Gravy — the real Mother (and Father) sauce

Clas­si­cal­ly trained chefs, please stop read­ing this col­umn now.

OK, you’ve been warned.

In clas­sic French cook­ing there are five moth­er sauces, as first set forth by Marie-Antoine Carême and lat­er revised by Auguste Escoffi­er: Béchamel, Velouté, Espag­nol, Toma­to and Hollandaise.

These are called moth­er sauces because they’re the start­ing point for hun­dreds of sauces. James Peter­son gives over 300 sauce recipes in his book, Sauces: Clas­sic and Con­tem­po­rary Sauce Mak­ing, oth­er books on the art of sauc­ing also have sev­er­al hun­dred sauce recipes.

Most home cooks have made a cheese sauce from a white (Béchamel) sauce base and a sauce can become a main dish, like Turkey A La King or that clas­sic Army stand­by, creamed chipped beef.

A few years ago I got to think­ing about gravy. What is gravy?

Peter­son clas­si­fies it as a ‘jus’, but think­ing about it, a gravy is made from a starch, usu­al­ly either wheat flour or corn­starch, a fat (the drip­pings) and a liq­uid, often the juices from the meat, which are sim­i­lar to a stock.

OK, I thought, on the moth­er sauce tree, gravy should be under Velouté. Or if your moth­er made milk gravy for chick­en, it’s a vari­ant on Béchamel. What­ev­er it is clas­si­fied as, it’s the most fre­quent­ly made sauce in most home kitchens, so it’s some­thing we should strive to be good at.

So, before the cook­ing police descend upon this site for debas­ing their art, let’s talk about gravy.

I love gravy, don’t you? Mashed pota­toes seem point­less with­out gravy, and a splash of gravy will perk up near­ly any meat and com­ple­ment many side dishes.

I took over the gravy-mak­ing task in our kitchen some years ago, because I find it fair­ly effort­less to make, and my wife says my gravy is far bet­ter than hers, so she’s per­fect­ly con­tent to let me make it even if she does the main course, which these days is also infre­quent. (I used to work from home but am now retired, she works at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka dur­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic year, so I took over most of the cook­ing tasks about a decade ago.)

But I cheat a lit­tle. I don’t just use the drip­pings from the pro­tein (beef, chick­en, turkey, goose, duck, etc), I sup­ple­ment them a bit by start­ing with a white (but­ter-and-flour) roux. Then I add in the drip­pings for fla­vor, and final­ly I add stock, either made from today’s pro­tein or pre-made. Start­ing with a roux base prob­a­bly makes my gravies more like a clas­sic velouté, which should appease the kitchen police some­what. (You ARE still read­ing, aren’t you??)

If you make some­thing that releas­es a lot of fat, like a duck or a goose, you may want to let the drip­pings sit to cool and sep­a­rate. Oth­er­wise you can wind up with too much fat and not enough starch. You want rough­ly equal amounts of fat and starch to make a roux. A wheat flour based roux made from a table­spoon of fat and a table­spoon of flour will thick­en about a cup of liq­uid. Corn­starch is slight­ly bet­ter as a thick­en­ing agent than wheat flour, so a table­spoon of corn­starch (usu­al­ly done as a slur­ry rather than a roux) will thick­en about a cup and a half of liq­uid. Pota­to starch is even stronger.

If you have to wor­ry about gluten issues, you can use oth­er starch­es in place of wheat when mak­ing a roux, such as rice flour, tapi­o­ca flour. arrow­root or gar­ban­zo bean flour.

In On Food and Cook­ing, Harold McGee ranks the starch­es as thick­en­ing agents in this order, strongest to weak­est: Pota­to, tapi­o­ca, corn­starch, wheat. My own exper­i­ments sug­gest that the list should con­tin­ue with arrow­root and gar­ban­zo bean with rice flour at the bot­tom. Brown rice flour seems to have a bit more thick­en­ing pow­er than white rice flour, but I think it adds a harsh or bit­ter flavor.

I make beef, turkey and chick­en stock in large quan­ti­ties and freeze it, I also have goose, duck and veal stock on hand. (Some years ago I tried my hand at mak­ing demi-glacé, but that’s a sub­ject for anoth­er day.)

