Ah, gravy. It is luscious, rich, decadent and a critical part of every Thanksgiving dinner. It has also become a source of great angst for young cooks everywhere who determined to impress whatever parental units be around—whether actual or in-law. It can (and usually will) lump at exactly the worst possible time. It can (and usually will) get a funky taste that doesn't remind you of Grandma just when you most want to impress her.
There is a certain knack to making gravy that can take a little time to master, which is why it's not a bad idea to make your gravy before the big day. And if you really want to, you can practice with other meats/birds over the next week or so, because the technique is the same no matter what your source meat is. But learn how to make a good gravy and your days of tinny-tasting glop from a can are over. Gone. Done with.
You can do the gravy your Grandma made, and just like her, you won't need to measure anything to do it. In fact, you're better off not measuring, partly because things sometimes happen too quickly to do it in time. Also, because the way gravy comes together depends on a lot of things you can't really measure for, you have to watch it come together and adjust this or that as you go.
A couple historical tidbits you can drop over dinner—people have been making meat-based sauces since the early Egyptians, and the English word gravy seems to have appeared in the 14th Century. Yes, I looked it up on Wikipedia.
The most important thing to remember about gravy is that there are three separate parts: fat, starch and liquid. You know the whole thing about oil and water not going together? That's the essential issue you're dealing with when it comes to gravy. So we're going to trick the water/liquid molecules into getting cozy with the fat molecules by having the fat molecules cozy up to the starch molecules first.
You can check out this Alton Brown video for the formal science. Just don't get too stressed about the whole pan thing. Yes, a slope-sided saucier pan will help. But Grandma did just fine making her gravy in a straight-sided sauce pan. You can, too. You do need the whisk.
One of the essential elements of gravy is the drippings from some roasted meat, such as a turkey, a beef roast or pork roast. The drippings form two of the three main parts—fat and liquid. Okay, maybe some of it isn't entirely liquid, but that's not only okay, it could save your backside.
To get drippings ahead of time, you don't need to roast your bird. You do need to roast some extra parts, however. Buy about two to six turkey wings, depending on the size of the crowd you're feeding. Rub a little butter (about a good-sized slice off the stick) over the skin, with some salt and pepper and cook at 425 degrees until the fleshy part of the wing reaches 170 degrees on a thermometer. Again, depending on how many wings you have, that should take about 30 minutes for two to about an hour for six.
You need the thermometer for your bird (trust me, you do not—repeat, not—want to depend on those little pop up things they sometimes put in the bird).
Don't worry if the wings overcook a little. You're not going to be eating them since there's so little meat, anyway. Do nibble on some of the crispy skin—that's just heaven. If you want to, you can let the wings cool and pull the meat off and put it in your post-Thanksgiving day turkey soup.
But as you pull your wings from the oven, you should notice all the lovely liquid and brown crusty stuff in the bottom of your pan. There you have the bones of a great gravy. You have two options at this point. If you have a gravy separator (it looks like a cup measure, but with a pour spout near the bottom), then you can deglaze the pan right away. If you don't have a gravy separator, then you want to let the pan rest, then spoon off as much fat as possible. The fat is the clear stuff at the top. Then deglaze the pan.
Deglazing is another one of those kitchen tips that will make your life so much easier. What you're doing is adding liquid to dissolve all that brown crusty stuff in the bottom of the pan. This does two things. One, is that it gives your drippings amazing flavor. The other is that it makes your pan really, really easy to clean. What's not to love?
To deglaze, put your roasting pan with its drippings over a burner on the stove and turn up the heat to medium high. As it starts to sizzle and bubble (which if the pan is still hot will only take a second), pour in about a half cup or so of liquid, usually some turkey or chicken broth. You can mix that half cup with some white wine, if you like. You want enough liquid to cover the bottom of the roasting pan and then some, so add more liquid if you need to.
Start stirring the now-boiling liquid, scraping up all those lovely crusty brown bits. You'll know it's all dissolved when you can't feel any more bumps on the bottom of the pan. If you've got a gravy separator, pour the whole mess in now, let it rest a couple minutes, then spoon off several tablespoons of the fat. If you don't have a separator and have already removed the fat, then you can just set aside the pan or dirty up another measuring cup by pouring the drippings in that. Your call.
Now, get a one-quart saucepan. Okay, a pan that should hold about four cups of liquid with some stirring room. Now, you want about equal parts fat to starch, in this case, basic all-purpose flour. Figure one to two tablespoons each of fat and flour will thicken about a cup of liquid, depending on the humidity, your mood and the phase of the moon. Because my family tends to suck down gravy like milkshakes, I'll usually use as much fat as I've got and hope for the best.
Have the fat that you spooned off, some flour, your de-fatted drippings and at least a couple cups of extra chicken or turkey broth sitting ready nearby. Put your pan over medium high heat again, add the fat, then add roughly the same amount of flour. Get a whisk and start mixing it all until it's a smooth, golden brown paste with a matte finish. If it's a little glossy, add a teensy bit more flour. If it's too grainy, keep stirring or add a teensy bit of fat. You can always add; you can't take out.
Once you've got your paste, then slowly add the de-fatted drippings, stirring as you go. Then you can slowly add your extra broth, stirring and stirring with the whisk, until everything is nice and smooth and as thick as you like it. Then turn the heat down. If you add too much liquid, turn the heat up and let it boil until it's the right consistency.
Once the heat is on simmer, taste first, then add any extra salt, pepper or dried herbs or other seasonings you like. If I get a funky taste, I like to add a couple drops of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholula. It's not enough to make the sauce even the least bit spicy, but it will brighten up the flavor a little.
But what if you get lumps? Remember what I said about the chunky stuff in your drippings saving your backside? Tell everyone the lumps are the chunky stuff, especially if they're relatively small lumps. That's the easy, last-second save. If you've got time and your grandmother isn't in the kitchen, you can either strain your gravy or run it through the blender or use an immersion blender on it. It creates another mess, but also another good reason to make your gravy ahead of time.
But, ultimately, it's about how the gravy tastes, and if it tastes good and the lumps are small, chances are no one is going to care. You'll get it right the next time—gravy is not that hard to master.