Some proud French sauciers are going to have my head for saying this, but what, really is the difference between a sauce and a soup? Pretty much, I think, how much of it there is sitting in front of you.
That difference in quantity has ramifications, of course. Since you’re eating less of a sauce than you would of a soup, the flavors and seasonings can be more intense, more of a pop. (That works in the other direction, too – if you’re making a soup, it’s ok in my mind to go a little bit lighter on the salt, for instance, so you don’t end up pickling yourself by the time you finish a bowl of it.)
Anyway, reading my homegirl Whitney’s great guide to making biscuits the other day, I got it in my head to do a column on how to make country sausage gravy to go with them. And then, reading her piece on how to make chowder, I realized how similar the technique for the two really…
Wait, what’s that?
Sorry, I can’t make that out… maybe stop growling?
Ah, yes, it’s great, isn’t it? So simple, just sausage simmered in thickened milk, but the soft flavor of milk is such a great vehicle for the mouth-filling richness of pork. But, well, most versions and recipes for it aren’t very good—either super floury, glue-thick or barely simmered, so the sausage just waves hello to the milk, miles away from marrying each other. But all you have to do to fix those things is…
“SAUSAGE GRAVY!!! WANT NOW!!!”
Man, ok, calm down! Here, just make this:
Better-Than-Classic Sausage Gravy
Serves 2-4, depending on how many biscuits you have
1 teaspoon butter (plus more, if your sausage is really lean)
½ pound sausage – patties, bulk, or links (if links, cut into ½” chunks)
6 leaves sage (optional)
2½ tablespoons flour (This makes a thick, but not pasty, gravy. Use 1½-2 tablespoons if you like it thinner. Yes, that’s normal.)
12 ounces milk
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1. In a wide saucepan or a tall sauté pan, heat the butter over medium-low heat until foamy. Add the sausage, breaking it up or spreading it out so that it’s mostly in one layer covering the surface of the pan. It won’t make a lot of noise at first – you actually don’t want to get a wicked sear off the bat; instead, you want a more gentle heat to render out the fat and slowly brown the meat.
2. After a few minutes, check the underside of the sausage. If it’s turning golden, give it all a stir to help brown the other side. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally to scrape up any bits, until it’s nicely browned all over.
3. (Optional) Because my personal feeling is that sausage gravy should rock with sage and roll with black pepper, I like to push all the sausage to the far side of the pan and tilt it back slightly so the fat pools away from the meat. I move the pan so that the pooled oil is over the flame, then I add the sage leaves, two at a time, to fry them. After bubbles stop sizzling around them, I take them out and repeat, until they’re all fried. Then I crush them up and stir them back in when the milk is simmering. You can skip all this if you’d like. (Or if your sausage is already way-sagey.) We can still be friends.
4. Tip the pan and let the fat pool. Take a look at it, and at the amount of flour you’re using. (Ok, measure it out. I’ll wait.) You want just a little more volume of flour than fat, so either spoon some fat out of the pan or melt in some butter to get it there. (Err on a little less fat.) Add the flour evenly around the pan and stir, making a roux. Cook it, stirring, until it turns golden brown and begins to smell a bit like popcorn.
5. Stir in the milk, a little at first to dissolve the roux. Help it along by scraping it up with the spoon, then add the rest. Turn heat up to medium high and bring to a boil, and then turn it back down to a gentle simmer (a few bubbles lazily breaking the surface). Simmer for 5 minutes to thicken, add salt and plenty of black pepper to taste. You can serve it from here. But…
6. If you want the gravy to be really delicious, stir in about a half cup of water and gently simmer it for another 15 minutes or so. The extra time in the pan cooks away the flavor of flour, which is admittedly a nitpick, but more importantly, infuses the gravy with all the flavor of the sausage. Adding water allows it to reduce without getting too thick, so if it does start to get a little pasty, just thin it back out with some water. Serve with fresh biscuits, eggs, and, just for lightness’s sake, a salad.
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