stock.
  • You can stir up to 1 tbsp (30 mL) dried herb/seasoning blends into gravy. Try poultry seasoning, herbes de provence, Italian seasoning, Cajun seasoning, curry powder.
  • Add a touch of intrigue with a spoonful of instant coffee granules or cocoa powder.
  • To maximize flavour, remember two fancy chef words: “fond” and “deglazing.” The fond refers to the browned bits stuck to the bottom of a roasting pan (or skillet or dutch oven). The fond is a repository of deep, complex flavours. Deglazing refers to adding liquid to the pan and scraping the fond. To do so, transfer your roast beef or bird to a wooden cutting board with a trough, tent it with foil and let it rest to redistribute the juices. Meanwhile, place the roasting pan over two burners, add some stock or alcohol (such as white wine or hard cider), and bring it to a boil while scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Supplement with stock if necessary. You can strain this liquid and add it to your finished gravy.

       No lumps in the gravy, please.

Gravy Doctor

It’s lumpy!

  • To prevent lumps, be patient. While whisking the flour and fat, slowly and gradually add stock/liquid, whisking until smooth after each addition. You can do this off the heat to slow down the process.
  • If you somehow end up with lumpy gravy, press it through a fine-mesh sieve. (For this pressing task, I find a wire whisk to be the most efficient tool.) If the gravy is thickened with flour, whirl it briefly using an immersion blender. (Warning: This would break down cornstarch-based gravy.)

It’s thin!

  • Keep in mind that gravy thickens as it cools. So your just-finished hot gravy in the pan should appear slightly thinner than you wish it to be.
  • Never put a lid on your hot and ready gravy, or you’ll get an unpleasant surprise. The steam build-up can turn beautiful thick gravy into a watery disappointment. It’s better to let the gravy sit or even refrigerate it. When the time comes, reheat the gravy in a small pan on medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until bubbly. Or use the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds.
  • Add more starches. Combine flour/cornstarch and water into a slurry, then stir it into hot gravy, and simmer until thickened. For this job, you may also use beurre manié, a paste made of flour and butter. It can be added to sauce directly without creating lumps.
  • Unconventional remedies: Add some instant mashed potatoes or American cheese in the form of Velveeta or Kraft slices.

It’s thick!

  • Add more stock or a bit of wine or cider.

It’s salty!

  • Add a pinch of sugar or a tiny spoonful of vinegar. Or add more liquid and thickener. (See above.)

It’s off-colour!

  • If your gravy is pale, dash in some browning to darken it to a robust hue. This also helps gravy that appears gray. Next time, avoid aluminum pans, which can turn gravy gray. Exception: Anodized aluminum is fine.

B is for Browning: This is basically sugar so darkly caramelized that it has lost its sweetness. Browning is a colour booster, not a flavour booster. It is used as food colouring in everything from gravy to cake. Supermarkets sell it.

It has a skin!

  • Cooled gravy will develop a skin. Discard the skin or whisk it back in when reheating.
  • As a preventive measure, press greased plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the gravy once it cools to lukewarm.
  • Use all-purpose flour. Gravy made with hard flour, such as bread flour, is more apt to develop a skin. Gravy made with cake and pastry flour is least likely to develop a skin, but is less effective as a thickener.