Whoever coined the phrase “It’s all gravy” really knew what they were talking about. Sure, the other parts of many of our Thanksgiving meals — the turkey, the pies, the rolls — are worth singing about. But I’ve learned that the gravy can easily turn into the star of the show.
It took me a while to come to that realization, as for most of my life there was either no gravy or only the jarred stuff. I just regret that I did not start making it sooner.
I’ll be the first to admit that the process can be a bit anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re juggling many other dishes. But I’m here to help explain things. Here are my tips, plus great advice from chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Washington’s St. Anselm restaurant.
Work ahead. Face it, you’re going to be doing enough on the big day itself. Why rush the gravy? Gravy, or a gravy base, can typically be refrigerated up to a week in advance. If you do a base, all you have to do is stir in turkey drippings as it reheats over low heat on the stove top. If you take the gravy from start to finish before Thanksgiving, just reheat and serve.
Roux who? It sounds like a fancy French thing that only chefs can do. In reality, it’s just a mix of fat (often butter) and flour that helps thicken sauces, including gravy, or dishes such as gumbo. The fat and flour are added in equal, or very close to equal, amounts. A few things to keep in mind: You want the flour and butter to form a completely smooth paste. Some recipes will have you add the flour all at once, others gradually. Either way, make sure the mixture is lump-free and completely combined.
The darker the roux, the more flavor it has, but also the less it will thicken, Meek-Bradley says. A few minutes, until the roux is blond or golden, will typically suffice for gravy. The former “Top Chef” contestant takes hers to an amber color, so there’s some wiggle room depending on your personal preference and how toasted or nutty you want the flavor to be. Whisking constantly will ensure that the roux is smooth and won’t burn. It can scorch in a second, so don’t leave it unattended. If you burn it, you haven’t lost much. Just start again.
If you finish your gravy and it’s too thin, Meek-Bradley suggests adding a “raw roux.” Whisk equal amounts of butter and flour — kneaded together, this paste is what the French call beurre manie — into the gravy to thicken it.
Ensure you have enough drippings. Maybe you want to make the gravy completely ahead of time. Or perhaps you’re worried your small turkey breast won’t give you enough drippings. Call it crazy, but maybe you don’t even plan on serving turkey yet you still want gravy. Easy enough. Now’s the time of year when it’s no problem to procure turkey drumsticks, wings and necks for roasting. Bonus: Those parts are a heck of a lot cheaper than a whole bird or breast. Bonus bonus: In addition to the drippings for gravy, you get meat that can be used in such dishes as soups and pot pies, as well as bones you can use to make stock. (Try roasting the bones after you pull the meat off to get even more flavor in that stock.)
To get 1/2 cup of defatted drippings, I roasted six turkey legs with some carrots, celery and garlic, loosely inspired by a recipe from Saveur that starts the meat in a 450-degree oven that’s then knocked back to 400 degrees. Add your choice of spices and drizzle with olive oil, and you’ll be set.
Defatting the drippings. Too much fat can cause the gravy to separate, as Meek-Bradley has learned from experience. So definitely get the fat out of your drippings. A fat separator can do the trick quickly, or you can let the fat rise to the top and carefully skim it off with a spoon.
Don’t worry about turkey stock. So many recipes call for turkey stock, which is nice if you’ve thought ahead to make it. But if all you can get your hands on is chicken stock, you’ll be fine. Homemade is nice, yes. If you can only do so much, and from-scratch stock is not in the cards (me, most years), grab a carton of unsalted chicken stock from the store. Your gravy will still shine.
Add some booze. Meek-Bradley thinks a rich gravy benefits from acid, and alcohol can help bring that to the party. She likes a white wine reduction and Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine, as well. Our former deputy Bonnie S. Benwick put forth a vermouth-based gravy last year. Sherry? Yes. My favorite recipe pairs apple-flavored brandy with apple cider.
Add some texture. Don’t feel hindered by the typical silky smooth gravy. Especially if you bought a whole bird, you might have the giblets or even the neck. Meek-Bradley says her mother would finely chop the liver and other parts to add to her gravy, in addition to meat from the neck.
Season at the end. Meek-Bradley likes to add some salt (and fresh sage) to her from-scratch stock, but she leaves most of her seasoning until she’s done. This is especially helpful because the flavors will concentrate as the gravy cooks, and you’ll be adding drippings of unknown saltiness. When you’re done, taste the gravy and add some salt, pepper and fresh herbs to suit. Meek-Bradley will often add a splash of lemon juice, too.
Serve smartly. Gravy is best served warm, of course. Reheat on the stove top, if needed, and keep it warm on low until you’re ready to eat. To give the gravy an extra chance at staying warm throughout the meal, consider this tip from Bonnie: Fill your gravy boat or vessel of choice with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes, covered. Pour out the water, dry and pour in the gravy.
Don’t worry about ... turkey. Meat-free eaters don’t have to feel left out. If you’re making a vegan gravy, go for umami-rich ingredients that give you rich savory flavor. Mushrooms are a no-brainer, and they pack a real punch when combined with miso. A lentil-miso gravy is a different experience but satisfying nonetheless.