Gravies and Pan Sauces

(I’m in the process of updating this post…more to come…)

There really isn’t anything mysterious about gravy; no reason the liquids, powders, packets or jars (usually pricey & full of chemicals) that are sold. Somehow, some time ago, someone discovered if you cooked flour (or some other thickening agent) with some kind of fat, then added liquid and boiled it, it was wonderful. If you can make stew or any dish that contains a white sauce, frankly you can make gravy – and you are!

Beef Stew with Wine (or not) and Bacon.
Beef Stew with Wine (or not) and Bacon.

Gravy is often associated with special occasions, and for the cook, often with a huge flurry of stressful activity right before a holiday meal is done. Many of us only make gravy on just such an occassion. It’s really so simple and so good, there’s no real reason not to have it more often – other than, perhaps, our waistlines. A bit of understanding can eliminate a lot of the hectic, hassle involved.

Gravies and Pan Sauces are generally made one of five ways:

  1. Roux Based Gravy: Butter, oil, or drippings containing fat are heated, flour (or another thickener is added) and then liquid is added in the form of broth, stock, milk, cream, or some combination. This mixture is often simmered to thicken and sometimes reduced. The fat/flour combination is known as a “roux.
  2. Pan Sauce: Meat, poultry of fish can be dusted with flour (or cornstarch in Asian cooking) then sautéed and a gravy formed by adding liquid to the pan.The residual flour from the cooking forms the gravy or “sauce.” This is actually almost like the first method, but the resulting sauces are generally a bit lighter than a standard gravy made with a roux.
  3. Slurry Gravy: A liquid (usually broth, drippings and flavorings) is heated and then thickened with a slurry. A slurry is a bit of thickener (cornstarch, flour, arrowroot, file powder, etc.) mixed with water. The slurry is and added into the heated liquid and boiled or simmered to a thickened sauce.
  4. Vegetable Based: Vegetables are sautéed or cooked with the entrée and then mashed, pureed or strained to form a sauce, often thinned with a bit of stock or broth, and then sometimes thickened or not with a slurry or by reducing.
  5. Beurre manié: French “kneaded butter,” equal amounts of butter and flour are kneaded together, then added in (off heat) to slightly thicken a sauce, soup or other dish. As the dish slightly cools, the thickening becomes a bit more apparent and the finished dish has a rich shine to it.

When we in the U.S., especially those of European descent, think of gravy, we generally think of flour gravies, roux based. A lot of what we think of as white sauces are really just roux based gravies and visa versa. The second gravy, the “pan sauce” method is also extremely popular and tends to (but not always) be a bit lighter than those gravies made with a roux. Gravies made with slurries as a thickener are often considered to be a little less “gourmet” although done right, they’re every bit as good as the roux based gravies. The strained vegetable types seem to have fallen a bit out of fashion, although it is a fantastic technique. Unless you’re a French cook, you’ll likely seldom see Beurre Manie used, but it does come up now and then in fancy dishes.

As you can see, there is some overlap of the processes. The gravy, though, that puts most fear in the heart of the occasional cook, though, is the first, the roux-based.

Roux based Gravies:

Chicken Fried Steak with Country Gravy.
Chicken Fried Steak with Country Gravy.

Most Roux based gravies start out with equal amounts of fat and thickener heated together, generally 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of each, then liquid is whisked in, generally around 2 1/4 to 3 cups. These gravies are simmered anywhere from a few minutes up to twenty.

