Monday, November 26, 2012

Making gravy

Yes, this picture is a repeat - but look! Gravy! See?
Along with bringing an apple pie, a bottle of prosecco, and a festive attitude, my main contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was making gravy. I kept asking if there was anything I could do to help, and at the appropriate moment, the hostess asked how I felt about taking on that task.

I used to get really freaked out about making gravy, probably because I had to teach myself how to make it and try to figure out what a roux was supposed to look like when I’d never seen anyone else make one. I remember spending a lot of time stressing about the roux – was it too thin? Too chunky? Had  I measured (or weighed) the ingredients precisely to get the right proportions? Had I cooked it long enough? Too long? Was it actually thickening the gravy?

Then, as I was working my way through the endlessly fascinating and instructive Ratio, I came to the chapter on roux, in particular this sentence: “…it’s most convenient to measure [the ingredients for roux] by sight, melting your butter to cook off some of the water and adding flour in increments until you have the consistency of a paste.” And, even though I’m sure I had come across the same basic information multiple times already in other places, somehow this time I finally absorbed that roux is a means to an end: thickening soup, sauce, or gravy. All you have to do is create a paste of fat (preferably, but not necessarily, butter) and flour, and it will do that job. How thick or thin you make the paste is up to you; the consistency of the finished product will vary depending upon that, plus how much liquid you then add. If the gravy is too thick, you can add more liquid; if it's too thin, you can turn up the heat and let it reduce for a few minutes.

Grasping those basic pieces of information completely demystified the gravy-making process for me, and removed  my need to consult recipes from then on. Now I just make gravy, following the same basic process, and varying the ingredients based upon where I want the finished product to end up.

Basic gravy method
In addition to being infinitely adaptable, this method also has the benefit of being able to be made almost entirely ahead. Rather than frantically trying to concoct gravy from scratch at the last minute when the rest of dinner is ready, you can do the first four steps earlier in the prep process, then stir in the drippings, season, and serve. Much less nerve-wracking if you, like me, are made tense by last-minute cooking.

Step 1: melt fat in a medium-sized saucepan over low-medium heat. (I generally use 2-3 Tbsp/30-45 g butter here, but sometimes I use bacon fat or olive oil instead. You can also sauté minced onions, garlic, mirepoix etc. at this step if you want that kind of thing in your gravy.)

Step 2: whisk flour into melted fat until you have created a paste in the bottom of the pan, and continue cooking for a couple of minutes until the flour is no longer raw. Michael Ruhlman says that a roux is cooked “when it begins to smell like a lightly cooked piecrust.”

Step 3: deglaze the pan with a healthy slug of wine and continue whisking. This usually turns the roux into a thick and fluffy paste in my experience. (I use either white or red, depending on what I’m making and what’s open, and have not hesitated to use sparkling wine if nothing else was handy.)

Step 4: pour in 1-2 cups/240-480 ml of liquid slowly, still whisking. (Milk for a creamy gravy; stock for a more standard gravy. On Thanksgiving, all that was available was water, so I used that.) Bring this just to a boil, then let simmer. At this point the roux should do its work and the gravy should thicken up.

Step 5: add drippings from whatever hunk of meat you’re making the gravy to accompany. (Sometimes it’s nice to remove the fat, but not always feasible.) Bring gravy back up to a simmer, stirring frequently to ensure everything is mixed consistently.

Step 6: taste and check seasonings; add salt and pepper, plus other seasonings as you deem appropriate. (I wait to salt until after adding the pan drippings, as these usually come from meat that has been salted, possibly making additional salt unnecessary.)

Step 7: serve hot.


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