Red-Eye Gravy

published Oct 7, 2023
Red-Eye Gravy Recipe

This Southern classic is a strong and salty sauce made from country ham drippings and coffee.

Serves4

Makes1/4 cup

Prep5 minutes

Cook10 minutes to 15 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Overhead view of a fried egg, biscuits and ham covered in gravy on a white plate, and a blue mug of coffee in the top right corner.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

There’s no better place for breakfast than the South. Those home cooks have the feather-light touch required for biscuits, and know exactly how to turn stone-ground cornmeal into rich and creamy grits. And then there’s red-eye gravy, a Southern classic made from just two ingredients — coffee and country ham — that you definitely have to try.

What Is Red-Eye Gravy?

There may be no thriftier recipe than red-eye gravy. In an effort to utilize every morsel of cured country ham drippings and spent coffee, the two are combined into a savory, salty, and slightly bitter sauce that’s perfect for spooning over creamy grits or served with slices of warmed country ham and fluffy Southern biscuits.

Most gravies are starch-thickened, but the consistency of red-eye gravy is thinner, akin to au jus. Red-eye gravy still claims the moniker because it starts where so many other Southern gravies (like white sausage gravy and tomato gravy) do — in a cast iron skillet.  

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

Where Did Red-Eye Gravy Get Its Name?

Red-eye gravy is likely named more for the gravy’s appearance when spooned over a salty slice of red country ham than its eye-opening ingredient. Sometimes this simple sauce is referred to as bird-eye gravy, red ham gravy, or poor man’s gravy, but they’re all the same combination of country ham drippings and brewed coffee. 

What Ingredients Are in Red-Eye Gravy?

  • Country ham: Unlike the spiral-cut ham you’re serving at holiday dinner, country ham is uncooked. It is sold in slices or smaller pieces for stacking between biscuits. Look for slices with a generous ring of fat surrounding the ham. 
  • Coffee: Strong-brewed coffee adds the most flavor to this skillet gravy. 
  • Light brown sugar: Many Southerners would never dare add anything extra to their red-eye gravy, and what they do in their kitchens is up to them. In my house, I like to take the acerbic edge off of red-eye gravy with the slightest sprinkle of light brown sugar. 
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

How to Make Red Eye Gravy

  • Trim fat from country ham. Choose a package of country ham slices with a generous ring of fat (this is the foundation of red-eye gravy). I like to trim the fat first, so that the country ham doesn’t overcook while rendering the fat.
  • Render the fat. Cook over low heat until the solid fat turns liquid. Don’t tell my serious Southern friends, but if my country ham slices are particularly lean and don’t render the two tablespoons of fat I need, I’ll supplement with bacon drippings or (as a last resort) vegetable oil. 
  • Remove the cracklings. The solids left behind after rendering the fat are a deliciously crunchy and salty snack. Nibble on them while you finish the gravy, crumble them into Southern cornbread batter, or sprinkle them over salads in place of croutons.
  • Cook country ham. Cooking the thin slices of country ham makes them ready to eat while infusing the rendered fat with even more flavor. Don’t overcook, as country ham can turn tough quickly.
  • Add coffee. Whisk in strong brewed coffee and a touch of brown sugar, if using. Continue to whisk until the gravy is reduced by half before serving.

Red-Eye Gravy Recipe

This Southern classic is a strong and salty sauce made from country ham drippings and coffee.

Prep time 5 minutes

Cook time 10 minutes to 15 minutes

Makes 1/4 cup

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4

    (3-ounce) slices country ham (about 1/8-inch-thick)

  • 1/2 cup

    strong brewed coffee

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    packed light brown sugar (optional)

Instructions

  1. Trim the fat from around the edges of 4 slices country ham. Place the fat in an 8-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet over low heat until it renders about 2 tablespoons fat (if you don’t have enough, make up the difference with rendered bacon fat or vegetable oil to make 2 tablespoons), 5 to 7 minutes.

  2. Remove any cracklins with a slotted spoon. Working one slice at a time, add the country ham to the skillet in a single layer and cook until just warmed through, 15 to 30 seconds per side. Do not overcook or the ham will be tough. Transfer the ham to a plate, letting any juices drip into the skillet.

  3. Add 1/2 cup strong brewed coffee to the skillet. Cook, whisking constantly, until reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and whisk in 1/2 teaspoon packed light brown sugar if desired. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.