Biscuits and Gravy Part Two: The Gravy
This is a continuation of my lonesome ode to biscuits and gravy. Part one can be found here, which is all about biscuits. If you managed to wend your way through that behemoth ballad, you’ll find that you know everything there is to know about creating the bready backdrop to this staple of the south- country gravy.
When I began my quest to perfect this cornerstone dish of Americana cuisine, I focused more of my energy on the biscuit. I reasoned that the biscuit was the base, and therefore more integral to the total composition. I came to discover over time, however, that the gravy is of equal importance because there is nothing worse than ruining a good biscuit with substandard, gloppy gravy. I geared toward gravy, implementing tips and tricks along the way, until I had nailed the perfect texture to coat the flaky biscuits, but I still found something lacking.
Every package of breakfast sausage I used produced different, wildly inconsistent results. In other words, store-bought sausage always fell flat no matter how much I spent. The obvious conclusion was to make my own sausage. The beauty of this is the ability to control the seasoning that flavors the gravy. Store-bought sausage contains all manner of spices that have no business in biscuits and gravy: dill, caraway, and fennel come to mind from recent purchases. I tweaked my spice mixture to just the way I like it, although I realize this is subjective. I include raw sugar in the blend of spices because it helps the sausage to brown and caramelize.
My goal was to create a sausage that would neither overpower nor undermine the rest of the dish. It’s all about balance. I give you carte blanche to play with the quantities of spices, even omitting those I suggest and adding new ones, but prepare the sausage as-is just once, so you can get a feel for the baseline.
Making breakfast sausage could hardly be easier as long as you have a way to grind meat. There are some things to bear in mind, however. By the time the cubed pork butt hits the grinder, it should have been in the freezer for ½ hour. Much longer and the meat can become dry and tough, but any shorter and the meat won’t grind evenly. The meat should be as cold as possible without actually freezing. So should the grinder. Just like with biscuit-making, the colder the better.
Plan to make the sausage the day before you wish to eat biscuits and gravy. The longer the spices have a chance to mingle with the meat, the better the flavor and the more tender the sausage. Eight hours is an excellent rule of thumb. I have found that mixing in half of the spice blend with the cubed meat, and the other half in after the meat is ground, produces the most full-flavored sausage. This method encourages half the spices to really meld into the meat, tenderizing it, while the rest added after the grind clings to the strands of sausage and eventually releases into the milk so that the gravy has flavor, not just the sausage.
Pork butt is the meat of choice for country gravy because it already has a good amount of marbled fat. The majority of the pork produced by CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) in this country is bred for leanness. This is not the kind of pork butt you should look for. Good sausage needs good fat. Instead, look for a heritage breed of pig like Berkshire or Mangalitsa. They are prized for their marbling, as with beef, not for their ability to taste like juiceless paper pulp.
If you can find good pork shoulder like this, you only need to augment it with a little extra fat back, which will result in a porkier flavor. The ideal ratio of meat-to-fat in breakfast sausage is 70% meat to 30% fat. This is tricky to judge as all pork butt is a little different, but the amount listed in my recipe below is a very good average for most of the quality pork butts I’ve encountered. In an unorthodox move, I have had great results substituting duck fat for fat back (which comes from pigs) in breakfast sausage. While it’s not authentic, it certainly amps up the richness of the gravy, so I’m including that as a viable option.
In addition to adding spices to the pork butt for flavor, I add a non-traditional (in Southern terms) ingredient: speck. Speck is lightly-smoked cured ham similar to prosciutto, except that it has been cold-smoked for a few hours a day over roughly a weeklong period. I chose speck specifically because it has that little hint of smoke, which lends a light campfire-cooked flavor to the finished gravy. It is subtle and not overbearing, as bacon would be, but its faintly recognizable quality is supremely comforting. If speck is hard to come by in your elbow of the universe, prosciutto may be substituted, although it will lack smokiness. I wouldn’t suggest bacon- it will overwhelm the delicate flavor balance.
As with most sauces, gravy needs time to develop. The reason many gravies are pasty is because they have too much undercooked flour in them and the flavor of the sausage hasn’t permeated the milk. It’s really important to get the timing right on gravy. Let the sausage hit a hot, dry pan so that its own fat renders and the meat becomes the star. A dry pan will also encourage fond, or the accumulation of caramelized food residue, to develop on the bottom of the pan. When you deglaze this fond with milk, it enriches the flavor of the gravy.
The ratio of the rendered fat in the pan to the flour that thickens it to make the roux base for the final gravy is also important. There should be just as much flour as there is fat, possibly even a little more. If too much fat renders from the sausage, pour a little off before adding the flour. The goal is for the fat to add tenderness, not grease. In terms of flour, I use Wondra because it is extra fine and dissolves quickly into the fat. This way you can concentrate on coaxing a nutty aroma out of flour shimmering in hot fat, rather than worrying about clumps.
