An undercurrent of animosity, name-calling, swearing, and insult-laden discourse (Italians are very good at that skill) has been brewing on social media lately. Of course, Facebook and Twitter did not cause the dilemma, but rather, social media is the delivery system which has allowed Italian enclaves from coast to coast to have a verbose brawl over a simple question. Do you call it sauce or gravy? That succulent culinary companion for many different pasta dishes revered throughout the world. And sometimes, a family recipe guarded by Italian grandmothers (with wooden spoon weaponry) like a high level classified state secret. Hopefully, within this humble post, I will settle the sauce / gravy question, once and for all.
In Medieval times, Italy was a peninsula of warring city states and principalities. I would hate to see this happen within the U.S. Therefore, in the words of San Francesco d’Assisi (St. Francis), “Make me an instrument of your peace…”
The Difference Between a Sauce and a Gravy
To make my claim plain and simple, Gravies contain meat drippings and sauces do not. The fat or oil for a sauce is usually butter, and the thickener in common is of course flour. Yes, I am completely aware of other sauce / gravy techniques from the table of world cuisine. A German chef may add crushed ginger snaps or farina to thicken, while an Asian chef will rely on cornstarch. And who can forget Greek Taztziki sauce, based upon yogurt.
Now let’s take a look at a sauce and gravy which are based upon the same main ingredient.
Béchamel sauce and Sawmill gravy are milk oriented. Béchamel is a mother sauce used in Lasanga, or making Bernaise and Mornay sauces. For a Béchamel sauce, milk is thickened by a butter and flour roux. Sawmill gravy is that wonderful concoction from the American South used on Country Fried Steak or for Biscuits and gravy. In Sawmill gravy, flour is sprinkled into crumbled breakfast sausage and its rendered drippings, then milk and seasonings are added.
Both are milk based, but one uses meat drippings and the other uses butter.
The words sauce and gravy are differentiated in the same way in Italian, sugo for gravy and salsa for sauce. For instance, beef gravy in Italian is sugo di manzo and the aforementioned Béchamel sauce is salsa besciamella. Therefore, if you didn’t use meat, it is a tomato sauce. If you add meat, it is a gravy.
On a Personal Note
Like my grandmother, mom, aunts, and sisters, I’ve always used both terms depending upon whether it was a tomato sauce (meatless), or gravy for big Sunday family meal with meatballs, sausage, and bracciole. It is simply a matter of applying the proper culinary terms.
Are you ready to make peace with your paesani? Let’s end this terrible bloody battle and usher in a modern Pax Romana.
Every Time You Reply – “Little Frankie” Doesn’t Cry
4 thoughts on “Sauce or Gravy?: A Plea for Italian Peace”
I’ve never heard of this debate. We (in Nova Scotia, Canada) call the fat from cooked meat mixed with flour and spices gravy. People pour it over their potatoes or meat.
Whereas anything to do with pasta is sauce. This is almost always tomato-based. Sometimes there is hamburger in it and sometimes there is no meat.
Thank you for bringing peace to the conversation. Regardless of what it’s called, everyone can use it.
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Never had Canadian pasta. Do they melt cheddar and pour brown gravy over it like poutine? 🙂
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