Thursday, March 24, 2011

Using the Bones - Chicken Gravy

When you're cooking a budget, it's always in your best interest to make sure you get the most out of everything you cook, and avoid throwing away anything that can be useful. Once you begin to figure out how to use the stuff most people would throw away, you may also find that you've been throwing away some of the most useful, versatile, and flavorful stuff in your pantry. In my turkey soup post, I mentioned how I like to save the bones from my meats and use them later. Bones can easily be made into a very flavorful stock, which has a wide variety of uses- one of my favorites is gravy.

So one of the little baggies hiding in the back of my freezer contains a handful of chicken bones leftover from a simple dinner of roasted chicken legs. With a little water, and some simple seasonings, we can extract the rich flavor, hiding in the bone marrow and little scraps of meat, and collagen from the bits of connective tissue clinging to the joints.

Old chicken bones can easily become a flavorful stock
Put your bones in a medium saucepan or pot, add about four cups of water, some salt and pepper, and a few herbs (I used a little parsley and thyme) and simmer it over low heat for at least a half hour. This is one of those times where the longer your simmer, the more flavor you get. My bones came from chicken that was previously roasted- if your bones have not been cooked, you'll probably want to roast them in the oven for a while until they get some color, and the marrow begins to ooze from the ends to develop a little more depth of flavor. You can also add a little onion, garlic, celery, and/or carrot depending on what flavor profile you want to build. I wanted to keep things simple, so I limited myself to just herbs, salt, and pepper.

If you are going to cook your stock for a long time, so don't be afraid to add in a little more water as it evaporates to maintain the volume of stock you're looking for. Once you feel like you've extracted as much flavor as you have time for, adjust your salt and pepper- if you've added more water along the way, you'll almost definitely want to add more salt and pepper- use your judgment. You can transfer your stock to another container, and refrigerate if you don't plan on using it right away. Your stock should be cloudy, have a yellowish color, and cling slightly to the back of a spoon. You can strain out the bits of herbs if you like, personally, I don't mind having some herbs floating in my stock, and it may even add a nice visual touch to whatever gravy, sauce, soup, or whatever you end up using it for.

A simple, and flavorful chicken stock.

We can use this stock for almost anything that needs a little extra liquid or a boost of flavor. Once you have a good stock, you are basically one step away from any number of soups, and maybe two or three steps away from a nice sauce. It is also very useful for making rice dishes such as a risotto. Today, we'll be transforming this stock into a classic chicken gravy. This is not the only way to make gravy, and there are many other ways to bring developed flavors to your gravies- but this method is probably the most simple, elemental way to do it.

To start our gravy, we'll need to shift gears. I'm starting this gravy with a simple roux. A roux is a common French  or Creole technique for building a base for thickening a sauce or stew. It also provides most of the color to our gravy. Most gravy making methods use a roux or something nearly equivalent to a roux as a major component. All you need to make a roux is a hot pan, and equal parts fat and flour. The fat used is most often butter, but you can also use oil or even pan grease from cooked meats just as easily- it all depends on the taste and level of richness you're going for. I want to keep my gravy rich, but on the lighter side, so I'll start with olive oil.

A basic roux starts as equal parts fat and flour- in this case olive oil

For most purposes about 2-3 tablespoons of flour and oil will be enough. Don't worry too much about getting the measurements exact- you can always add another pinch of flour or a few more drops of oil. You'll want to whisk the oil and flour together over medium heat- don't go too far, you cannot allow the roux to sit more than a few seconds at a time or you'll risk burning it, or leaving it unevenly cooked.

