Just Good Food

by John Ryan


Gravy and the Well-Dressed Turkey


Fall is quickly turning to winter and The Great Beige Feast is almost upon us. Since fall is a hectic time, I'm going to make this month's column short and sweet. It's really just a fashion warning: If your turkey is going to wear gravy, make sure it matches.

Here's the story.


Once upon a time there was a chef who didn't know how to make gravy. (He knew how to make hollandaise sauce and puff pastry with his eyes closed, but basic, plain old pan gravy...forget about it. He didn't know gravy from kumquats.) One year, early in his marriage, this chef found himself cooking a traditional Thanksgiving spread for his wife and father-in-law.

Things were going well until he let a pot cook dry. Not that you could tell from looking at the incinerated contents, but the pot had once held the neck, a couple organs and water. The giblets burned so badly that, for all I know, the pot's still soaking.

Despite the fact that the smoke alarm--rather than his highly trained nose--tipped him off, the chef handled the situation with good humor. In fact, just about every year since this incident, he has memorialized the burning of the giblets by forgetting the pot on a back burner. But that's a testament to his consistency, an anecdote for his biographer. This is a little story of a grand faux pas that is still clanging in his ears.

After the smoke alarm was finally disabled and the smoking pot was set on the back porch (and everybody had had a good laugh about the burned giblets), the chef went into his pantry, got a can of chicken broth and proceeded to make a perfect gravy. It wasn't lumpy, it wasn't salty, it wasn't thick or gloppy...it was perfect.

Except that it was chicken gravy and he was serving turkey.

At dinner that year--and each and every year thereafter--the chef's wife and father-in-law took every opportunity to point out that chicken gravy doesn't go with turkey. You'd have thought that he was wearing golf pants to his wedding or something. But they had a point. Chicken gravy on turkey, even if it's a good gravy, is like a bad key on a piano.

Don't worry about it now, after all, Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away and gravy is supremely simple. But when the day comes to make it, spare yourself humiliation and print out the accompanying recipe. You'll find everything you need to know, including how to make broth and what to do if you burn the giblets.


Classic Pan Gravy

I know it sounds low rent, but what are you going to serve with mashed potatoes and stuffing—bearnaise sauce? Give me a break, gravy is the only thing that'll do.

The beauty of gravy is that all you need is fat (butter is fine), flour, and a good broth.

A quick broth: When it comes to broth, remember that it doesn't have to be strong, it just has to match. If you're roasting a bird, simmering the neck and heart in a couple cups of water for 30 minutes or so will do the trick. The only thing about this or any homemade broth is that you'll find yourself using more salt to season the gravy than if you use canned broth. (The liver is usually set side for something else. The heart is the solid organ, the liver is the squishy one. Sometimes the gizzard is in there, you can simmer that too. If you don't want to deal with the bag of organs at all, just simmer the neck.) But if the giblets burn or you're roasting a piece of meat, pan drippings make a great broth.

Broth from pan drippings: After the roast is done, skim the fat from the roasting pan (you can use the fat instead of butter to make the roux). Then add enough water to the pan juices to make a total of 1-1/2 cups. Stir it around with a wooden spoon and scrape up any stuck bits. That's all there is to it, you've got your broth and the pan will be easier to clean.

Milk: Milk is optional in pan gravy. In fact, think of gravy like coffee and add milk to taste. Personally, I don't like half-and-half or cream in gravy, but I'll leave that to you. If you use milk, you'll want to let the gravy cook down and get a little thicker before adding the milk.

Like coffee, the milk doesn't have to cook into the gravy, just let it simmer a minute or so to make sure the gravy is hot and then serve.


Classic Pan Gravy Recipe

You need...
20 minutes
Medium skillet

This makes about 1-1/2 cups gravy, enough for 3, but a little tight for 4. Both this and the mushroom gravy double nicely.

3 tablespoons butter or melted fat
3 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 cups broth
Optional: 3 to 4 tablespoons milk
Salt and pepper

1) Melt the butter in a skillet and stir the flour into the butter. Let that paste (roux) cook for a minute or so.

2) Slowly stir the broth into the roux. To avoid lumps, go slow and make sure the broth is well blended in before you add more. When all the broth is added, let the gravy simmer a few minutes to thicken a bit more.

Optional: 3) If you want to, add a splurp or two of milk and simmer a minute or two more.

4) Season with salt and pepper and serve.  

Mushroom Gravy variation

This makes about 2 cups of gravy, which is enough for 4 people.

1 tablespoon butter
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
The gravy recipe above
A pinch of dried thyme leaves

Start by sautéing the mushrooms in butter, then put them in a bowl and make the gravy in the same skillet. After you've added the broth and the gravy is thickening up, stir in the mushrooms. Just before serving I like to stir in a pinch of thyme leaves.

Thanksgiving Recipe Guide


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John Ryan

Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.


This page created November 1998