When the kitchen begins to smell like roasted nuts, add the milk, which I augment with a little heavy cream. If the flour cooks too long, it loses its power of absorption, which leads to separation in the final gravy. This part should all be done over high heat while whisking madly to uniformly distribute the roux throughout the milk. As soon as the gravy boils, turn the burner as low as it will go so that the gravy has a chance to cook without evaporating too quickly, thus becoming gloppy. Gravy needs to cook for about 15 minutes after the milk and roux marry so that everything has a chance to meld. Cooking for longer than 15 minutes, however, can have all manner of unpleasant results, such as excessive thickness or separation.
During the last few minutes of the gravy simmering, I make final spice adjustments with salt, pepper and red pepper. The red pepper is, of course, optional, but the raw sausage is purposely not excessively salted or peppered to allow for this final step. Spices change flavor over long cooking times, which can be good and bad depending on what the goal is. Think how different garlic tastes after just one minute sautéed in butter? Pepper acquires a bitter quality the more it’s cooked, so for a piquant punch of fresh pepper flavor, it’s best to add it later. It is also beneficial to correct the spices at the end because gravy is essentially a reduced, thickened sauce. As it cooks, it loses mass and the spices become more prevalent, so it’s hard to know in the beginning how concentrated spices will taste in the end.
Because I didn’t include it in the biscuit section, I want to make one final point about composing a plate of biscuits and gravy. It’s possible to do all the work I’ve laid out here and still ruin the finished dish. Properly-baked biscuits will have a natural cleave in them where they should be gently torn in half. They should never be sliced with a knife, just like you wouldn’t slice asparagus bottoms or Romaine leaves. Each half of the biscuit should receive its own weight in gravy plus two tablespoons. If you drench the biscuits in excess of that amount, you risk them becoming soggy. If you use less gravy, the biscuits will seem a little dry.
The frontier of biscuits, sausage, and/or gravy, baking in general and flour comparison has been explored by many capable people and I wanted to thank a few of them I have referred to over the months in order to develop my own process. Nicole Hamaker, Francis Lam, Shuna Fish Lydon, Hank Shaw, Whitney Chen and Giovanna Zivny all provided excellent resources, my sincere appreciation.
To Make the Sausage
Makes 2.5 pounds of sausage, or enough for four batches of biscuits
*I like to vacuum seal and freeze individual portions of this sausage so that I can use them for biscuits and gravy whenever the mood strikes.
2 lb fatty pork butt- the pig matters- look for Berkshire or Mangalitsa, not a lean, mean CAFO machine
¼ lb either fat back or duck fat (FROZEN in both cases- this is imperative)
4 slices of speck
1 tbsp finishing salt
2 tsp black pepper
¼ tsp garlic powder
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
3 sprigs of thyme, de-stemmed
3 bay leaves, inner tough vein removed
2 tsp raw sugar
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp crushed red pepper
¼ tsp dry mustard
- Cut the meat, fatback and speck into rough, ½” cubes and reserve in freezer while mixing spices.
- Gather and place all spices in a spice grinder and grind until incorporated. Scatter half this mixture over the chilling meat. Let meat rest in freezer for ½ hour, no more, no less.
- Grind the meat mixture using the fine blade of a meat grinder. Add the remaining spice mixture and incorporate with your hands until evenly-distributed.
- Let the sausage rest so that the flavors can marry for a minimum of eight hours or a maximum of four days. If you don’t intend to use it all by then, it freezes beautifully for one month.
Makes enough gravy for one batch of biscuits
½ lb sausage
2 tbsp Wondra flour
½ c heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper and red pepper to taste ( I like 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp red pepper)
- Brown the sausage in a dry, heavy-bottomed skillet (such as cast iron) to the point that a fond develops on the pan that you have to scrape up with a spatula. This will take about 7 minutes on medium heat with regular stirring to break up the sausage.
- Pull the sausage to one side of the pan and allow the rendered drippings to pool at the other by tilting the skillet. Eyeball the fat- you want roughly two tablespoons. If there is obviously a lot more, remove some with a spoon.
- Stir in the Wondra to make a roux. Mix the roux with the sausage and cook until lightly browned- about two minutes. The kitchen should start to smell a little bit like roasted nuts in addition to sausage- this is an indication that the flour is substantially cooked. Do not overcook the flour before adding the milk or you will reduce the absorption properties of the flour, which causes the gravy to separate.
- Pour in the milk and heavy cream and whisk until the gravy is uniform. Bring the gravy just to a boil, and immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible simmer. Good gravy should be silky, and the way to ensure this is a slow, even cooking time. Initially the gravy will be very thin, but over the course of 12-15 minutes, it will thicken to the perfect consistency- not too thin, not too gloppy. This long, slow simmer also allows the spices clinging to the sausage to absorb into the milk so that the flavor is pervasive throughout.
- In the last two minutes of simmering the gravy, adjust the seasonings by adding salt, black pepper and optionally, red pepper. Always add less than you think you’ll need and taste, since you can add more but you can’t remove too much. Once you’ve added the black pepper, don’t cook for more than a few minutes, as the longer pepper cooks, the more bitter it becomes.