How to make the perfect gravy
Telegraph readers have defended their right to pour rich, meaty liquor over their roast. Eleanor Steafel shares her ideal approach
If you don’t like gravy, then you’ve just never had a good one. My colleague and fellow food-lover Ed Cumming wrote recently in this very newspaper that gravy is “meat-like slop”, unnecessary unless you’ve “nuked the rest of your meal to oblivion”. I’m glad to see Telegraph readers disagree. Mary Biggs from West Sussex, in a letter to the Editor, argues that gravy is “one of the joys of home cooking”. She adds the potato parboiling water to hers, along with a little flour, salt and pepper. Jeffrey Bowden from Suffolk advocates for his wife’s approach of adding a shake of Worcestershire sauce and a little Bovril. Gravy is where all the flavour can be found in a roast dinner. You don’t need buckets of it (others, I’m aware, would disagree – if you really want to wind my mum up, under cater on the gravy), but get it right and a couple of spoonfuls can make the meal. The details depend on what you’re roasting. A rib of beef will leave you with a lot more fat than a leg of lamb; chicken likes sitting atop a good slosh of wine, whereas liquid is the enemy of the goose, whose skin must crisp up perfectly. Equipped with the principles below, however (framed around my approach for chicken, the nation’s bestselling meat) you can produce a gravy that I challenge even naysayers not to like. The roasting tin First things first: what are you putting into it? For chicken, a little white wine in the tin and plenty of lemon, garlic and thyme in the cavity are all you need to yield fantastic juices, which are the all-important base for gravy. Sit the bird on whole garlic cloves and thickly sliced brown onions, and pour about an inch of white wine into the base of the tin. The chook should sit above the liquid, dripping its schmaltz into the booze. Plenty of salt on the skin, which you’ll rub first with either oil or softened butter, depending on your preference. Tip the tin and baste occasionally while roasting. And when you come to rest the meat, make sure to first pour all the juices out of the cavity back into the tin. Some pour the juices into a separate pan and build their gravy from there. I keep mine in the tin: that’s where all the flavour is, and frankly, who wants to add yet another item to the washing-up pile? Set it across two hobs over a low-medium heat, take your wooden spoon and start scraping any gnarled bits as it bubbles. Different meats obviously call for diffferent flavours: I like cider and bay leaves for pork; rosemary, garlic and red wine for lamb. The fat: discard or use? If you’ve roasted your meat without any extras (no added liquid, no rub on the skin) then, whatever the meat, you can pour the clean fat into a jar, discard or keep in the fridge and use again. Delia Smith suggests placing your tin over “a gentle direct heat” with a bowl ready, tilting the tin to see clearly the fat separating from the darker juices. She recommends spooning it off with a tablespoon. With chicken, I find there isn’t enough fat to bother syphoning it all off. If there’s loads, spoon off a little. But fat is flavour, and chicken fat is some of the tastiest around. If you focus on emulsifying it rather than getting rid of it, your gravy is going to benefit. To thicken or not to thicken: that is the question The last thing you want is to do a Bridget Jones: “Of course it doesn’t need sieving, just stir it Oona.” There is nothing appetising about lumpy gravy, but leave it too loose and it all feels a bit French – more “jus” than Bisto, if you know what I mean. A good thickening technique is key, then. My mum always thickens at the end, scattering a scant handful of flour over the pan and stirring furiously. Some – like chef and Telegraph columnist Mark Hix – swear by cornflour mixed with a little water to thicken. “Sauce flour” is also a thing. Who knew? Delia, clearly, who swears by the product (available in supermarkets) which is developed specially to liquify without going lumpy. You could thicken your gravy via a beurre manié, rubbing equal parts flour and butter together and then adding it in nuggets to melt through the juices (why add more fat, though, when you may have just painstakingly removed it?) I find the best way to thicken in a controlled way, without fear of lumps, is to treat it like a roux. Add flour to the pan before introducing any further liquid, stirring and making a rough paste to then loosen. How much is too much? You’re going to need to add some form of extra liquid, but even top chefs are divided on what. Jamie Oliver likes a little wine and a litre of stock. The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris chooses madeira. Gordon Ramsay goes port. And Delia? The boiling water from the potatoes, obviously. Or, for a blast from the past, a pint of Marigold bouillon. I think of gravy liquids in two distinct categories: the first delivers flavour, the second volume. If you need lots of gravy (owing to greed or number of mouths you’re feeding – either is acceptable), then you’ll want both. If making gravy for two to four people, I don’t bother with stock and simply add another slosh of booze. For chicken gravy, I add white wine or dry sherry, chicken stock or cooking water to pad it out if needed and – if I’m feeling frisky – a little madeira. Flavour: what to do about Marmite, jelly, mustard? For some, gravy is all about pure savoury, meaty flavour. Delia adds nothing at all to hers. Jamie keeps his basic chicken gravy simple but adds all sorts to a Christmas edition, from star anise to cranberry jelly. Hix likes tomato purée in his, while Harris adds dried ceps and lemon. The actor Stephen Mangan told the Waitrose podcast recently that his mum used to put Boursin in hers. I’m going to give that a go. Whatever you add, the key is to taste as you go, adding a little more salt, sugar or acid to please your own palate. Some birds might not need much help, but others need a small spoonful of Marmite to boost the umami flavour. I always add lemon and more salt, smushing roast garlic cloves out of their skin to stir through. Fresh thyme and a slosh of cider vinegar might join them. Mustard is too overpowering, for me. Keep simmering over a low heat, stirring. It’s done when just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Straining and serving All the experts will tell you to sieve your gravy. And if you want a smooth, glossy sauce then that is what you should do. But if you’re like me, you’ll be going back for the bits of onion and garlic in the pan and putting them on your plate too. Use a fine sieve and serve in a jug that you’ve pre-warmed by filling with water from the kettle, then emptying. Pour as little or as much as you like for the gravy of dreams.