Like icing on a cake, gravy takes mashed potatoes from yummy to yuuuuu-mmmmmmmmyyyyyyy! Let’s face it though … making gravy is an art. It requires those amazing drippings from slow-roasted meat, the right amount and kind of thickener and a good teacher. Art takes time. Time isn’t always on your side. Enter the ready-to-serve option: never as good as homemade but convenient. What if it could be closer to homemade? All it takes are a few simple tricks.
This post came into existence because of a text I received from a good friend right before Thanksgiving. She was planning a family meal that would be transported to her mother-in-law’s home and wanted to use a box of turkey gravy she purchased but wanted to know if I had any tips on how to “beef” up (she’s funny that way) the flavor. Not being familiar with the product I asked if she had ever tried it and, if so, what she didn’t like. It was a little bland and quite thin.
Where to start? You can’t bump up the flavor of something if you don’t know what went into making it. Highlight the existing flavors.
She sent me the ingredients; onions, garlic and “spices” were on the list. The word “spices” caught my attention and it made me think of all the amazing flavors that accompany a good Thanksgiving dinner: sage and thyme, lemon and orange, clove and nutmeg. Simple things make a big difference.
The most important thing you can do, before you add anything, is to taste what you have. The most important thing you can do after you add something is to taste it again. Your taste buds will guide you. Pour that gravy into a pan, warm it up and grab a spoon.
Canned/jarred/boxed/frozen foods sacrifice freshness for convenience and longevity. The easiest way to restore some of that freshness is to add … you guessed it … something fresh. Adding a sprig of fresh herbs while the gravy is warming will make a big difference. Pair sage and thyme with turkey, rosemary with beef and ham, and basil and thyme with chicken. One dry bay leaf will save the day for any kind of gravy.
NOTE: Be sure to remove the bay leaf and any herb stems before serving.
Taste it again.
An effort to add “brightness” to food has nothing to do with appearance. It is an effort to add some zing to the flavors already present, much like adding lemon juice to a glass of water. It is the acidity of the lemon that achieves the zing. Fresh citrus (juice or zest) and even vinegar can make a surprising difference. Again, think of the seasonality of your meal. Lemons go well with chicken and spring-time dinners. Oranges pair perfectly with fall meals like turkey. Pineapple is always a delicious addition to ham. Although apples don’t fall into the citrus category, a splash of apple-cider vinegar will work well with a pork or beef roast.
Another option is to add spices. Lemon Pepper, nutmeg (especially for white gravy), allspice or ginger will add warmth and depth and make a big impact.
The obvious question is “how much”? Start small. You can always add more. Even a quarter teaspoon of spice, a half teaspoon of fresh citrus zest or a teaspoon of vinegar will go a long way.
Taste it again.
We have long been taught that it is the solution to blandness. Ready-to-serve foods seldom require the addition of salt. There are two big clues to help you decide if you should add salt or not. First, look at the label. See where salt falls in the ingredient list. If it’s one of the first ingredients, plenty of salt has already been added. Second, taste it. If, after making the addition of herbs, spices and zest/vinegar, it still needs improvement, add black pepper. Salt and pepper balance each other. Still think it needs salt? Add a little at a time and remember the mashed potatoes will also provide some salt to each bite.
Too thick? Remember to warm the gravy before you decide if it needs thinning. The easiest way to thin something is to add water but I don’t recommend it. You will not be happy with the flavor. Instead, add the appropriate broth (chicken, beef, turkey or vegetable) in small amounts until the desired consistency is reached.
Too thin? All-purpose flour will do the trick. Mix one tablespoon of flour with one tablespoon of water or broth and dissolve completely. Drizzle half of this mixture into warm gravy and whisk until combined. The flour needs to “cook out” so bring the gravy to a low boil and simmer, stirring frequently, as the gravy thickens. Add more of the mixture if necessary and continue cooking.
Taste it again. A “chalky” flavor (don’t ask me how I know what chalk tastes like … you’ll know it when you taste it) just means it needs to simmer longer.
other gravy tips
Bouillon: I highly recommend Better Than Bouillon as an alternative to bouillon cubes. It is stored in the refrigerator, comes in beef, chicken, turkey and vegetable flavors, is organic and reduced sodium and has easy-to-pronounce ingredients. Adding one-half teaspoon to bland gravy will intensify the flavor without diluting the consistency.
Worcestershire Sauce: A splash of Worcestershire sauce will add spice and zing to the gravy. Be careful. It will also add salt and a darker color.
Well-Seasoned Mashed Potatoes: Make sure you also taste your mashed potatoes. Properly seasoned potatoes will make your properly seasoned gravy taste even better!
Warning: There are a lot of options in this post. The idea is to provide suggestions that, in the right combination, will work with your pantry and refrigerator. Pick one or two (maybe three) of these suggestions but don’t try adding them all or the gravy will taste worse than it did straight out of the jar.
My friend blended a little turkey bouillon with some flour and water and added thyme. She said it was “perfect”! Not gonna lie. I’m pretty pleased. I learned some new things AND was able to help my friend via text messages with more than 500 miles between us.
It’s like icing on a cake … a mashed potato cake.