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-glace, 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!