  • The fat in these gravies is often drippings, and sometimes uses the meat that resulted in the fat (or a part of that meat.) Examples might be a sausage gravy where the gravy is made by mixing the flour into the sausage or or a turkey gravy that adds in the giblets from the turkey. Often, no meat is used, and many beef, turkey and country gravies use only the drippings. Many Roux gravies start out with only oil or butter. Dark or “red” roux is a prime example as is the ubiquitous White Sauce.
  • The liquid in a Roux gravy can be milk, cream or other dairy, broth, stock or demi-glace or a combination of the above. A flavoring, in the form of a liquid, may be added, too. Wine, other alcohols, beer, fruit juices, vinegar, coffee and/or liquor come to mind. Porcini or dried mushrooms may be soaked in water, then finely chopped for the gravy, and the resulting broth used as a part of the liquid.
  • Generally, you’ll use white wine in poultry or cream gravies, like this one in Creamed Chipped Beef & Artichokes. Sherry in cream gravies, Red wines and beers generally go with beef or pork. Brandy is often used in Bouef Bourguignon. You’ll see other combinations, and exceptions, though.
  • Quite often, certain vegetables are sautéed in the butter/oil/fat prior to the flour being added, normally things like onion, shallot, garlic, and perhaps mushrooms or other vegetables.
  • An acidic or sweet flavoring may be added, in small amounts: dark jellies or jams, lemon or vinegar. These are generally used to “brighten” the gravy or enrich and deepen the flavor, but don’t stand out as a noticeable flavor on their own. If a gravy tastes a bit flat or lifeless, try a bit of one of these, starting with about a half a teaspoon or so, and see if it doesn’t improve. If it seems to be on it’s way, add a bit more.
  • Gravies may be seasoned just with salt and pepper, or may contain a variety of other seasonings. Thyme seems to go particularly well with any pork or beef gravy, marjoram or poultry seasoning with any poultry gravy, but you’ll also see tarragon used quite often along with a number of herbs and spices.  Hot sauce is used often in cream gravies, especially sausage gravy.

Basic Flour Based Roux Gravy: (about 2 cups)

  • Use 1/4 cup drippings and browned bits from the bottom of the pan your item was cooked in. If there isn’t enough of the drippings, you’ll generally add butter to make up the difference. If there are a lot of drippings, say from a turkey or roast, drain them off and then using a separator or a spoon, remove that quarter cup of of the fat and put it back in the pan. Reserve the broth for the gravy. (You can also pour all the broth into a large Ziploc bag, let it settle, and then snip a small hole in a bottom corner, letting the broth drain out and stopping before the fat gets down to the bottom. If you have time, you may refrigerate or freeze and then pull off the hardened fat.)
  • Heat the fat then add  3 – 4 tablespoons flour. Cook two to three minutes, stirring.  This helps cook out the flour taste. There’s also some food science behind this that has to do with lengthening and tangling the proteins that is beyond me.
  • Slowly add 2 1/4 cups of liquid, continuously whisking. Simmer slowly several minutes to thicken.
  • I’ve seen some cooks heat drippings and add in flour and liquid that has been shaken in a jar; to my mind it’s just not as good and the flavor is less developed – this falls under the category of a slurry gravy.

Gravy from almost Nothing (Roux Based)

Cook’s Illustrated – November 2003, about 2 cups

  • 1 small carrot , peeled and chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 small rib celery , chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 small onion , chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 3/4 cup)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • Table salt and ground black pepper

In food processor, pulse carrot until broken into rough 1/4-inch pieces, about five 1-second pulses. Add celery and onion; pulse until all vegetables are broken into 1/8-inch pieces, about five 1-second pulses.

Heat butter in large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat; when foaming subsides, add vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and well browned, about 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Whisking constantly, gradually add broths; bring to boil, skimming off any foam that forms on surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and add bay leaf, thyme, and peppercorns; simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to 3 cups, 20 to 25 minutes.

Strain gravy through fine-mesh strainer into clean saucepan, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard solids. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Notes:

  • If you would like to double the recipe, use a Dutch oven to give the vegetables ample space for browning and increase the cooking times by roughly 50 percent.
  • The finished gravy can be frozen. To thaw either a single or double recipe, place the gravy and 1 tablespoon of water in a saucepan over low heat and bring slowly to a simmer. The gravy may appear broken or curdled as it thaws, but a vigorous whisking will recombine it.

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