You can generally tell, from the look of the gravy that is served with a joint, whether or not the cook understands her business. If the gravy is fatty, or cold, or looks like thin light-coloured gruel, also if there is a great deal of it in the dish, I would advise you to resign yourself to your fate, and remember that man eats to live, he does not live to eat. If on the contrary the gravy is clear, bright, brown, free from fat and small in quantity cheerfully leave yourself in the hands of the carver, for it is probable that you are about to partake of a well-cooked dinner.
Gravy may either be made a little time before it is wanted, or it may be prepared from the brown sediment which is to be found in the dripping tin under the joint. The latter method I do not recommend, but it is the more usual of the two, and therefore I will describe it first.
It is well known that after meat has been hung before the fire for a while, fat begins to drop from it. In course of time this fat will be mixed with a sort of rich brown juice, and it is from this latter substance that the gravy is to be made.
Now a great point in making gravy is to have it free from fat. Everyone knows what fatty gravy is like. So long as the meat and dish are hot, it is not very objectionable, but as the joint and the plates cool, the fat solidifies, and floats in cakes on the top of the gravy, and the taste of one of these is more easily imagined than described.
The reason why it is undesirable to make gravy from the contents of the dripping tin is that it is so difficult to get rid of the fat in the tin, and to retain the sediment only.
When, however, gravy has to be thus made, the fat must be poured off from one corner of the tin; this must be done carefully and with a steady hand. When the sediment only remains, the cook should pour in about a third of a pint of boiling stock, or boiling water, if stock is not to be had. She should then scrape the tin will in order to dissolve any hard dry spots of gravy that there may be, and when these are melted she should pour a spoonful or two of the gravy round, but not over, the meat in the dish, and the rest into a hot tureen.
If the gravy has become cool whilst in the tin, it should be made hot in a saucepan before being strained into the dish, but it should not be allowed to boil.
No greater mistake can be made than to pour a large quantity of gravy into the dish with the meat. In the first place, it is very awkward for the carver; for a mere slip of his knife may cause him to splash the grave over the cloth. In the second place, unless a hot-water dish is used, the gravy will cool much more quickly in a large dish than it will in a small covered tureen. And more than all, made gravy will dilute the gravy that runs from the meat. When a joint is properly roasted, a gush of grave follows the first cut of the knife, and then continues to flow from the meat while it is being carved. The majority of grown-up people would rather have a teaspoonful of this real juice of meat than a quarter of a pint of the coloured water which is so often served as gravy. When the family is large, and gravy is much liked, a little made gravy must be used, because the joint, in all probability, would not yield as much as is wanted, but it is a pity when that which it does yield is not made the most of.
If gravy is provided apart from the joint, the entire contents of the dripping tin can be poured into a basin. In a few hours, when the fat is cold, it will be found that the gravy has settled to the bottom and lies, a clear brown cake of jelly, which can be used without any of the fat the next time gravy is wanted.
When I recommend that gravy should be prepared apart from the joint, I hope no one will think I am going to advise the purchase of gravy beef. Indeed I am not, for I should consider such a purchase extravagant and unnecessary.
In all houses where meat is cooked there are little bones, trimmings and scraps, from which excellent gravy can be prepared, costing nothing but a little care and fore-thought; and without these, economical cookery is impossible.
Suppose that gravy is wanted to-day for a joint of beef. Something was cooked for dinner yesterday, and it is almost certain that a bone or scraps of some kind were left from it. If the cook had forethought she would put these on one side, cover them over to keep them clean, and when there was a convenient opportunity, that is, when the fire was not in use, she would stew them for gravy. Perhaps bacon was served for breakfast or boiled meat had been provided, in either case she would be particularly fortunate; of course she would have preserved the meat liquor, pouring it into a clean earthenware pan and throwing a little muslin over it to keep it from dust and flies. What course would she now pursue to make gravy?
She would first take a small onion, skin it and cut it into rings. She would melt a little dripping in a saucepan, throw in the onion and shake it over the fire until it was brown but not at all burnt. She would now put in the bones and scraps, together with a sprig of parsley, an inch or two of celery, three or four peppercorns, and the rind of the bacon which had been scalded in boiling water and scraped with a blunt knife to make it quite clean. Over all she would pour meat liquor or cold water to barely cover her materials, then covering the saucepan closely and placing it by the side of the fire, she would let its contents stew very gently indeed, skimming it every now and then with an iron spoon for a couple of hours till the liquor was considerably reduced, and was strong and pleasantly flavoured. Then she might strain it off and put it on one side to let any fat there might be to rise to the surface, when it could be easily removed. If the liquid were light-coloured, a few drops of sugar browning should be stirred in, but it is probable that the browned onion will have supplied all that is required. Only let the grave be a rich, deep brown. In cookery the appearance of a dish is almost as important as its taste, and light-coloured gravy for joints is not pleasing to the eye.
If two tablespoonfuls of the gravy thus made were put into the dish with the meat, the gravy that runs from the meat would mix with it and would furnish an excellent accompaniment to the roasted joint.
If it should happen that there was no opportunity to stew the scraps and trimmings in time for the fat to cake on the top of the gravy, it would be well to pour the liquid into a jar, and set this in a vessel containing cold water. This would make it cool more rapidly, and so cause the fat to rise more quickly to the surface.
Care must be taken, however, not to put too much water over the bone. Good gravy is wanted, and this would be more likely to be obtained if water or stock were taken to partly cover the bone and no more.
Gravy thus made would do very well for beef or pork, but not for mutton or lamb. These meals would be served with good brown un-flavoured gravy. Therefore the flavouring ingredients should not be stewed with the bone for them; but the bone should be stewed in nothing but stock or water slightly salted. Good gravy for a leg or shoulder of mutton may be made by stewing the shank bone and one or two trimmings of meat for an hour or two.
Perhaps it will be thought that it is a very simple business to make gravy, and that it is unnecessary to attend to all these details in connection with it. But it is not so. Very often gravy is a delusion. I have known cooks who professed to understand their business take a little boiling water and pour it over the browner portions of the joint, thus watering the joint to all intents and purposes, and then consider that they have done all that is required for gravy. They were mistaken and they were only proving their ignorance. There is nothing that shows the ability of a cook more than gravies and sauces. It is very safe to conclude that where meat is served regularly with good brown bright gravy, perfectly free from fat, some one in the house knows something of cookery.