If you're serving up a turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner, you'll want a side of gravy on the table — or at least your guests will.

For many cooks, this is a moment of sheer kitchen terror. But that's only because those cooks — and I was one of them, a while back — hadn't had enough practice making this relatively simple sauce.

The key to comfort is to practice, which you can do with some chicken broth off your pantry shelf, a large sauté pan and some butter (as a substitute for the fat from the turkey). This test version gravy will be a bit bland, but that's not the point. You are practicing for the big day.

Whether its a trial run or the Thanksgiving meal, here are the basics you will need for gravy:

• 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).

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. Read on for the directions.

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. Add ¼ cup of the pan drippings and scrape up the little particles of meat from the pan, which will add flavor to the gravy. Simmer the 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.

Keep in mind that the gravy technique is good with any meat. There's no reason to save it only for turkey, or for only once a year. Try it with your next pot roast or roast chicken.

Old-school works

The women of my family don't make gravy exactly this way. We go old-school and leave the drippings in the roasting pan and siphon off most of the fat after the turkey has been removed. Instead of starting with a roux, we make a slurry of flour and a liquid (usually milk or cream, but water could be used) to whisk into the drippings to thicken the gravy. For many Thanksgiving cooks, this is the usual method.

So if making a roux as a first step for gravy seems unfamiliar to you, simply do what you always have done. 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.

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).

Plan ahead

Still nervous about preparing gravy on the big day? Then make it ahead.

You can buy turkey stock from the store or make it yourself. Then make the gravy in advance. If it's more than a few days before Thanksgiving, store it in the freezer. 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).