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Gravy...or is it Sauce?
You might say the difference between sauce and gravy is attitude. It boils down to this:
1. If meat is cooked plain or floured, the resulting pan juices will make sauce.
2. If flour is added after meat is cooked in order to thicken the pan juices -- well, that's gravy.
Both are delicious and make starring appearances during the holidays. Both need good pan juices. To get them, roast meat in a pan just large enough to hold it. If the pan is too big, the juices forced from the meat will spread and burn. A pan with low sides is best because they allow the heat greater access to the meat. You'll get more stuck-on browned bits, those glorious specks of flavor that look like mistakes, if you roast meat without putting it on a rack. Also, use enough salt and pepper on the meat so the resulting juices will already be nicely seasoned. And, try to roast meat without adding unnecessary liquid.
Behind sauce is a holdover from sauteing -- deglazing. Deglaze is a single word that means to loosen the cooked-on drippings in your roasting pan by adding liquid and boiling it on the highest heat. When meats cook, their drippings leave a "glaze," which appears as stray bits of food that stick to the bottom of the roasting pan. You might think they're burnt, but these particles are the hidden flavor in many sauces -- that is, if you can deglaze (or if you prefer, unglaze) the pan.
You'll be deglazing in the same pan the meat roasted in, so think ahead. Don't roast in glass. Instead use stainless steel, enamel-covered cast iron, graniteware, or other alloyed materials which, after time in the oven can endure the direct heat from a burner.
To make the sauce: Pour anything that moves (liquids and juices) out of the roasting pan into a measuring cup, but don't scrape the bottom of the pan. Refrigerate the cup and put the roasting pan on a burner. In about 5 minutes, take the cup out of the refrigerator and spoon off as much fat as you can -- it's OK if you've still got a little bit. Pour whatever juices remain in the cup into the roasting pan. The pan will hold very little contents at this time. Turn the burner to high. When you see bubbling, add some stock, water, or red or white wine (from 1/2 to 1 cup). Enjoy the show of smoke, a sign that things are going nicely. Use a wooden spatula to scrape the pan clean as the liquid bubbles. Stir and scrape about 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the liquid cleans itself up and about one-third of it has boiled away. Take a taste. If it needs salt or pepper, add now. Turn off the heat. If the sauce still has little pieces of browned bits, and these are annoying to you, pour the sauce through a mini-strainer held over a serving pitcher.
The longer the liquid boils, the more condensed the flavor, and the less sauce you'll have. It is not uncommon to end up with half as much sauce as the original volume of liquid. That's why a sauce of this type is called a "reduction."
Gravy is made from pan juices, too, but more importantly, relies on the thickening power of flour or cornstarch. In this method, we'll be using flour.
Gravy can be lean because the pan juices, which contain fat, can be nearly completely de-fatted in a short time. Even if pan juices can be chilled 5 to 15 minutes in a measuring cup, fat will be quite visible as a yellow layer hanging over the remaining liquid. Depending on what you've roasted, you might end up with more fat than juice, as with duck.
To make gravy: After roasting a turkey or piece of meat, scrape everything that's in the pan into a glass 2-cup measuring cup and refrigerate 5 to 15 minutes. Spoon off the golden layer of fat. A bulb baster will suck it up easily.
After the fat is gone, add tap water until you've got 1 1/2 to 2 cups, and pour it all into a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil, uncovered. Boil until nearly half of it cooks away. Dissolve 3 tablespoons flour in 3 tablespoons cold water until a smooth paste forms. Slowly pour and stir the flour paste, a little at a time, into the boiling juices until gravy becomes as thick as you like. You may not have to add all of it! Add salt and pepper, and gravy is yours!
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking