What Is Gravy, Technically?

When you think of the word “gravy,” what springs to mind? For me (and a lot of people, probably) the word is synonymous with Thanksgiving. Sitting there next to the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing is a tureen full of rich, brown liquid gravy. But beyond its location on the Thanksgiving plate, I don’t know that much about the stuff. I also suspect that “gravy” might encompass more than just the liquid that goes on turkey. So what is gravy, exactly? How is it made? Is it different from sauce? Let’s find out.

What is gravy? 

If we’re talking gravy in the Thanksgiving sense, the word refers to a sauce made from the drippings of the meat that collect during cooking. It is often thickened with cornstarch or a similar product. For most of this article, I will be using this definition, since this is what most people think of when they hear the word “gravy.”

That said, “gravy” is one of those terms that is quite broad and all-encompassing. For example, in Indian cuisine, there are a number of different sauces that are frequently called “gravies,” and in Italian cooking as well, it’s not uncommon to refer to sauce as gravy. So, keep in mind that gravy may mean different things to different people. 

What is gravy made of?

If you want to know what is in gravy, you need only look at the very meat on which you put it. For a Thanksgiving meal, that would be turkey. The turkey’s juices are collected and thickened with cornstarch or flour, then combined with salt and pepper, and potentially other spices. Voila! That’s your gravy. 

Now, if we’re talking instant gravy, the ingredients are a little more complicated. For example, the ingredients in a packet of McCormick Turkey Gravy Dry Mix include: Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Wheat Starch, Whey (Milk), Salt, Chicken Fat, Turkey Powder, Onion, Torula Yeast, Caramel Color, Disodium Inosinate And Guanylate (Flavor Enhancers), Spices (Including Celery Seed), Extractives Of Rosemary, Extractives Of Paprika, Extractives Of Sage, Butyric Acid & Natural Flavor. Voila! With some hot water, that’s your gravy.  

How is gravy made? How is gravy made?

Simplyrecipes.com has a simple and straightforward gravy recipe for your perusal. Collect the pan drippings from your roast, turkey, or other food item, and put them in a pan over medium heat. Next, sprinkle some flour (or cornstarch) into the drippings and stir thoroughly. Then, slowly whisk the gravy while adding some sort of liquid—either stock, milk, cream, water, or a combination. Let the mixture thicken, add spices to taste, and you’ve got yourself some gravy, baby. 

Incidentally, if you’re looking for gravy minus the meat, that’s a possibility too. Nora Cooks has a recipe that uses vegetable broth, onion powder, nutritional yeast, and Dijon mustard for flavor. You can also opt for a store-bought vegetarian gravySporked ranked the best.

Gravy vs sauce

Gravy is a kind of sauce. So, all gravies are sauce, but not all sauces are gravy. Simple enough, right? Well, not exactly. You see, some people of Italian extraction use the word gravy instead of the word sauce. What’s up with that? Well, nobody quite knows for sure, and there’s disagreement even among different people in the Italian-American community as to which word is correct, but it seems like gravy may be used as a more authentic-sounding word on occasion—it’s what they use in The Sopranos, after all. In any event, Slate has a good piece breaking down the various theories about the gravy/sauce dichotomy. 

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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