How to make red-eye gravy, the classic Southern pan sauce from country ham and coffee
My pervasive Roman Catholic sense of nagging guilt has been drowned out this week by a song that peaked at No. 3 in October 1970. “Green-eyed lady, lovely lad-eh.” Remember that one? The band was Sugarloaf. Look it up. You’ll remember.
Regardless, and perhaps not coincidentally, that song has always been one of my guilty pleasures, along with a craving for breakfast sauces. Like – wait for it – red-eye gravy, lovely grav-eh. Just for example.
Why you need to learn this
Madge may not have an Uncle Jed, but, she does have second cousin Buford, and one day she’ll bring him over for Sunday brunch. On that bright morning, you’re going to want to serve something that, as the great Southern cook Hoyt Tidwell would say, “will make you want to slap your grandma.” And nothing, I tells ya, slaps grandma like a good old-fashioned red-eye gravy. After all, it’s made with real, live, eye-opening, nerve-jangling coffee. Wee, doggies.
Even better yet, the same method that gives us red-eye gravy also produces a host of other sauces, none of which, to my knowledge, is named after discolored organs. Let’s take a look.
The steps you take
Red-eye gravy belongs to a club we like to call “pan sauces.” Pan sauces are, yes, Dr. Wisey MacWisenheimer, sauces made in a pan. But, not just any pan, mind you. It’s got to be a pan in which you have recently cooked something meatish, like, in the case of red-eye gravy, a big ol’ slice o’ ham.
Here’s the premise: When you cook proteins like meat or fish, juice splats into the hot pan and evaporates, leaving behind small but tasty smears of clumpy brown dessication – like fond memories, if you will, of a departed friend. By stirring in liquid, those fond memories are reincarnated as a delicious sauce.
Most pan sauces include other flavoring ingredients: mustard, garlic, chutney, whatever. And they’re thickened, either by a gelatinous stock or with added flour or cornstarch.
Classic red-eye gravy has only a couple of ingredients: the browned bits from country ham (what I like to refer to as “ham squeezin’s”) and brewed coffee. To make it, you simply deglaze the former with the latter and reduce. It’s like CliffNotes for pan sauce, and it’s honestly that easy. Honest.
It’s funny, though: I can smell your rising fear from here. “But, I’m in the North! I don’t have country ham! And second cousin Buford’s coming over!”
Sigh. Look, Lumpy, try not to panic. Just go to the deli and get a few slices of ham off the bone, preferably with lots of fat that you can render for the searing. Trust me: It’ll be delicious, and in my book, unless second cousin Buford happens to be the Kentuckian ambassador, delicious trumps authentic pert near every time.
Of course, if your goal is simply to make a pan sauce, any kind of meaty thing will do: pork chops, steak, even scrapple or its kissing cousin from out Cincinnati way, goetta. After all, it’s just breakfast.
Admittedly, a problem with pan sauces is that there are so many different ways to make them, and it all depends on understanding how the ingredients relate to the finished product.
Because of this, instead of trying to delineate a “one-size-fits-all” method, I’ll just walk you through a couple of other sauces that’ll be just dandy at the breakfast table, and you can take it from there. Serve them with eggs, biscuits, grits, whatever you like, and you can bet that Madge and Buford will be right pleased.
1. Sausage gravy: Brown a pound of crumbled breakfast sausage, then sprinkle a couple of ounces of flour over it all and stir to incorporate it into the fat. (There’s your roux!) Stir in a couple of cups of milk and bring it to a boil to thicken. Or, use canned broth instead of milk, and then finish with a couple of ounces of cream. Taste for salt and pepper. Done.
2. Pork chops ’n’ gravy (note the fancy title): Brown four chops in butter or oil, then remove to a warm plate. Whisk in a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard. Stir in a cup of canned broth, and bring to a boil. Thicken by dribbling in cornstarch (or flour) dissolved in cold liquid (called a “slurry”) to your desired consistency. Remove from heat, whisk in a tablespoon of butter and taste for salt and pepper. Boom.
3. Steak and mushroom gravy: Sear your steak in hot fat to your desired doneness, and remove to a warm plate. Add half a pound of sliced mushrooms, and saute until just done. Stir in some crushed garlic and a large pinch of thyme, if you like, and saute for 30 more seconds. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of flour over, and stir to combine. Stir in a cup of beef broth, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and stir in a tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Blammo.
Ham with red-eye gravy
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Down South, they’d use country ham, a variety difficult to obtain in northerly climes. Or course, any good ham on the bone will taste great.
1 pound fatty ham on the bone, cut into roughly 1/8- to 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup brewed coffee
1/2 cup chicken or beef broth (or 1/2 cup water plus 1 bouillon cube)
Salt and pepper as needed
Slurry of 1 heaping tablespoon flour dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water or stock
2 tablespoons cold butter, optional
Sugar as needed, optional
Dash of hot sauce, optional
1. Heat a cast iron or other heavy bottom skillet over medium high heat.
2. While pan is heating, trim fat from ham, and melt in hot pan. (Note: If melted fat is not enough to coat bottom of pan, add a tablespoon or two of butter.)
3. Sear ham slices to golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side; transfer to a warm plate or oven.
4. Turn heat to high and add liquids. Whisk to dissolve any brown bits in pan, and reduce to 3 to 4 ounces.
5. Optional: The gravy will be thin. To thicken slightly, whisk in slurry over high heat to desired consistency. For additional body and richness, remove pan from heat, and whisk in butter to emulsify. Taste for salt, pepper and sugar (if the coffee is very bitter), and add a dash of hot sauce if you really need waking up. Put on some Willie Nelson, and serve immediately over ham with eggs, biscuits and grits.