The Only Thing Standing Between You and the Best Gravy of Your Life Is Your Own Fear of Greatness
This holiday season, Food & Wine is going over the top with our series "Give Thanks, But Make It Extra"—a celebration of all things opulent, glittering, rich, delicious, and joyful.
I'm all for family traditions, but sometimes a treasured food from childhood accrues so much nostalgia and mystique that it acquires the status of myth, and becomes impossible to recreate in adulthood. For me, that's what happened with my grandmother's turkey gravy.
I grew up in North Carolina, where every year we'd spend Thanksgiving at my aunt's house. The day would dawn with the adults nursing mugs of strong, black "cowboy" coffee as my grandfather, still in his nightgown, fussed over the turkey: a 20-odd-pound Butterball in a battered aluminum roasting pan. Hours later, my grandmother would set that pan, now holding glorious turkey drippings, over two electric eyes of the stove. She slowly stirred flour into the drippings with a wooden spoon to make a loose roux while my uncle carved the turkey to her left.
After adding warm broth and whole milk to the roux, my grandmother gathered shredded turkey from the cutting board (my uncle insisted on cutting with the grain with a dull knife, so there was always a pound or so of turkey left to work with) and stirred it into her gravy. She cooked it all down into a thick, silky concoction of sauce-enrobed meat that was almost a stew unto itself. And that was her gravy. It was legendary; a sopping sauce for the Thanksgiving gods. It was always the most extra thing on the table. Writing about it makes me want to make a batch right now to smother a bowl of white rice.
I was a professional cook and food magazine test kitchen pro for years and tried to recreate that gravy. Lord, I tried. But I was never able to replicate it.
Nearly a decade ago, I finally stopped trying so hard after making the biggest rookie mistake of all time and inviting both sets of in-laws to my Thanksgiving table at the Birmingham apartment I shared with my former wife. Gravy, I learned, can smell fear at the stove. This batch was doomed from the start when the liaison of starch and fat failed to become a smooth paste while cooking in the saucepan. Once I added turkey stock the liquified fat began separating and rose to the surface. I tried to skim it off while awkwardly playing family peacemaker with a 10-month old under foot, but that "gravy" hit the table in a boat with an oil slick pooling on top.
And that was the last time I tried to make gravy the way my grandmother did.
Now I make really good gravy that captures the essence of my grandmother's without any of the last-minute pressure of making it right before sitting down to dinner. It's still the most extra thing on the table, but without the time pressure.
Here are my principles for making great gravy without fear:
Make it ahead. This is the most important one. Don't wait for the drippings from the roasted bird and make gravy a la minute while your guests are lining up at the buffet with plates in hand. Make it at least one day ahead and then slowly reheat it in a saucepan over low heat just before serving.
Make a really good Homemade Turkey Stock first. Don't skimp on this crucial first step. This stock will power your gravy and give it deep roasted turkey flavor.
Reinforce the stock's flavor. Turkey backs, necks, and wings all possess mighty flavor and collagen, which gives your stock more body. You'll find them in the supermarket in the weeks leading up to the feast. Draw out the roasted turkey flavors by browning the turkey parts over a bed of aromatic vegetables in a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet, a pan low slung enough to aid in caramelization yet tall enough to capture the valuable juices that drip and concentrate on the bottom.
Deglaze the pan with wine. Adding wine to the hot roasting pan and scraping with a spatula helps you capture every last precious browned bit from the bottom of the pan. That's where the flavor is. The wine also lends acid for flavor.
Simmer, simmer, simmer. You want the turkey parts to begin to fall apart so they release all of their flavor.
Strain and cool. Press the solids into the strainer so that you push as much juice out of the turkey parts and aromatic vegetables as possible. Then refrigerate the strained stock overnight so you can easily spoon off the congealed fat on top. That fat is great for saving (I like to roast potatoes with it) but it will make the gravy too fatty later if you don't skim it now.
Reduce. What you're going for is a gelatinous brown stock. To achieve that, simmer the strained stock until it coats the back of the spoon.
Choose your fork in the road. You can season and serve that stock as jus, and even stir in a tiny bit of cornstarch slurry to thicken it, which will give you a pure and unadulterated—and looser—sauce than gravy. Or you can skip the corn starch step in my jus recipe and introduce the liquid gold to a roux, a thickening agent of equal parts of turkey fat, canola oil, or butter with the same volume of flour (in this case, a 1:1 ratio). Whisk and gently simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes and you'll have great gravy.
Hot liquids only. Whether you're making gravy or bechamel, adding cold liquid to a roux will encourage the starch and fat to separate. For best practices, ladle a ½ cup or so of hot stock or jus to the roux while whisking vigorously. Once the mixture looks smooth and homogenous, then you can begin to whisk in the rest of your hot stock or milk.
Embellish. Feeling extra? A little flavor goes a long way, especially after you've loved on your turkey stock so much and coaxed out all the flavor from the roasted turkey parts. When I want another layer of flavor, I add a tablespoon or so of bourbon, madeira, calvados, brandy, or vermouth to my gravy from time to time. It's up to you if you want to cook the alcohol off first. Or sauteed minced mushrooms or sauteed giblets do nicely. Fresh thyme plays well, so you could swirl a sprig of thyme through the sauce for flavor if you don't want chopped flecks of herbs. Or you could level up and combine the best of the herbs, mushrooms, brandy, and cultured butter to make Mushroom-and-Herb Gravy with Apple Brandy. And shredded turkey pieces from the cutting board will, of course, make any gravy extra extra.(Note: I based this article on a turkey jus recipe I developed in 2020. You could also start with this turkey stock recipe or your own homemade stock. Whatever you do, make stock from scratch if you want really good gravy.)