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Recipes and Stories

8 May 2015: The Glory of Pan Gravy II – Pan Gravy for Pan-Fried or Sautéed Meat and Poultry

Pan-fried Quail with Onion Pan Gravy as photographed by the great John Carrington for The Savannah Cookbook

When “la nouvelle cuisine” swept the culinary world in the latter part of the last century, roux-thickened pan gravy got shoved aside for sauces whose body was derived from reductions, purees, and butter liaisons. (They were really, by the way, nothing more than “la cuisine ancienne” rediscovered, but never mind.)

There was nothing wrong with those sauces—when we have the time to properly execute them and can serve them immediately, but there’s also nothing wrong with well-made pan gravy, especially for home cooks. Judiciously thickened with just enough flour to give it body and enhanced with little more than the caramelized residue left in the pan from the food over which it is to be ladled, it’s equal to the most elegant reduction or beurre blanc—and is far more forgiving when we can’t serve it right away.

Pan gravy is a kind of blank canvas that can be varied by the addition of a tablespoon of minced shallots, a teaspoon of chopped fresh herbs, or a splash of Worcestershire sauce or such old-fashioned ketchups as mushroom, walnut, or anchovy—all depending on what you’re saucing.

But don’t assume that you always need to add something to make a success of it: there are times when anything more than the subtle browned essence of the meat or poultry would be overkill. Sometimes more isn’t better: sometimes it’s just more. Remember that, unless you’ve really messed up the pan-frying, the gravy’s job is to enhance the flavors of the food underneath it, not to unnecessarily complicate, confuse, and cover them.

If you cook at all, you’ve probably made pan gravy dozens of times. It’s a basic skill that we should all have mastered. But it’s also easy to take it for granted: just because it’s simple doesn’t mean you can be careless—in fact, its very simplicity should make you more careful than ever.

There’s no special tool required for pan gravy, but a flat whisk will make the job a lot easier because it doesn’t cause splattering when you’re working in a shallow pan as a regular round whisk would. They’re not expensive and are well worth the minimal investment.

Makes about 1½ cups

1 tablespoon finely minced shallot (optional)
2 tablespoons of the frying fat, left in the bottom of the frying pan
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour or 4 teaspoons Southern Browning (recipe follows)
1¼ cups (1½ cups if not adding wine) meat or chicken broth (depending on what you’ve cooked), or water
1 teaspoon finely minced herbs such as parsley, sage, thyme, or marjoram (optional—depending on what you’ve cooked)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
¼ cup medium dry sherry, port, or medium dry (Sercial) Madeira (optional—see notes below)

1. If using the shallot, put it in the pan with the reserved fat. Reheat the pan over a medium heat and, if using the shallot, sauté it until translucent and pale gold. Stir/whisk in the flour until smooth. If using plain flour, continue stirring it until it has lightly browned, but be careful not to let it, or any of the residue left in the pan, scorch. If using Browning, let it just get warm.

2. Gradually stir in the broth or water and bring it to a simmer, stirring and scraping to loosen any browned bits of crust that may be stuck to the pan.

3. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Add the optional herbs, taste, and season with salt and a few grindings of pepper. If you’re using wine, stir it in and let the gravy come back to a simmer, then let it simmer until the steam rising no longer has a sharp aroma, about 3-5 minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasonings, pour into a heated sauceboat and serve at once.

A note on using wine: don’t carelessly splash it in on the presumption that if a little is good, a lot will be terrific. Too much wine will make the sauce sharp, unpleasantly sour, and even bitter. And it isn’t always a wise addition: sometimes wine will actually get in the way of the flavors that ought to be front and center. Sherry and Madeira are compatible with just about any meat or poultry, but sherry is particularly fine with poultry and pork, and Madeira marries well with turkey, beef, pork, and veal. Port is best reserved for game meat and poultry.

Southern Browning

Browning is nothing more than plain flour toasted over low heat in a dry pan until it is colored. It’s rarely seen any more, but the old cooks used it so often that they made it in large batches and stored it in corked bottles. Its advantage was that the flour didn’t have to be browned at the last minute. Some cooks mixed it with water after it had cooled, but it’s more versatile and keeps better if left dry. Few of us need the kind of quantities that they did, I find a cup of flour is about the outside limit that I can handle in my skillet.

To use browning, measure out as much as you need and follow the instructions of the individual recipe. If you are using it instead of plain flour, keep in mind that the toasting affects its ability to thicken. You’ll need roughly twice as much.

1. Put a cup of all-purpose flour in a well-seasoned iron, enameled iron, or non-stick skillet. Turn on the heat to medium low and cook, stirring constantly, until it is a rich medium brown, about 5 to 10 minutes, and turn off the heat. There shouldn’t be even a hint of burned flavor, so be careful not to let it scorch, and keep stirring until the flour has cooled, about 5 minutes more. If it begins to seem as if it’s close to over-browning, transfer it to a bowl and stir until it cools.

2. Store it into a glass jar, tightly covered, away from heat and light.

Recipes adapted from Classical Southern Cooking, 2nd Edition, copyright © 2015 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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