The short and simple answer to the title can be found in our canned-gravy taste test, right here. Store-bought gravies just don't taste right. Sure, some of them have that nostalgic, cafeteria sort of appeal, but unless you're seriously trying to relive middle school, you're much better off making your own. With a few store-bought staples, it's surprisingly easy, and immensely better than anything you'll get out of a jar.
Here are three ways to do it, in increasing order of flavor and complexity, though even the most complex is still quite simple. All of these gravies can be made in advance.
The Easiest Way to Improve Gravy: Reach for the Umami Bombs
In an ideal world, if you have the time and inclination, the best way to make your gravy is to make your own stock, by browning the chopped carcass and neck of your turkey and simmering it with lots of vegetables. But a good-quality, low-sodium store-bought chicken stock makes a flavorful base that's far better than jarred gravy. The easiest way to transform it into gravy is with this Dead-Simple Turkey Gravy recipe. It's essentially just store-bought chicken stock thickened with a bit of flour and butter. The secret to its great flavor? Adding umami-rich ingredients, like soy sauce and Marmite.
These might seem like odd choices to include in gravy, but when used judiciously, they can seriously increase flavor, adding depth and savoriness. A quarter teaspoon of Marmite and a teaspoon of soy sauce for every quart of gravy is about the right amount.
The Not-Quite-as-Easy-but-Better-Way: Add Aromatics
If you're going the store-bought-stock route, try simmering it down with some mirepoix (onions, carrots, and celery), a couple of bay leaves, peppercorns, and some fresh herbs, like thyme or parsley stems. You'll be amazed at the depth of flavor it picks up with just a quick, 30-minute simmer, especially if you brown those vegetables first, as we call for in this All-Purpose Gravy recipe.
And, of course, there's nothing stopping you from also adding umami bombs to it.
The Hardest-but-Still-Really-Easy-and-Much-Better-Way: Add Turkey and Drippings
Your turkey gives off plenty of flavorful liquids and solids while it's roasting. Look at the bottom of the pan when the turkey is done—see the browned bits in there? That's called fond, and it's an instant gravy-enhancer. While your turkey is resting, place your roasting pan over a burner and pour in some stock. Scrape up the browned bits with a wooden spoon, strain, and use this enhanced stock as the base for your gravy. Even if you make your gravy in advance, you can always give it a boost at the last minute by deglazing the pan with a little stock and whisking it into your gravy just before serving.
Thicken Your Gravy the Right Way
No matter how you make your gravy, you want to make sure to thicken it the right way so that it comes out smooth and clean-tasting, without any gloppiness or starchiness.
There are two keys to this process. First is the ratio of flour and butter to liquid. I like to go with two teaspoons to one tablespoon of butter, plus one tablespoon of flour, per cup of liquid, letting it cook down a little bit to thicken. So, for a quart of stock, I melt three tablespoons of butter over medium heat, then vigorously whisk in a quarter cup of flour, cooking the mixture until it's pale golden brown to remove any uncooked-flour flavor.
The second key is adding stock slowly. Dump it all in at once and that flour mixture can clump, resulting in gloppy sauce. Basic rule of thumb: The harder you whisk and the slower you add the stock, the smoother your gravy will be. Once you've added all the liquid, bring it up to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and let it cook down until it gets to the right consistency, seasoning it only at the end with salt and pepper. (Seasoning too early can result in the salt concentrating and becoming too strong.)
Make Your Gravy in Advance
Any of these gravies can be made at least a few days before Thanksgiving. Get your turkey ahead of time and you'll even have a neck and giblets to work with. Make your gravy on Monday or Tuesday, refrigerate it, then don't even think about it until Turkey Day. It'll reheat well in a small saucepan, or just in the microwave—stir it every 30 seconds while microwaving to make sure it doesn't explode.
Mix It Up!
In the mood for something a little less traditional? Try this creamy porcini gravy, made with dried mushrooms and heavy cream, or this other creamy version flavored with fresh herbs. For a lighter, brighter take, try spiking your gravy with apple cider. And if you want to get extra fancy, go for this red wine and shallot gravy. Any one of them will work wonders on your turkey and mashed potatoes.