The Merriam-Webster’s defines “gravy”(\ˈgrā-vē\) as “a sauce made from the juices of cooked meat.” And also as “something valuable or pleasing that is more than what is earned or expected.”
While the first part of this textbook definition is pretty matter of fact, the second statement accurately describes the gift of great gravy. And—if we are being honest with ourselves—gravy is the criteria by which cooks are classified. A poorly made gravy can completely destroy a beautiful biscuit. A broken sauce allows separated fat to seep out onto a plate, leaving a seemingly curdled lump on your pot roast or perfectly broiled bird. A great gravy elevates any dish to another plane of existence, allowing it to exceed our expectations altogether.
Gravy making is a daunting task to many cooks, but maybe it’s because—as the above definition indicates—it seems more difficult because we have made the very idea overly complicated. So, lets take it at face value. Gravy is simply a sauce made from the juices of cooked meat. This is a word derived from Middle English, and possibly taken from old French. It’s is really old school. A lot of folks in modern haute cuisine have disguised their gravy with gussied up terminology, such as “jus” or “sugo.” It’s nice to play dress up, and sometimes its fun to use exotic accents, but—in the end—it’s all just gravy.
It may be unfair to criticize cooks for using regional nomenclature to classify their gravy because the very makeup and technique behind gravy is proven to be hyper-regional. Take, for instance, a southern american style gravy or country gravy, most often served with biscuits. This style of gravy is made using a roux—a mixture of fat and flour that is used to thicken the gravy.
A good roux can be hard to come by for some cooks. It is a very simple task that could lead to several missteps resulting in lumpy gravy or an overpowering taste of undercooked wheat flour. If a little bit of time and attention are spared in the process of cooking the roux, the end result will be substantially better.
I am partial to using ratios in cooking when possible. They are easily translated and easily scaled, and—if followed correctly—they are consistent. I have a roux ratio that has always given me great results: 2 T fat and 2 T flour with 2 cups of liquid. And in the case of a southern country gravy, it’s usually best to use 1 1/2 C whole milk and 1/2 C hot water.
My wife laughs at my ratios, but she has been making country gravy since she was a child. And I will freely admit that her gravy is magical. She eyeballs every step of the process and consistently makes some of the best gravy I have ever eaten. Maybe I will talk her into teaching a gravy master class one day, but for now I trust my ratio.
There are many variations on this style of gravy. Bacon, sausage, or ham could be added. Onion gravy is a derivative of this method. And even chocolate gravy is made using the roux method by adding cocoa powder to the mix. Just be sure to have a good biscuit handy when your gravy is ready, and all will be right in the world.
Country gravy is probably the most widely made gravy in American households, but there are many more techniques that are just as easy to make. Take jus, for instance. Jus is most simply a reduction of juices produced throughout the cooking process, or a reduction of stock made from simmering the roasted bones left over from butchery. There are a few guidelines to follow when making stock and jus.
Making Stock and Jus
To make great stock, take any bones left over from butchery or a roast. (Or order beef bones or chicken backs and frames from Grass Roots.) Roast the bones with some mire poix—chopped carrot, celery and onion—in a 375 degree oven until they are nice and brown in color. Place everything in a big stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil and then cut it back to a simmer. Let the stock simmer for several hours and then strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any sediment. Making a jus is as simple as reducing stock slowly to thicken it. A variety of aromatics can be added, such as fresh herbs or whole spices. But be mindful of seasoning and wait until the desired consistency is reached before using salt or acid, because reducing any liquid will concentrate the flavors. Don’t be afraid to make too much stock or jus. It can be frozen for later.
The great thing about gravy is that it can turn a simple bowl of grains into a delicious and nourishing meal. I would bet that some civilizations survived for long periods of time on gravy and grains alone. Using these simple techniques will ensure your survival for a bit longer, or at least get your dinner guests asking for your secret to great gravy.
2 T fat, (butter, bacon, or sausage fat work best)
2 T flour
1 1/2 C whole milk
1/2 C hot water
Combine the fat and flour in a skillet or sauce pan and stir until homogenous. Keep the heat on medium and cook the roux until it begins to loosen up and starts to brown slightly. Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly to avoid any lumps. Add hot water until the gravy is a little looser than desired and then simmer until the gravy thickens to the perfect consistency. Season with salt, cracked pepper, and hot sauce and serve over warm and fluffy biscuits.