In the simplest sense, gravy is a sauce that is based on the juices and flavourings that are left over from roasted or pan-fried meat. In practice of course, the variations on this simple theme are numerous.
The first major split in gravy comes with flour. Gravies fall into 2 main groups; thickened or clear.
Thickened gravies usually have their origins in British based cookery. They result in a somewhat heavy and opaque sauce. After a joint of meat or poultry has been roasted, the excess fat is poured away, leaving a modest amount behind. The roasting pan is set on the stovetop and brought to a gentle heat. A few tablespoons of flour is added and stirred into a paste - known as a roux. Liquid is then added - stock, wine, milk, water, verjuice or vegetable cooking water and the resultant sauce is simmered to the desired consistency.
Clear gravies are in the main inspired by French cuisine, where they are known as jus. They rely on reduction (simmering away the excess liquid) to achieve the right consistency. They are sometimes enriched by the addition of a small amount of butter towards the end of cooking to thicken the sauce and add extra gloss. Clear gravies are also sometimes thickened with vegetable purees or cream.
Both these styles rely on one major factor, and without this step your gravy will taste thin and disappointing - deglazing. This simply refers to removing the sediment and any nicely browned bits of meat juices clinging to the pan with the aid of a liquid. Make sure to take your time and scrape up all those browned bits of goodness and you will end up with a much more flavoursome gravy.
Here are a couple of recipes for gravy. The first is a traditional flour-thickened gravy for roasted meats, while the second is a fast, flourless version for pan-fried meat or poultry.
Traditional gravy for roasted meats
1 roast - meat or poultry
4 Tbs plain flour
2 cups liquid (stock, wine, verjuice, milk, water - or a combination. Warmed)
1 small onion, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
When the roast is cooked, remove it from the baking tray and set aside in a warm spot to rest while you make the gravy. Place the tray on the stovetop and set on a gentle heat. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes to let it colour a little, stirring well. Pour away all but 4 Tbs of the fat and place the tray back on the heat.
Add the flour and stir well until you have a nice smooth paste. Cook this roux for a few minutes, as this will remove the raw flour taste. Add the liquid and stir well to lift all the sediment from the base of the pan and smooth out any lumps in the roux. If the gravy is too thick, add a little more liquid.
Simmer until the sauce has reached the desired consistency and taste for salt and pepper. You may well not need any if the roast was well seasoned. Strain the gravy into a sauceboat and serve alongside your roast.
Quick pan gravy for meat or poultry
If you wish to make the ultimate gravy, and time is no object, make a demi-glace. Instructions can be found at veal stock.
Pan-fried meat or poultry
1 Tbs mustard
1 cup liquid (stock, wine, milk - or a combination)
Chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chives or tarragon)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs butter
Transfer the cooked meat to a warm plate and keep warm while you make the sauce. Pour away almost all the excess fat from the pan - but leave any sediment behind. Place the pan on a medium heat. Add the liquid and stir well to lift up all the sediment. Add the mustard then turn the heat up high.
Stir well and allow the sauce to reduce by half, and it begins to thicken a little. Add the salt and pepper if required, then add the herbs. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter. Stir constantly as the butter melts, so it incorporates into the sauce. Stain into a sauceboat and serve alongside you grilled meat or poultry.