The Difference Between Gravy and Sauce (and Why It Matters)

Don’t get yourself lost in the gravy sauce, my friends.

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In 2017, a Best Buy employee perfectly explained the difference between “having the sauce” and “having the juice.” Prior to that, rapper Gucci Mane bestowed upon us the knowledge that a man without sauce is lost, but that same man can also become lost in the sauce. Today, the question I have is this: Is gravy not also a sauce? Are they separate yet similar creations?

My culinary curiosity knows no bounds, and so I must find an answer to this question. Linguistic analysis from the Hardcore Italians blog tells us that the word “gravy” doesn’t technically exist in the Italian language. However, when many Italians immigrated to the United States, people here were already using the word to describe the Italian institution of Sunday sauce. In a classic case of things getting lost—or just more complicated—in translation, some Italians chose to use the word “gravy” to describe what’s used in pasta dishes while others chose to describe it as a “meat sauce.”

The debate rages on today.

What is gravy?

I personally associate the word “gravy” with Thanksgiving feasts and hefty amounts of mashed potatoes. However, gravy is not defined by the foods it is poured on top of; it’s defined by the meat within its base.

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Merriam-Webster defines gravy as “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” Further detail from What’s Cooking America tells us that gravy often has a thicker consistency due to its use of flour, cornstarch, or some other thickening agent (Wondra, anyone?). Yet, because pan drippings are a big part of what makes gravy, the word “gravy” can also describe the thin drippings themselves, also known as jus.

Although these facts help us to better understand and describe what gravy is, they do not completely clarify the distinction between gravy and sauce. For example, what if you made a vegetarian or vegan gravy that has no meat involved in its creation whatsoever? Would that then be considered a sauce and not a gravy? It’s not made of pan drippings, but it is thickened the same way meat gravy is. But not all gravy is the same thickness, as we see with jus. This puts us back at square one in the gravy-versus-sauce debate.

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What is a sauce?

“Sauce” is the more general term of the two. It would make sense that a gravy is a subset of sauce. Merriam-Webster defines sauce as “a condiment or relish for food especially: a fluid dressing or topping.” A savory gravy poured on a roast meets this definition.

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But the term “gravy” still gets applied to something that Merriam-Webster might consider strictly a “sauce.” Consider a classic Bolognese, a pasta dish covered in a slow-cooked meat sauce along with bits of celery, carrots, onions, and tomato all slowly simmered with wine. The term “gravy” implies something that focuses more on the pan drippings, but this is still a thickened meat-based topping. Slate theorizes that the words’ definitions blurred together when immigrants from certain areas applied one word while those living in other areas adopted another. Sometimes the dictionary definition can’t tell us everything.

The conclusion? Technically speaking, gravy can be considered a type of sauce, but not all sauce is gravy. This doesn’t answer everything, and it won’t settle the argument, but it’s good enough for me and should be good enough for you, too. Far be it from me to decide the winner of a debate stemming back long before I entered this world, one that will continue long after I’m gone.

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