Do You Prefer Sauce or Gravy?

By David Sievers

There are plenty of purely linguistic anomalies in the culinary world. In some areas of the United States people routinely call soft drinks ‘pop,’ while in others they call them ‘soda.’ Sometimes it’s a submarine sandwich, sometimes it’s a grinder, and sometimes it’s a hoagie. Words are part of the colorful world of food – but sometimes words confuse the issue. For example, let’s take a vote: Do you prefer gravy or sauce on your favorite dinners?

Gravy vs. Sauce

Some may be unaware that there is, in fact, a difference. Some Italian households, for example, call their red sauce ‘gravy’ and might be forgiven for assuming the two words mean the same thing. However, there is a distinct difference between gravy and sauce.

Gravy is a sauce made from meat juices, usually after roasting a cut of meat. The juices are collected and combined with other things – flour, dairy products, spices – and then served to complement the meat it was generated from. Sauces, on the other hand, are combined from various ingredients but do not include meat juices as a rule.

The gravy/sauce confusion in Italian food may stem from the fact that many red sauces in Italian cooking are known as meat sauces and may include meat as an ingredient. This dish is often a wholly separate meal called Ragu, which is a form of stew with meat and vegetables and tomato sauce, though the heavy presence of meat may qualify this as a gravy!

The Five Families

Sauces are a complex art – in fact, in high end kitchens a special chef handles all sauces creation. All sauces are members of five basic categories of sauces (sometimes referred to as ‘mother sauces’:

-Béchamel (white sauce)

-Velouté (light stock)

-Espagnole (brown stock)

-Hollandaise (creamy, emulsified)

-Tomato (the basis of spaghetti and pizza sauces)

The French love of sauces is amply reflected in the names for these mother sauces!

Whereas gravies are generally intended to complement the meat they were made from, sauces can be contrived to complement just about any dish, based on an understanding of the flavors and textures involved. This is why certain sauces are traditionally combined with certain dishes – they were either invented to specifically accompany those dishes, or in time they have been found to be the ideal accompaniment.

So, next time someone asks for your vote on sauces versus gravies – think about it! There’s more to it than just words.

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