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Traditional Gravy Technique

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To a traditionalist, the thought of a gravy-less Thanksgiving is culinary heresy.   Good gravy is no mere condiment; it’s the tie that binds.  But too often gravy is a last-minute affair, thrown together without much advance preparation or thought.  Many of us have experienced the result:  either dull, greasy gravy or thin, acidic pan juices that are one-dimensional, lacking the body and stature that we expect from a good American gravy.

So I set out to produce a rich, complex sauce with as much advance preparation as possible to avoid that last-minute time pressure, when space is at a premium and potatoes need to be mashed, turkey sliced, water goblets filled, and candles lit.

I began by experimenting with thickeners.  Over the years, I have tried four different options, including cornstarch, beurre manié (a paste made from equal parts by weight of flour and butter), and two flour-based roux – one regular (a mixture of melted butter and flour stirred together over heat) and one dark (in which the butter-flour paste is cooked until it is dark brown).

Although my husband was sure that the cornstarch-thickened gravy would have inferior texture and flavor, he was actually surprised at how good it turned out.  Admittedly, it was a bit thinner in body and more acidic in flavor than the roux-based sauces, but it was acceptable.  Overall, though, the dark roux proved to be the best thickener.  It added a subtle depth and complexity to the gravy not found with the other options.  A roux-based gravy can also be made ahead of time, a slight advantage over the cornstarch and beurre manié options, which require last-minute whisking.

To this dark roux, I added turkey stock made from the neck and giblets.  Cooking the sauce over low heat for half an hour or more helped develop the flavor, but the resulting gravy was still pale and lacked punch.  I then used a bulb blaster to remove fat from the roasting turkey and used this as the base for the roux, instead of the butter.  This tasted fine but was not an improvement over the butter version.  But last year, I discover that the trick is to take this prethickened basic brown sauce an enrich it with pan drippings.

Pan drippings are the source of gravy’s allure and also its difficulties.  that gorgeous mahogany-colored goo that congeals at the bottom of a roasting pan is one of the best-tasting things on earth, a carnivore’s ambrosia.  But I found that to get dark brown pan drippings with a complex range of favors, you need to roast your turkey over aromatic vegetables – chopped onions, carrots, and celery – as well as some fresh thyme sprigs.  I also found it necessary to keep an eye on the pan, adding water whenever things started looking too dry.

After deglazing the pan with wine and simmering off the alcohol, I strained the resulting wine sauce into the roux, smashing the remaining herbs and vegetables into the strainer with a wooden spoon to wring the taste out of them.  The result was worth the effort.  After a quick simmer and an adjustment of the seasonings, I had an intense and richly flavored sauce that had the familiarity and comfort of traditional American gravy but hinted at the sophistication of a fine French brown sauce.

For my complete recipe for Giblet Pan Gravy, please click HERE

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