Basic roux just beginning to cook

The key to a roux is to keep an eye on the color, and keep the roux moving as it cooks. You want to make sure that every grain of flour is coated with your oil, butter, or other fat, and you'll want it to cook enough that the raw flour flavor is gone, and a deeper, nutty flavor develops. When you first get your flour and oil mixed, it will be a pale golden color. Depending on your preference, you can make the final roux anywhere from a medium golden brown to a dark caramel color. You'll need a little patience, it doesn't take long to start developing the color you want, but you can't leave the roux unattended- it will need frequent- almost constant whisking, and if your heat is too high, it can go from perfect to a burnt ruin in seconds. Monitor you roux closely, and if you're in doubt, lower the heat a little- keep the cooking controlled. The darker your roux, the darker your gravy will be, and you'll end up with more of a nutty undertone too. I'm aiming for a moderate golden brown- nicely developed, but still on the lighter side. If this were a beef or pork gravy, I'd probably lean towards a darker color to go with the heartier meat flavor.

Medium golden-brown roux just about ready.

Once you have your desired color, we can add about a cup and a half of our chicken stock, and begin to assemble our gravy. Again, you'll need to stay close, and keep whisking. The first few seconds are critical- the roux may try to congeal into lumps, but if you immediately whisk it all together your gravy will come together nicely.

Add the stock to the roux - get ready to whisk away the lumps before they set.

Once you get your roux and your stock to come together into a nice smooth gravy, you'll need to continue whisking and cooking for a few more minutes. Your gravy is probably going to start more watery than you'd like- this is not a problem- just bump up the heat slightly and let the gravy reduce in volume. The reduction process will thicken your gravy, and it will concentrate all the flavors of our stock. You can relax a little during this phase, but don't stray too far, you'll still want to whisk the gravy to keep all the fats and the starches emulsified. If you go a little too far, and your gravy gets too thick, add a little more stock, whisk it vigorously at first until combined and thinned out, and continue to cook until you have the consistency you want.

Reducing the gravy

A good, simple gravy like this one is best served hot. It makes a great accompaniment to roasted chicken, or as a topping for rice or mashed potatoes.

Our simple chicken gravy served with a piece of roasted chicken
If you still have leftover stock, it can be used in dozens of ways- especially when dealing with grains- to add a little extra flavor. A very simple way to take advantage of the flavor in a small amount of leftover stock is to use it as a cooking liquid. In this case, I had a box of instant couscous and about two cups of stock left over. Simply replace some or all of the water you'd normally use to cook a rice a grain dish with our chicken stock.

Substitute stock for water when cooking grains or pastas to add a little extra flavor

Note that the directions also call for salt- since we've already seasoned our stock, we should probably omit the additional salt. So, making our substitution, we'll take 2 cups of stock, and a tablespoon of olive oil, and use that as the base for our instant couscous.

Chicken stock and oil as a cooking liquid for couscous

From here on out, simply follow the rest of the directions on the box, and you'll end up with a couscous that an extra boost of flavor. Mine turned out to be tasty- when I paired the couscous with a little of the chicken gravy, there was enough chicken flavor between the two that it almost didn't need the actual meat to go with it.

Couscous with a little extra chicken flavor
Between our gravy and our stock infused couscous, we've managed to extract a huge amount of flavor and protein from a handful of bones that would often be tossed away. The gravy and the couscous are both now rich enough to stand on their own without a meat- add a vegetable and you will have a complete, and inexpensive meal. If paired with a nice piece of chicken, you have a slightly more expensive meal that packs an almost decadent amount of flavor. Either way, you'll be making better use of the money you've spent on your meat.

Remember- if you use your gravy and stock infused couscous in a meal with more chicken, save the bones, so you can do it again. We've barely scratched the surface of the multitude of things we can use leftover bones for, so don't let it go to waste. With a little patience and ingenuity, you can assemble nearly complete meals out of the scraps and a few very inexpensive pantry items.


  1. I like to add the neck and giblets to the water as well - that usually sits in water while I roast the chicken. I had no idea that you had this blog Vin! I look forward to more foodie posts!!

  2. Yeah, I watched too many cooking shows after college... anyway, yeah, giblets would've been great too, wish I had some this week!

  3. I thought that if a good Italian boy like you posted something about gravy it would be red. On that note, maybe you can help those of us who have no Italian blood in them and who's "gravy" comes out tasting like chefboyardee in a future post...

  4. Yeah, I'll hit the real Sicilian style "gravy" one of these days- I just need a whole day of cooking to do it right.