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 a stew or any dish that contains a white sauce, frankly you can make gravy – and you already are!

The BEST beef stew, with wine or not, with bacon or not. Serve over mashed or noodles.

The BEST beef stew, with wine or not, with bacon or not. Serve over mashed or noodles.

I’m a home cook (In the U. S.) and not a chef, and while a chef might classify gravies differently (based on classic cuisines) the gravies I typically make to get dinner on the table are usually made using one of the five methods, below. So this is my simple, down and dirty home cooking classification for gravies.

As you can see, when you read the below, there is some overlap of the processes for gravies. Not one method is used strictly for all the gravy. The gravy, though, that puts most fear in the heart of the occasional holiday cook, though, is the first, the roux-based gravy.

Roux based Gravy:

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.

Most Roux based gravies start out with equal amounts of fat and thickener heated together while whisking, generally, 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of each. When the fat/flour mixture (the roux) has cooked for a minute or two so it loses its raw taste, the liquid is whisked in, a bit at a time, while whisking like mad, usually around 2 1/4 to 3 cups. These gravies are simmered anywhere from a few minutes up to twenty to thicken and/or reduce a bit to intensify the flavor. Roux based gravies can be a white, light-colored or dark depending on what they are made from.

  • Many roux gravies are based on the “drippings” or the “fond” which is just what’s left in the bottom of the pan after something is roasted or sauteed. That’s any oil or animal-based fat along with any flavorful, browned bits and/or residue. Flour is added and cooked, then stock or broth. These are usually your typical chicken, turkey or beef gravies.
  • Sometimes roux gravies are made by sprinkling flour over a cooked meat, then cooked to take off that raw flour taste, then the liquid is added as above. An example would be making a white “country” or sausage gravy by sprinkling the flour over the cooked sausage and then adding a combination of milk and/or cream and sometimes stock or broth. These are usually in the category of “white sauces” at least for my classification. An example would be this recipe for Classic Biscuits & Sausage Gravy.
  • Sometimes roux based gravies are made by cooking aromatics or other vegetables (onions, shallots, celery, carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, depending on what you are making) with butter or oil (with or without drippings) and the flour is sprinkled over them and cooked in the same way. A good example would be the gravy in these Chicken Pot Pies.
  • The liquid added to a Roux gravy can be milk, cream or another dairy, broth, stock or demi-glace or a combination of the above, and more seldom, tomatoes with their liquid. Chefs might classify these by classic names depending on the liquid used but the bottom line is they’re all roux based gravies.
  • A flavoring, in the form of a liquid, may be added to your gravy, 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 soaking liquid used in the gravy.
  • Usually, you’ll use white wine in poultry or cream gravies, like this one in Creamed Chipped Beef & Artichokes. Sherry is sometimes added to cream gravies. Red wines and beer generally go with beef or pork. Brandy is often used in Bouef Bourguignon. You’ll see other combinations, and exceptions, though.
  • 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 its 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.

 

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 or another liquid and either a) shaken in a jar or b) stirred or whisked together. The slurry is then added into the heated liquid and boiled or simmered to a thickened sauce. In all of these Slurry Gravies, you’ll want to add the thickener first then the liquid so it mixes together easily.

  • Cornstarch or Arrowroot Slurry: You’ll see this method being used often in Asian and Asian American dishes, with cornstarch and water used to thicken the sauce, like in this Beef, Bell Pepper & Tomatoes recipe. Add the cornstarch first to the bottom of a small container and then add cold water, stirring, to make a “slurry.”
  • Slurry gravies, especially ones using cornstarch, in Standard American dishes are often associated with “cheap” diner food and considered to be “less gourmet” but that doesn’t always have to be the case. This gorgeous Pork Tenderloin, from the acclaimed chef Thomas Keller, uses a cornstarch slurry.
  • As far as flour slurries go, many home cooks will mix together flour and a little liquid in a jar, shake it vigorously to remove any lumps or simply stir flour and liquid in a small cup and add it to liquid, usually cooking liquid and or drippings to make a gravy. The gravy thickens as it simmers. I use this method in my Instant Pot Pork Chop One Pot Meal.

Pan Sauces:

Many pan sauces are just a light gravy, where the meat, fish or poultry are removed, aromatics sauteed in the drippings and flour and liquid added in turn. They’re really roux based gravy, detailed above.

In other pan sauces, the meat, poultry or fish can be dusted with flour (or cornstarch in some cases, like in Asian cooking) then sautéed and a gravy formed by adding liquid to the pan with or without the protein still in the pan. That is what I think of as a “pan sauce” although there are other ways to get pan sauce, for sure and a lot of overlap in the methods.

 

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. The strained vegetable types seem to have fallen a bit out of fashion, although it is a fantastic technique.

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 another dish. As the dish slightly cools, the thickening becomes a bit more apparent and the finished dish has a rich shine to it. These are generally very thin saucelike gravies.   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.

 

Chicken Fried Steak with Country Gravy

Chicken Fried Steak with Country 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 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 has to do with lengthening and tangling the proteins that is beyond me.)
  • Slowly, a bit at a time, add 2 1/4 cups of liquid, continuously whisking. Simmer slowly several minutes to thicken.
Cook's Illustrated Gravy

Cook’s Illustrated Gravy from Almost Nothing

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 a food processor, pulse carrot until broken into roughly 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 the 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 a 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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