Why This Recipe Works
Gravy, by definition, is a thickened sauce made of meat juices and pan drippings, usually left over from a roast. But what if you don’t have a roast on hand and want gravy for some mashed potatoes or pork chops? We wanted to create a top-notch, all-purpose gravy that could be made quickly, without any special ingredients.
When we began our tests, we assumed that some combination of supermarket broths and sautéed vegetables thickened with flour would be most likely to give us the results we wanted. But water and vegetable broths made for flavorless gravies, while chicken and beef broths alone dominated the gravy. Equal amounts of chicken and beef broth, however, provided a meaty yet balanced base.
With our broth mixture determined, we turned to the vegetables. A standard mirepoix (a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery) lightly sautéed in oil contributed a rounded sweetness and body, but it failed to accent the gravy’s meatiness or to impart any roasted flavor. In most gravy recipes, the fond (the browned bits at the bottom of a roasting pan) provides concentrated flavor and an appealing nutty-brown color. It occurred to us that we could create similar bits of rich, caramelized flavor by developing a vegetable fond. We were right; simply extending the cooking time and sautéing the vegetables until they were well browned resulted in a more pronounced roasted, meaty flavor. Switching from oil to butter (for more flavor) and chopping the vegetables in a food processor (for smaller, more uniform pieces) further enhanced our fond.
Our final step was to thicken the gravy. We tried a variety of techniques but got the best results by sprinkling a little flour into the sautéed vegetables to create a classic roux. The gravy was getting better, but it still lacked depth. We borrowed a method from Creole gumbos and took our roux far past the pale blond shade of our previous tests, cooking it until it became the color of milk chocolate. This simple technique developed complex flavor elements, provided an unexpectedly rich roasted flavor, and added a meaty intensity. Together with the caramelized vegetable fond, the darkened roux lent the gravy a rich, deep brown color. A classic combination of dried thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns finished our surprisingly simple yet deeply flavorful gravy.