Some meals make the day feel just a little bit special, and a well-roasted chicken ranks high on that list. Its golden color and heady aromas fill the entire house, creating a sense of anticipation before the bird ever reaches your table. Whether your family tradition demands mashed potatoes, cornbread, stuffing or biscuits alongside the chicken, you'll probably want gravy to complement them. If you're uncertain of your gravy-making skills, relax. It's probably easier than you think.
Gravy-making begins when you prepare your bird for the oven, not when it's finished. For example, drippings from a bird that's been brined might be too salty to make a good gravy. Instead, stick to tried-and-true options such as garlic and onions, sage, thyme, or prepared poultry seasoning. These lend a pleasant flavor to the bird and its drippings. You can also rest the bird on a small mound of onion, carrot and celery, a classic mixture called “mirepoix,” which will infuse the drippings with flavor as the chicken cooks.
Once the bird is cooked, set it aside to rest under a loose covering of aluminum foil. Strain the drippings into a measuring cup, and set them aside for a moment as well. You should see some browned-on juices at the bottom of the roaster. Pour a small quantity of water or chicken broth into the roaster, and heat it on a stovetop burner. Stir it vigorously until all those tasty brown spots dissolve; they'll add concentrated flavor to your gravy. Next, return to your cup of drippings and ladle off the fat that's risen to the top. Now, you're ready to tackle the gravy.
The traditional method of thickening gravy calls for a “roux,” which is a few tablespoons each of flour and fat, cooked together in a saucepan for several minutes until the flour loses its raw flavor. Purists use the chicken fat from the drippings as the fat, and chefs typically use butter, but unsaturated vegetable oil works just as well. Simply cook the mixture until it develops a pale, tan color and loses its raw smell; then whisk in the chicken drippings. Stir continually to prevent the formation of lumps, until the gravy thickens and no starchy taste results from the flour. A thin skin will form on the surface as the gravy cooks, which should be skimmed off. Taste the gravy and adjust its seasoning, if necessary, with salt and pepper.
Gravy made with roux has a distinctively rich and hearty mouth feel, but some cooks object to the added fat and extra steps. You can make a perfectly fine gravy without roux, by stirring a starchy thickener into cold water to make a slurry. You can use flour or quick-thickening “gravy” flour, for its traditional appearance, or cornstarch or arrowroot powder for gravy with a lighter and cleaner taste. Whichever thickener you choose, whisk the slurry into the hot liquid in a thin stream so it won't form lumps. Cornstarch, arrowroot or instant-thickening flour work very quickly, creating a finished gravy in just moments. Gravies made with regular flour should be simmered for 15 to 20 minutes, to cook away the raw starch flavor. If lumps occur, despite your best efforts, simply strain them out once the gravy is done.
The bird's drippings aren't always enough to furnish you with gravy, especially if you've pan-fried it or baked chicken pieces rather than a whole bird. In those cases, you'll need to use prepared chicken broth – either homemade or store-bought – to take up the slack. Simply strain and de-fat the drippings as you normally would, then add enough broth to make up amount of liquidl you need. In most cases, 1 ½ to 2 cups is about right. Use chicken broth to deglaze your cooking pan, and use cold broth rather than water to make your slurry. If the broth is too light to make a flavorful gravy, start with a larger amount and reduce it by 1/3 to concentrate the flavors. If you simmer the leftover carcass from this chicken to make broth for the next, you'll always be ready to make gravy.