Just because Thanksgiving mostly is about tradition doesn’t mean that we aren’t open to going off-script when it comes to side dishes and cooking the big bird.
But the gravy? It’s where innovation goes to die! Generally, we’re content to just pour some store-bought chicken broth, along with a little butter and flour, into the pan in which the turkey was roasted, then call it a day. In truth, I love pan gravy as much as anyone, but you can make a more exciting gravy with just a little more work.
We were taught in cooking school that your sauce will only be as good as the liquid you add to it. In the case of turkey gravy, that would be turkey broth. What can be done to amp up its flavor?
To start, you want to brown the turkey parts that have been packed inside the bird — the neck and the giblets (that is, the heart and the gizzards). Then, slice off the bird’s wings — which nobody eats anyway — and add them to the other parts. (Do not add the liver; it will make the stock bitter. Instead, just reserve or freeze it until you can saute it in butter and serve it on toast. Yum!)
Browning these turkey parts in the company of some carrots and onions develops complex flavors. This is called the Maillard reaction. It’s what happens when amino acids combined with the sugars found in meat and many vegetables are heated above 300 degrees. Concentrated juices from these ingredients will collect in the bottom of the pan as you brown them. When you deglaze the pan, you dissolve those juices and add them to the browned ingredients, further deepening the flavor of the broth.
You might be surprised to find tomato paste among this recipe’s ingredients, but tomatoes happen to be a terrific source of umami. Umami is the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is usually described as “meaty.” The carrots in the stock also contribute umami. Briefly sauteing the tomato paste in the skillet helps to brown it and develop its natural sugars.
Having cooked up your stock in a separate pan, you’re eventually going to want to add to it the juices that streamed out of the turkey while it roasted and use the fat that accumulated in the pan while you basted the bird. Again, this is how you intensify the gravy’s turkey flavor.
Finally, I recommend making the turkey stock a day or two in advance of the feast. It will make the big day itself a little less stressful.
Bigger and Better Turkey Gravy
- Neck, wings and giblets (about 8 ounces total) from an 18- to 24-pound turkey
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Drippings, 1/2 cup fat and pan juices from 18- to 24-pound roasted turkey (if you don’t have enough fat, add melted butter)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons instant flour (such as Wondra)
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Chop neck and wings into 1-inch pieces; pat dry. Pat giblets dry. In a large skillet over medium-high, heat oil. Add turkey pieces and giblets, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add onion, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer to saucepan.
Add 1 cup water to skillet. Deglaze over high heat, scraping up brown bits, until all the bits are dissolved. Pour this mixture over turkey parts in saucepan. Add chicken broth and 2 cups water.
Bring liquid to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, skimming off any scum, until there is no more scum, 15 to 20 minutes. Add celery, thyme and bay leaf; simmer gently for 2 hours. Strain, pressing hard on solids. Discard solids and measure stock; you should have 4 cups. If you have more, simmer longer to reduce to 4 cups. If you have less, add water to make 4 cups. Cool, cover and chill until it is time to make the gravy.
When the turkey is cooked and resting, pour all the liquid in the roasting pan into a large measuring cup. Pour or skim off fat and reserve it; leave the cooking juices in the measuring cup. You need 1/2 cup fat for gravy; if you don’t have enough, supplement with melted butter.
Set roasting pan on top of two burners set over medium-low. Add fat, then flour. Whisk 5 minutes. Add reserved cooking juices from the roasting pan and two-thirds of the turkey stock. Bring to a boil, whisking. If the gravy needs thinning, add more stock and any juices that accumulated on the platter where the turkey has been resting.
Simmer 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 5 cups.
Approximate nutritional information, per 1/4 cup: 70 calories, 6 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium, 4 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein
Follow the recipe above up to the point of adding fat to roasting pan. Add half the fat and 1/3 cup minced shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 minutes.
Add 8 ounces of assorted sliced mushrooms and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are golden, about 5 minutes.
Add remaining fat and flour and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add reserved cooking juices and two-thirds of the turkey stock. Bring to a boil, whisking. Thin if necessary with more stock or turkey juices.
Reduce heat to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.