Making gravy on Thanksgiving Day can be as nerve-racking as a blind date, as painful as a root canal and as difficult as learning Cantonese.
I ought to know. I still have nightmares over my first few attempts, murky mixtures with more lumps than cottage cheese. Each time I warmed a canned backup, I vowed I'd master this stubborn sauce and never be so humiliated again.
Mastering gravy became an obsession. I devoured cookbooks and food magazines. I confessed my faux pas to friends, who not only commiserated, but divulged their horror stories of Thanksgiving gravy that was as thin as water, thick as paste, lumpy and bumpy, or simply devoid of taste.
Why, I wondered, could a sauce based on only three ingredients - fat, flour and stock - go so often awry? After much research, I've decided that the answer lies in timing and technique - or rather, the lack of the two.
Gravy is usually made at the last moment, when we're trying to get many dishes on the table at once. Panic ensues and even cool-headed cooks can succumb to a culinary melt- down.
So, we don't cook the flour long enough, resulting in pasty-tasting gravy. Perhaps we scorch the flour, creating bitter-tasting sauce that refuses to thicken. Or maybe we don't let the drippings sit long enough for the juices to separate from the fat. Greasy gravy guaranteed.
I can add my own errors to the lengthy list. I used to skip measuring ingredients, and my sauce was always too thick or too thin. Other times I added the stock all at once to the fat-flour mixture. What a lumpfest. And when I whisked the mixture only occasionally, it was lump city once again.
But gorgeous gravy is possible. In fact, it's probable. And it is a useful skill, for a flawless sauce can resuscitate even dry turkey or crumbly stuffing. All it takes is learning a few rules.
The first step is to memorize a magic formula: 2 tablespoons butter (or fat from pan drippings) and 2 tablespoons flour to 1 cup liquid. Those who prefer a thin sauce can use 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour to 1 cup liquid. Increase ingredient quantities proportionally as desired.
I make my gravy in the turkey roasting pan; the brown bits clinging to the pan bottom add big bursts of flavor. Besides, I now have one less pot to wash.
When my bird's done, I strain the pan drippings into a gravy separator to rest for five minutes so the fat can rise to the top. Defatted drippings possess rich turkey essences that transform ordinary gravy into a powerhouse of taste. These drippings are combined with turkey stock in a 1-quart measuring cup.
I place the roasting pan across two stove burners and, over medium heat, melt the butter. Then I cook the flour for 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it turns golden and forms a smooth paste with the fat.
I slowly add the turkey stock/drippings, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom. When about half the liquid is added, I whisk the gravy over medium-high heat until it's thick enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Then I season to taste.
While homemade turkey stock possesses all the necessary notes to impart gravy with fabulous flavor, store-bought frozen chicken broth (such as the high-quality Perfect Addition) or low-sodium canned (my favorite is Health Valley) can be substituted in a pinch.
To further enrich gravy's flavor, substitute wine for 1/2 cup of the stock, or whisk in 1 tablespoon cognac, port or sherry. The alcohol burns off, but its flavor lingers and adds yet another dimension to the sauce.
Some purists (I'm not one of them) insist gravy isn't authentic without giblets. If you want, stir finely chopped, cooked giblets into the finished sauce and simmer for 2 minutes before serving. Other optional add-ins include cooked chestnuts (available jarred or canned), sauteed mushrooms and roasted pureed garlic.
If last-minute gravy-making feels too pressuring, prepare it hours or even one day ahead. When I make mine the night before, I roast inexpensive turkey parts (such as gizzards or wings) just for the drippings. I may add fresh chives, Italian parsley and savory, or thyme and tarragon and whipping cream to boost flavor.
But usually I prepare gravy a couple of hours in advance. While the turkey is roasting, I extract pan juices with a bulb-baster. (Made-ahead gravy will thicken further as it sits, so whisk in additional stock when reheating.)
But even if rules are followed, stuff sometimes happens. Fortunately, many mistakes are correctable. If the gravy is too thin, simmer it over high heat until it thickens. Too thick? Add more stock. Lumps? Filter them out with a fine-mesh strainer, then thicken the sauce by reducing over high heat. And finally, to keep gravy warmer longer, serve it in a heated sauce boat.