Correct me if I am wrong. Gravy can complement every type of food. Gravy can be added to vegetables, meat, breads, pasta, and even sweets. You name it, you can cover, smother, dip or drizzle it with gravy. In everyday conversation the word gravy generally means something is good, great or delicious – “It’s All Gravy,” “Gravy Train,” and “The Rest is Just Gravy” come to mind.
So what is gravy? Our modern definition of gravy is a “finished sauce” consisting of juices from something cooked- typically meat, but can be a vegetable/fruit, and fat, and flour. And if you are from Philadelphia, you know gravy as the sauce you put on your spaghetti. Gravy is a sauce, but not all sauces are gravies. As described by the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2013), sauces are “fluid embellishments for food” or garden fruits or vegetables, raw or cooked- think applesauce or cranberry sauce.
Historically speaking, pre 16th century, gravy was simply natural juices that resulted from roasting meat. By the 18th century, thanks to French cooks, our definition of gravy expanded to include a variety of meat stocks, wines, herbs, thickeners, and fats.
Generally speaking, gravy can be put into three categories:
- Dish gravy or natural gravy is simply meat juice, or au jus.
- Pan gravy uses liquid from the pan after cooking.
- Kettle gravy uses liquid from a simmering pot roast or stews.
Pan and kettle gravy both use a starch and fat with the liquid (e.g. meat juice) to make a gravy. And within these categories are even more categories of gravy.
There is an art and science to making gravy. One must have patience with gravy. It takes time and methodical stirring. Food consultant Frederica L. Beinert offers up helpful tips to making good gravy in her book, The Art of Making Sauces and Gravies (1966): “There need be no fear of making good gravy if there is understanding of handling the few ingredients and the simple techniques to use” (p.224). She recommends that you measure the amount of fat and starch (flour) accurately, as “too much fat makes the flour gravy greasy and allows it to separate. Too much flour makes it thick, pasty, and often lumpy” (p. 224). It is recommend that equal amounts of starch (e.g., flour) and fat be used. She suggests that two minutes of boiling is “desirable for best flavor” (p.225) and reminds cooks that prolonged boiling breaks down the starch and will make a thinner gravy.
Now if something goes wrong, there are some fixes. Frederica recommends that you strain out lumps, and if the gravy is greasy, skim it (grease) off with “a piece of paper toweling, a paper napkin, or with an ice cube wrapped in a piece of cheesecloth or clean old linen” (p.225).
There is no shame in using the convenience gravy mixes- your guests will never know. However, you might consider adding some herbs or wine to the ready-to-use gravies to give it that extra touch.
Also included in the Art of Making Sauces and Gravies are recipes for traditional pan and kettle gravies, but there is also a selection of uncommon gravies such as gingersnap, fruited chicken (uses pineapple), and cucumber.
And my favorite gravy recipe? Well, I am a vegetarian and make an amazing cashew gravy.
Bring on the gravy!