Here’s the truth about the biggest dinner of the year:
The turkey can be a little dry, the mashed potatoes a bit lumpy.
But it doesn’t matter when the gravy — that flavorful, velvety sauce — smothers the turkey and potatoes in a blanket of deliciousness before it gently pools on the plate, waiting to be soaked up by the nearest roll.
Which is to say that gravy takes the starring role in a Thanksgiving meal.
That’s a lot of pressure to place on the gravy maker, who is likely to be head cook, especially if said cook is a first-timer, who won’t realize until w-a-a-a-y too late that gravy making usually takes place at the last minute. Panic isn’t exclusive to the first-timer, though. For those cooks who take on the role of gravy maker but once a year, the details can be lost in the menu planning of, say, 364 other days’ worth of meals.
Even old hands in the kitchen know it can be difficult to stay focused on the step-by-steps of perfect gravy when the potatoes need mashing and the turkey needs carving, all while hungry guests hover nearby with their excited chatter, drawn to the kitchen by the enticing aromas and, truth be told, by the prospect of grabbing a little piece of turkey — a tiny one that no one will ever miss — while awaiting dinner.
Now that’s pressure.
But there’s a secret to managing such stress. Two secrets, to be precise, each as important as the last.
• If you practice making gravy in advance, it will be easier (and presumably less terrifying) on the big day.
• If last-minute prep leaves you with heart palpitations, by all means make the gravy in advance.
Now let’s get started with the gravy. You will need:
Pan drippings or stock. To make flavorful gravy, you must start with the essence of the meat, found in the pan juices or in stock (homemade or commercial). This is no time to be substituting low-fat, low-sodium chicken broth as a substitute — unless you plan to practice with it (which I highly recommend).
Flour and fat (the latter from the meat drippings, or butter if using stock).
These will make a paste called a roux, which serves as the thickener for the gravy. For every cup of liquid (pan juices/stock), add 1 tablespoon fat and 1 tablespoon flour.
To make classic pan gravy
Remove the meat from its roasting pan, place on a cutting board and cover lightly with foil while the meat rests.
This is your moment to make gravy. Pour the drippings from the roaster into a fat separator or another container where you can spoon off the fat. To make 4 cups of gravy, save about ¼ cup of fat. Measure out 4 cups of the pan juices, adding milk or water if needed to fill that amount, and set aside.
Put the roasting pan on your stove at medium heat (over two burners if it’s a large one) and add the ¼ cup of fat to it. Sprinkle ¼ cup flour (instant or all-purpose) evenly over the fat and, stirring constantly, whisk the fat and flour together until the mixture becomes frothy, about one minute. Continue to whisk as the color of the roux darkens to a golden brown, about five minutes. If using wine, add it here (see variation below) or add ¼ cup of the meat drippings and scrape up the little particles of meat from the pan, which will add flavor to the gravy. Simmer the wine or meat drippings for a minute or so to reduce, which intensifies the flavor.
Slowly add the remaining reserved meat juices or stock to the roux, stirring constantly. Continue to cook and whisk until the gravy thickens and will coat the back of a spoon, about five minutes. If your sauce is too thick for your taste, add additional liquid to thin it. If too thin, mix a little flour with some liquid and whisk it into the gravy and cook, stirring constantly, for another minute or so.
Season the gravy with salt and pepper. If you prefer, run the mixture through a sieve to remove any lumps or bits of meat. You will have about 4 cups of gravy.
Once you have the technique mastered, there are always ways to deepen the flavor profile of the gravy. Consider these options:
• Add a little wine (for 4 cups of gravy, add about ¼ cup dry white wine or a bit of sherry for poultry gravy, ¼ cup red wine for red meat gravy) before you add the drippings/stock.
• Substitute some of the water from those potatoes you boiled for the liquid you are add to the gravy (this is one of my favorite additions).
• Add chopped fresh herbs to the gravy during the preparation (use whatever you included with the meat — sage, for example, with turkey).
Keep in mind the gravy technique is good with any meat. There’s no reason to save it only for turkey, or only for once a year. Try it with your next pot roast or roast chicken.
My mother doesn’t make gravy exactly this way, nor did my grandmother. They left the drippings in the roasting pan and siphoned off most of the fat. Instead of starting with a roux, they made a slurry of flour and a liquid (usually milk or cream) that was whisked into the drippings to thicken into gravy. It worked just fine for them. It worked fine for me for years (no surprise since they showed me how to make gravy).
Then I discovered the roux method. It works well, too.
So if making a roux as a first step for gravy seems unfamiliar (and foreign) to you, simply do what you always do. Don’t mess with a method that you are comfortable with. But if you are a beginner, the roux method may be a less scary, more precise route to take.
Practice makes perfect
The description of how to make gravy looks far more complicated than the action really is. The first-timer will measure the ingredients. After a few tries, the cook can eyeball it like a pro.
If you’re a novice in gravy making, consider the test run as a confidence builder (better yet, do many trial runs, since it doesn’t actually take long to make gravy).
If you’re experimenting with the technique, grab some chicken broth off your pantry shelf and a large sauté pan and give it a try, using butter for the fat. The gravy will be a bit bland, but that’s not the point. You are practicing. Then try it again.
Now you’re an expert. That’s all there is to it.
Still nervous about preparing gravy on the big day? Then make it ahead.
Days or weeks in advance, buy turkey stock from the store or make it yourself (for a recipe, go to startribune.com/tabletalk).
Now make the gravy. Unless it’s a few days before Thanksgiving, store it in the freezer (otherwise the refrigerator will do). When heating the gravy for the meal, add some pan drippings from the turkey to perk up the flavor.
That’s all there is to it. Now relax (and practice!). You will do fine.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste