Gravy…it’s still what accompanies many dinners in many households. There is that certain something about gravy that puts that finishing touch on a meal. Having gravy at a meal was just a given staple for folks in my generation.
Ron remembers his Grammy having gravy sometimes three times a day. Yea, that may be a little excessive but it just shows how gravy was what pulled the meal together. It was also a way to stretch the food dollar when you had a lot of folks to feed. You could throw leftover meat, potatoes, veggies, etc. together, cover it with gravy and have a casserole to feed many for a couple more meals.
Although making gravy is an important kitchen skill for any home cook, it is still somewhat of an art form. The term “gravy” was actually used first in Middle England as “grave.” It is derived from the French since the word was found in many medieval French cookbooks. In the late 14th century, their interpretation of gravy was “it consisted of natural cooking juices from roasting meat.”
As any chef will tell you, there are certain distinctions between gravies, sauces and jus. A sauce is defined as a thick liquid served with food, usually savory dishes, to add moisture and flavor and is not necessarily meat-based. Gravy is a type of sauce made from the juices of meats that run naturally and are often thickened with wheat flour or corn starch for added texture. Jus is made from the same juices but have been refined and condensed to a clear liquid that is naturally thickened. Jus is a reduction and gravy relies on a thickening agent.
The usual thickening agents are flour, corn starch and arrowroot. They all make good gravies, but with different properties. Flour will clump when dropped into a hot liquid and, if not careful, will make a lumpy gravy unless it is added slowly and steadily. Corn starch doesn’t clump but will thicken over a course of a few minutes. It also thickens as it cools so, if too much is added, the result will be gel-style gravy. Being pure starch, corn starch is a more powerful thickening agent than flour so you only need half as much. The rule of thumb is to use one tablespoon of corn starch for each cup of gravy.
Arrowroot can also be used as a thickener. Obviously, corn starch is made from corn whereas arrowroot is made from tropical plants. Corn starch will leave the gravy slightly cloudy and adds a bit of taste to the product. Gravy from arrowroot is clear with no added taste.
Regardless of the thickening agent used, there are generally two different camps when asked how you make gravy. You either start with a roux or a slurry. The end result is the same, it’s just how you get there. Many families today still use whichever method that was passed down from earlier generations.
Ron’s Grammy was in the roux camp. Basically, a roux is a 1:2 mixture of fat to flour…and with this method, the thickening agent is almost always flour. The fat is often butter but oils, margarines and bacon fat can also be used and is melted and combined with pan drippings and simmered for a bit to let all flavors mesh together. Then the flour is added into the mixture. When that is all combined, the liquid such as milk, broth or water is added and whisked in until all is thickened, which makes the gravy.
I, on the other hand, was raised using the slurry method. This way uses a mixture of flour (or other thickening) and water or stock which is combined before adding to the boiling broth and fats. It is slowly added until the gravy reaches desired consistency.
Besides what you grew up with, each method works better for different applications. When making gravies from roasts and other cooked meats, the slurry method is the one of choice but, when making sausage gravy, steak gravy or others from pan drippings where the meat has been fried, the roux works better.
All gravies are not created equal and there are many variations from the traditional meat gravies that we think of when we eat mashed potatoes and gravy.
Southerners like their red-eye gravy. This is nothing like your traditional brown gravy. Black coffee is added to the drippings which creates the unique appearance of the gravy in a serving bowl. The dark coffee and meat sink to the bottom leaving a layer of grease visible on the top. This resembles the appearance of a human eye which is where this southern dish gets its name.
Sawmill gravy is another specialty. Another southern dish, it gained its fame in logging camps. It was made from bacon drippings, corn meal and salt which was browned in a pan before milk was added. Often it would be coarse and thick which made the lumberjacks accuse the cooks of substituting sawdust for cornmeal, hence the name.
Another specialty gravy will surely please all the chocoholics out there. Originating in Appalachia, mountain people prove that not all gravy comes from meat drippings. The name comes from an old southern practice of using the word “gravy” to describe any roux-thickened sauce that is made in a skillet. It can be sweet or savory. Some refer to chocolate gravy as “soppin chocolate” since it is usually served over fresh-baked biscuits which are used to “sop” it up.
Sometimes it is started from all dry ingredients with added butter for the fat. Other times, the fat comes from the drippings of fried bacon. Either way, it is a sincere chocolate experience that proves you can have your chocolate for breakfast!
Most of us never give gravy a second thought, it is just a staple part of our diet. Different regions of the country have their own variations which proves that gravy isn’t just gravy. It has been said that a cook can make gravy out of nothing. No wonder then that, when it comes to gravy, Ron’s saying, “Good golly Gertie, that’s good gravy” rings true!
Chocolate Gravy Recipe
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 Tbsp flour
- Pinch salt
- 2 cups whole milk, warmed
- 4 Tbsp butter, cubed and chilled
- hot biscuits
- Sift cocoa, flour, sugar and salt in large skillet
- Whisk continuously, adding warm milk in slow, steady stream until smooth
- Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with heat-proof spatula until gravy thickly coats spatula, about 8 minutes
- Remove from heat, add butter, stir until butter is melted and serve over biscuits.