It’s November, the month of overeating in America, crowned by Thanksgiving. The big feast, the experts are telling us, is going to cost more than ever to put on the table, even if your family hasn’t grown in the past year. That isn’t good news for most of America either, as rising food prices have steadily devoured portions of family food budgets. Without incomes rising to match these costs, there is no option but to cut back and serve cheaper meals.
That means that many families are cutting back on expenses during the rest of the month so that they can afford that traditional feast on Thanksgiving Day. Since we usually serve about the same number of meals each week due to that peculiar habit of our families wanting fed at somewhat regular intervals, that means cheap eats are also going to get their day in the sun this month!
Gravy, while it is often referred to as something extra, it can mean one way to make less food seem like a lot more. (You can call it sauce, if it makes you feel better though.) Many people think that gravy is hard to make, even purchasing cans of it. There are also mixes, which I’ll confess…I use for quick and easy convenience on occasion.
Using this gravy, we can nearly double the number of servings of expensive items such as meat, pouring the gravy with its contents over rice, pasta, potatoes, biscuits or even toast. Everyone leaves the table satisfied that they had a substantial meal, instead of feeling like they only got half of a serving.
So how is gravy made?
The first kind of gravy, known as country or white gravy, is made from milk and thickened from a white roux. Essentially, it is nothing more than a white sauce with black pepper, accompanying seasonings, and the addition of meat and/or vegetables.
The second type is brown gravy, which doesn’t contain milk, is brown or tan in color, and can start with either a brown roux or be thickened with cornstarch before the meat and/or vegetables are added.
Which one is better?
Most of us are going to have a family preference to use as a guideline. Another guideline can be whether you are using leftovers for your gravy mixture. Leftover poultry, beef and pork are often suspended in a brown gravy. If there is leftover gravy that is going to be added to the next day’s offering, obviously it’s a good idea to match what was served originally. In addition, it may depend on what you have on hand. If you don’t have more stock, then white gravy might be a better choice.
What tools are needed for gravy making?
Tools are very simple. I’ve seen it made with nothing more than a spatula or wooden spoon in the same pan the meat was cooked in, and dipped out with a large spoon to pour over its base. Ideally, however, a whisk that can be used in the pan on the stove is a good idea. (There are silicone coated and nylon whisks available for non-stick pans.) My preferred whisk shape for making gravy happens to be a hard-to-find design, similar to a flat bottomed spring. This shape continually scrapes/stirs right from the bottom of the pan, ensuring that nothing sticks and scorches. Since I currently don’t have one (the last one I had died in an accident that we’re not talking about) I use whatever is handy. Outside of that, any pan of sufficient volume that can be used on the stove top is suitable. I use either a skillet or a sauce pan usually, but have used stock pots, dutch ovens, etc. as well. Even a roaster or two has moved to the stove top for gravy making with the drippings! (If you are in doubt whether it is stovetop safe, dump the drippings into another pan.) To serve from the cooking pan, any ladle can be used, saving your gravy ladle for the occasions when you drag out your gravy boats.
How about a recipe?
For white gravy, use the same proportions as for medium white sauce. (That recipe is found here.) The butter in the recipe can be replaced with drippings from the meat, such as hamburger, sausage, or bacon as well. Then, you can get creative! Start by making about 1 recipe (using 1 c. milk) of medium white sauce for big eaters, and about 1 recipe for 2 medium to light eaters. To the hot white sauce (aka country gravy) add the following combinations, multiplied by the number of recipes.
- 1/4 c. cooked & crumbled bacon, 1/2 c. cooked green beans 1 tbsp. sauteed chopped onion
- 1/4 c. cooked & crumbled sausage, 1/8 tsp. sage
- 1/2 can tuna, 1/2 c. frozen peas & carrots
- 1/4 c. cooked & crumbled hamburger, 1/4 c. sauteed chopped onion
- 1/4 c. boned chunk cooked chicken, 1/2 c. frozen mixed stir fry vegetables, 1/8 tsp. basil
- 1/4 c. sliced or crumbled cooked Italian sausage, 1 c. sauteed zucchini, 1/4 tsp. Italian seasonings, 1 tbsp. Parmesan cheese (the canned kind)
- 1/4 c. cooked chunked ham, 1 sliced or diced boiled egg, 1/2 tsp. mustard
- 1/4 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese, 1 c. frozen asparagus or broccoli pieces
- 1 c. any frozen stir fry vegetable mixture
Be creative. Choose something your family likes as the base, balancing it with the time you have available. Options such as mashed potatoes, drop biscuits, cooked rice, egg noodles, macaroni, spaghetti noodles, fettuccine, or even pasta wheels can make it more fun and make the family more enthusiastic about the meal.
For brown gravy, it starts with a roux, but instead of stopping before the roux browns, it requires continual attention until the roux is golden brown. Do not stop stirring or it will scorch, and scorched roux will definitely ruin the meal! The general rule-of-thumb is about equal amounts of flour and fat, which can be pan drippings, vegetable oil, or butter (or a combination of these.) For every two tablespoons (approximately) of fat, you will need about one cup of liquid, whether it is stock or water. These are the same proportions as the white sauce recipe, and the directions are identical, with the replacement of the milk with water or stock.
To use cornstarch to thicken, you simply mix the required amount of cornstarch with water until all lumps are gone and all of the cornstarch has been stirred in (it settles quickly). While whisking your hot liquid, whether it is stock or water, you pour in your cornstarch mixture, continuing to whisk quickly. Do not stop or you will get lumps! Continue stirring until mixture begins to boil and remove from heat. It will thicken a bit more as it begins to cool. Stir in your meat and vegetable mixtures, returning to the heat if necessary. Serve these over your chosen toppings.
With the cornstarch mixture, flavor is very important. The cornstarch adds virtually nothing to the flavor, only thickening it. That means that if you are using water, it is going to be very important to add some flavor or you will be serving an exceptionally bland meal. To jazz up the water, use soy sauce, herbs, bouillon, salt & pepper, or meat drippings, adding them to the water when you place it on the stove, before you add the cornstarch. Most items will be able to begin to do their work long before the water begins to boil and the cornstarch mixture is added.
Many of the same seasoning combinations can be used with the brown gravies as are used with the white gravy, except for cheese, which doesn’t combine well with the brown gravy. (Avoid the ham with egg & mustard combo too.)
For seasonings, look to the items you are adding. The same seasonings often work in the gravy/meat/vegetable combination, whether using leftover beef, pork, poultry, or fish. The same thing goes often for the selected base, which can be coordinated with the topping to suit your family’s tastes.
To serve, simply put the base (rice, pasta, potatoes, biscuit, or toast) on the plate, then top it with enough of the gravy mixture to cover it. (Usually 1/2-1 c. gravy to about equal amounts of “base”.)