It doesn’t matter if you’re serving a massive turkey, a simple trussed chicken or a beautifully stuffed squash, Thanksgiving just isn’t complete without gravy.
Classic gravy is a pan sauce composed of meat stock that’s been thickened with a mixture of flour and butter — what the French call a roux — and flavored with the drippings from a roast. As The Washington Post’s Jim Webster wrote some years ago, gravy is “a way to reclaim intense flavor that would have otherwise been lost to the pan.”
You can make gravy ahead of time, with store-bought or homemade stock, or you could make it at the last moment, using rendered fat. Either way, the basic process for standard gravy is the same: Combine a small amount of roughly equal parts butter and flour in a saucepan, whisk in stock or broth, cook until thickened, stir in meat drippings or other flavorings and season to taste.
But, like a choose-your-own-adventure game, the variables to this basic formula are endless.
Traditional gravy employs a roux as a thickener. Cooking the roux, and letting it toast, will deepen the flavor and color of your finished gravy. Chef Juan Ferreiro from Great White Rotisseria in Venice, Calif., makes a browned butter roux. “I bring the butter to a light boil, and as soon as I start to see a little color, I reduce the heat and add the flour,” he says.
“The darker the roux, the more flavor it has,” The Washington Post’s Becky Krystal wrote in her excellent guide to gravy last year, “but also the less it will thicken.” To compensate, or if you want a lighter gravy, you can use a small amount of beurre manié, or raw roux, which is a mixture of uncooked, softened butter and flour.
But set aside tradition for a moment. Gravy is a sauce, and one that can “make or break a meal,” chef Keith Corbin of Alta Adams in Los Angeles, says. So consider each individual element for a fuller picture of all the ways to get to the gravy you want.
— Fat. A true gravy starts with fat. Aside from enhancing and enriching flavors, its main purpose is to ensure smoothness. It does that by binding with a starch, such as flour, so the flour can absorb liquid evenly, thickening the gravy without clumping. Just about any fat will do, whether it’s butter or the renderings of a roasted bird (which would make it extra-meaty) or coconut oil or olive oil (for a rich, vegan gravy).
Corbin learned how to make pan gravy from his grandmother. “My granny, when she used to fry chicken and wanted smothered chicken, she’d just pour off some of the oil she had used to fry the chicken, and whisk in some flour, for the roux, then broth and milk,” he says, “so the gravy had all this flavor, and there was nothing wasted.”
This is easy to apply to meat cooked in the oven, too: If, after roasting a chicken, duck or turkey, there are a lot of drippings in the bottom of the pan, pour them off into a measuring cup or glass, spoon off the fat as it rises to the top, and use that for your roux. (Save the juices and drippings to stir into the gravy at the end.)
— Thickener. All-purpose flour and Wondra, a type of precooked wheat flour, are the usual suspects here, but they’re not the only options. Different types of starch or nonstarch thickeners can add different flavors, suit a variety of diets and vary the consistency of the gravy: Rice flour will make a silky smooth, gluten-free gravy; arrowroot and cornstarch can thicken gravy at any stage of the cooking process and add almost no discernible heft. Using almond or cashew flour will thicken, flavor and add protein to the final gravy, which may be more velvety than perfectly smooth.
At Dirt Candy in New York City, owner and chef Amanda Cohen throws the rules out the window when she creates her vegetarian and vegan gravies. “We’ve thickened broths with boiled potato, pureed right into the hot broth, or even roasted vegetables, which give gravy depth of flavor in addition to texture. You want to add a little bit of starch, to ensure it’s really a sauce and not a soup, but this is what makes vegetable cooking fun,” Cohen says. “We’re inventing new techniques all the time.”
I recently used cooked brown rice to thicken gravy, pureeing it in a blender until it was smooth. Roasted onions, mushrooms or other vegetables, tender and caramelized, can be pureed right into the gravy and will thicken it as well as add flavor.
— Broth. Ask your butcher if they have spare turkey wing tips or backbones and use these to make a turkey stock, make mushroom or vegetable stock out of the scraps from prepping stuffing, use some thin broth from cooking beans or pick up canned or a carton of stock from the store – each will make fine gravy. Ferreiro likes to roast chicken or turkey bones before making his stock, which deepens the color of the stock and adds lots of flavor.
— Drippings and Flavorings. If you’re making a standard gravy, pan drippings are a must. Ensure you have enough by roasting extra turkey legs on a sheet pan and collecting the juices.
If you’re serving a plant-based Thanksgiving, or just want to try flavoring your gravy another way, wine — fortified or not — cider, vinegar, herbs, ferments, spices and aromatic vegetables are your best bets.
“I think about all the ways I can add the flavor of something to a dish,” Cohen says. “If I want to make a mushroom gravy, I’m going to add both roasted mushrooms and sauteed mushrooms, because cooking a vegetable in different ways brings out different layers of flavor. Then I’m maybe going to use a mushroom stock, too.”
At Alta, Corbin adds soy sauce and miso to his oxtail gravy, which bolsters its umami. “The meat juices are almost an afterthought with the dark soy and miso,” he says. “They add so much flavor, and deepen the color, too.”
Ferreiro seasons his gravy with the same aromatics he uses to season the main dish, which could be anything from sage and rosemary to piment d’espelette, sumac or mustard. “For me, the gravy has always been primarily an accompaniment to the meat, so I flavor it in a similar way. I don’t want it stealing the show, I want it to be a marriage,” he says.
“Play around,” says Cohen of making gravy your own. “Forget the rules. That’s what makes cooking fun.” And indeed, no matter what fat, thickener, broth and flavorings you choose to use, it’s all, as they say, gravy.