My freez­er bailed me out last Thanks­giv­ing when I dis­cov­ered that the turkey breast I was mak­ing (there were just 3 of us so a whole turkey seemed like overkill) did­n’t have any giblets or a neck, so I just thawed out a pint of frozen turkey stock. Hav­ing stock avail­able also comes in handy if you use cook­ing meth­ods that don’t cre­ate many drip­pings, like a grill. I haven’t done any sous vide cook­ing yet, so I’m not sure whether it pro­duces true drip­pings or not.

Late­ly I’ve been deglaz­ing the pan drip­pings with a lit­tle ver­mouth, or some­times some sher­ry. Using an alco­hol to deglaze a pan has the advan­tage of dis­solv­ing the drip­pings (also called the fond) bet­ter, then you cook (most of) the alco­hol off before you add it to the gravy. I haven’t decid­ed yet if I like sweet or dry ver­mouth bet­ter for deglaz­ing, I’ve got both on hand.

So, armed with drip­pings and stock, your starch of pref­er­ence, some ver­mouth and a stick of but­ter, it’s time to gravy up!

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  • #7583
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    Classically trained chefs, please stop reading this column now. OK, you've been warned. In classic French cooking there are five mother sauces, as first set forth by Marie-Antoine Carême and later rev
    [See the full post at: Gravy - the real Mother (and Father) sauce]

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    #7590
    BakerAunt
    Participant

    Thanks for a great article, Mike. Like you, I always have chicken/turkey stock in the freezer

    Lately, I've been using regular ClearJel, rather than flour, to thicken my gravies. I also find that a flat whisk is most helpful.

    #7591
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    I generally use a 'granny fork', though for larger quantities of gravy (like when I'm making a big batch of chicken pot pies), I'll use a silicone spatula.

    Back when we were first married, my wife was thickening some gravy with cornstarch, and got some lumps, probably because she added the cornstarch directly to the gravy rather than make a slurry. I showed her how to beat the lumps out with a granny fork. A few months later we were visiting her mother and my wife said something about how I had shown her how to get lumps out of gravy.

    Her mother simply said, "I never get lumps in gravy."

    #7600
    KIDPIZZA
    Participant

    Classically trained chefs, please stop reading this column now. OK, you’ve been warned. In classic French cooking there are five mother sauces, as first set forth by Marie-Antoine Carême and later rev[See the full post at: Gravy – the real Mother (and Father) sauce]

    MIKE:
    Good afternoon. Being that I wasn't able to locate your mentioning the five (5)
    MOTHER SAUCES I thought I would post them for anyone who would like to know their formal names.

    COMES NOW:
    (1) BECHAMEL SAUCE
    (2) HOLLANDAISE SAUCE
    (3) VELOUTE SAUCE
    (4) SAUCE ESPAGNOLE
    (5) TOMATO SAUCE

    I hope my spelling is correct. I remember it like this from my lessons at culinary college many many years ago. The course was COOKING #101 & GARDE MANGE.

    HAVE A NICE DAY.

    ~CASS/ KIDPIZZA.

    I generally use a ‘granny fork’, though for larger quantities of gravy (like when I’m making a big batch of chicken pot pies), I’ll use a silicone spatula.

    Ba3)ck when we were first married, my wife was thickening some gravy with cornstarch, and got some lumps, probably because she added the cornstarch directly to the gravy rather than make a slurry. I showed her how to beat the lumps out with a granny fork. A few months later we were visiting her mother and my wife said something about how I had shown her how to get lumps out of gravy.

    Her mother simply said, “I never get lumps in gravy.”

    #7605
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    The original article does list them.

    Of the five mother sauces, espagnole is seldom used except as a base for other sauces. I made it once as part of making a batch of demi-glace. a task that took about 2 1/2 days. It's interesting that of the two dozen or so trained chefs that I know, NONE of them have ever made demi-glace from scratch, not even back in cooking school. Most chefs who use demi-glace buy concentrated demi-glace for use in their kitchens.

    Michael Ruhlman does talk about the process of making demi-glace in his book, "The Making of a Chef".

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