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Taste Test: Powdered Gravy Mixes

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

#1: Knorr Roasted Turkey Gravy Mix
#2: French's Roasted Turkey Gravy Mix
#3: McCormick's Turkey Gravy

In an ideal world, everyone would make their own Thanksgiving gravy from scratch, especially when it's so easy. But we don't live in an ideal world (have you seen Nic Cage in The Wicker Man?!), and in the interest of those less-than-Rockwellian moments, we decided to give a few of the powdered gravy versions a whirl (we tried the prepared, ready-to-serve stuff a few years ago).

The Contenders

Mm, Gravy Taste Test

All of the gravies we purchased are readily available nationwide or can be ordered online. Some of the gravies billed themselves as "turkey" flavor, while others were "brown," implying that they can be used with other meat dishes, too.

The Criteria

A good gravy should be rich and meaty with enough hints of vegetables and aromatics to support, but not overwhelm, the base flavor. It should be thick enough to form a satisfying layer of sauce on a piece of roasted meat, but shouldn't be gloppy or gelatinous. Above all, it should taste like it's made with real ingredients, not like fake chemical stuff.

The gravies were all prepared according to package directions (combining with water and simmering until thickened), and tasters were asked to taste them plain and with roast chicken. They ranked each gravy for overall impression on a scale from 1 to 10, and were asked for notes about texture (Thick and gloopy? Thin and runny?), saltiness, and overall flavor (Rich and meaty? Light and vegetal?).

The Results

Tasters could tell the difference between turkey and brown gravies, but in the end, the losers came from both categories. While no one truly loved any of the powdered gravies, there were a few clear favorites. The winners all had some amount of real poultry flavoring, while both brown gravies, which placed near the bottom, were flavored with beef. Most were thickened with wheat flour, while the two losers featured modified food starch and organic potato starch, respectively.

As far as salt is concerned, given that taster preference often correlates to the salt content of a particular product, we were surprised that in this case, salt level (either perceived or actual) seemed to have little impact on the final results. In fact, the far-and-away winner was deemed the least salty by our tasters. Our winner was also the only brand to include MSG in its ingredients, though all brands other than Simply Organic contained similar flavor enhancers that ranged from yeast extract to disodium inosinate. Texture-wise, the thicker, bordering-on-gloopy options were the least favorite—we like our gravies smooth and creamy.

A note on price: it turns out that the more expensive brands are worth it—the winner was the only that cost more than $2, while the two losers were about 30% cheaper than the winners (the total price range went from $1.15 on the low end to $2.19 for the top-of-the-line stuff).

At the end of the day, if you're looking to save time on Thanksgiving day by using a powdered gravy, we'd recommend any of our top three tasted brands, but skip the ones that ranked below that.

#1: Knorr Roasted Turkey Gravy Mix (6.9/10, $.44 per serving)

The definitive winner, Knorr was praised for its "mellow," "almost real chicken flavor" and "saucy smooth texture." One taster even said it "could almost pass for homemade." (A harsher critic declared it "the closest to an edible gravy that I tried.") Knorr's main thickener is wheat flour, with flavor coming from MSG, sugar, chicken fat, and turkey powder, which helps explain the "meaty"" flavor. It also, intriguingly, contains a small amount of cheddar cheese, plus, like all of the powdered gravies, a whole lot of preservatives and emulsifying agents.

#2 (Tie): French's Roasted Turkey Gravy Mix (5.6/10, $.48 per serving)

The next two brands (French's and McCormick's) came in neck-and-neck for second place.

Several tasters picked up a slight celery flavor in addition to a vague "poultry thing" in the French's, and praised its "thick, but not pudding-thick" consistency. A few people commented that it was a touch too salty and might need some additional water to thin it out. Like Knorr, French's is wheat flour-thickened, and it relies on turkey fat and broth, salt, and onion powder for flavor.

#2 (Tie): McCormick's Turkey Gravy (5.5/10 $.50 per serving)

McCormick's tasted like alternately "school lunch," "Thanksgiving," and "what you might get with fast food mashed potatoes." It had a mild, starchy flavor and a thin-bordering-on-runny texture. It too is thickened with wheat flour, and laced with the flavors of chicken fat, turkey meat, onion, and "extractives of paprika."

#3: Spartan Brown Gravy Mix (4.0/10, $.28 per serving)

Tasters noticed off the bat that this had a beefier flavor than the turkey gravies, and praised its "umami-rich" "depth of flavor." However, multiple people found it too salty, comparing it to "licking a bouillon cube," "slightly burnt soy sauce," and "dog food." The "thin," "gluey" texture was also not well-received. Spartan is thickened with wheat flour starch, plus has salt, beef fat, onion, and garlic going on inside.

#4: Lawry's Brown Gravy (3.2/10, $.49 per serving)

Nearly tied for last place, we don't recommend either of these gravies. Lawry's was on the business end of some serious gravy vitriol, described as "Just DISGUSTING. It tastes feral, like wet dog. Also has a repulsively thick texture closer to chocolate pudding," "YUCK, YUCK, EW," and, creatively, as exhibiting "the worst kind of generic meatiness, like hospital food for people who have had their tongues removed." Lawry's contains modified food starch, natural flavors involving beef and pork, and onion and garlic powder.

#5: Simply Organic Roasted Turkey Gravy (2.9/10, $.32 per serving)

On Simply Organic, many tasters took issue with the "weird, grainy, gloopy" texture, comparing it to "meat jello" and "meaty applesauce." "Can't get past the texture. Not sure I want to," said one. Simply Organic is thickened with organic potato starch, and flavored with organic natural flavors including turkey, chicken, and sea salt, and also has sage and black pepper in it for good measure.

About the author: Jamie Feldmar is a noodle aficionado, barbecue lover, and the managing editor of Serious Eats. You can follow her on Twitter at @jfeldmar.

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