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Recipes and Stories

6 May 2015: The Glory of Pan Gravy, Part I

Cream Pan Gravy, the quintessential accompaniment for Southern fried chicken. Photography by John Carrington Photography.

The acquisition of a handsome antique gravy ladle has made my mind wander to one of the world’s oldest and greatest culinary inventions: pan gravy.

One of the most under-appreciated elements of any cuisine, but of Southern cooking especially, when well-made and carefully seasoned, pan gravy is also the best sauce imaginable. Rich with the browned essence of the food it will accompany, it enhances without smothering, and can partly redeem indifferent or accidentally over-done food. Alas, unless it gets called “déglacé” (a French name automatically seems to elevate the most ordinary of dishes), pan gravy seldom gets the credit it deserves.

Unhappily, this is not without reason. Witness these stern words from Annabella Hill, penned more than one-and-a-half centuries ago:

“Upon many tables the only gravy which makes its appearance is the grease or drippings from the meat, thickened with a paste of water and flour, or the pure unadulterated grease minus the thickening. I earnestly advise all housewives to make themselves familiar with the art of preparing different kinds of sauces. I have seen the character of poor steak, joints, and puddings in part redeemed by a well selected, well prepared sauce.”
– Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.

I’d like to say that a lot has improved since Mrs. Hill’s day—particularly since the “gourmet” cooking epidemic that swept our region along with the rest of the country in the 1980s and 90s. But, alas, it has not: In many a traditional Southern cook’s kitchen, Mrs. Hill’s words still ring painfully true.

And yet, a well-made pan gravy can rarely be topped, a fact that Mrs. Hill fully appreciated. Though she followed this admonition with dozens of lovely sauces—gossamer melted butters, silky rich cream reductions, savory anchovy, caper, herb, lemon, mushroom and onion sauces, richly flavored with shallots, garlic, and homemade ketchups—she still offered careful, almost reverent, directions for perfect pan gravy.

She knew too well that the drippings were a precious commodity: mess them up and there’s no retrieving them. Indifferent handling, too much flour thickening, or a heavy hand with flavoring condiments can turn those lovely drippings from heaven in a ladle to a flavor-smothering taste of the other place.

One of the most egregious mistakes of our time has been the over-use of bottled condiments or, as Mrs. Hill knew them “store sauces.” Marion Flexner, in advocating their use in her book Dixie Dishes (1941), inadvertently revealed how far out of hand things were getting when she wrote that Worcestershire sauce and Kitchen Bouquet were to Southern sauces what powder and lip rouge were to debutantes.

Well, I couldn’t have put it better myself. It is easy to overdo this culinary face paint, ending up with something that tastes as cheap as too much make up looks.

All that is not meant to imply that there’s anything complicated about making a decent pan gravy: it’s simple stuff, but like most simple things requires more care rather than less.

Cream Pan Gravy

As Mrs. Hill knew well, flour isn’t the only way to give a pan gravy body. While not as stable as a flour-thickened sauce, those thickened with a bit of butter whisked in at the end or a gentle reduction of wine, roasting juices, or cream, are more subtle and often much more satisfying.

Cream Gravy has been the quintessential accompaniment for Southern fried chicken for more than two hundred years, although nowadays, it’s made with milk thickened with flour and rarely contains any cream at all. Once upon a time, however, it was made with nothing but cream and pan drippings. It’s the same method as a classic déglacé, with cream acting both as deglazing liquid and thickener.

In the early days, this gravy was actually poured over the chicken, but as the flour-thickened version became more commonplace, it was for a time poured around it on the platter, and today is served strictly on the side as a sauce for the accompanying rice, potatoes, or biscuits—basically everything but the bird itself.

It needn’t be confined to fried chicken. It’s also an excellent finishing sauce for pan-fried veal, game birds, and sautéed country (dry-cured) ham.

Makes about 1 cup

1 tablespoon of fat, left in the bottom of the frying pan
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2 teaspoons minced fresh or 1 teaspoon dry herbs (optional, see step 2)
Grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. After removing the meat or poultry from the pan, pour or spoon off all but a tablespoon of the fat. Raise the heat to medium high, add the cream, and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits clinging to it.

2. Season with salt and a liberal grinding of pepper, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the cream is lightly reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes. If you like, stir in a tablespoon of minced fresh, or teaspoon of crumbled dry herbs. Thyme and summer savory are good with poultry and game; sage is nice with chicken or pork. Lemon zest is good with game birds.

3. Let the sauce simmer for 2 or 3 minutes to meld the flavors, then pour it into a heated sauceboat, sprinkle the top with the parsley, and serve at once.

Recipe and text adapted from Classical Southern Cooking, 2nd Edition, (Gibbs-Smith), copyright © 2008 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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