This Classic Southern Red-Eye Gravy Recipe Is a Must on My Family’s Breakfast Table

Perfect for spooning over biscuits, grits, and eggs, this classic Southern breakfast gravy is made by mixing the drippings of pan-fried country ham with black coffee.

red-eye gravy hero
Serious Eats/Morgan Glaze

Since I was very young growing up in southwest Virginia, preparing and enjoying big elaborate breakfasts together was a staple part of every family reunion, no matter the hour. When one or several of us returned home late at night or early in the morning, weary and hungry from travel, we’d make breakfast together with the works: eggs, grits, biscuits or toast, and after a quick thaw of leftover country ham from the freezer, red-eye gravy: a quick emulsion of hot coffee and slowly rendered ham drippings. I grew up eating red-eye gravy this way, a swirl of a hot spoonful over an impromptu midnight breakfast, even if I was a bleary-eyed member of the welcoming committee. For many years, I associated red-eye gravy almost entirely with international air travel even before I had ever actually been inside a plane. 

The name red-eye gravy likely has nothing to do with coffee or caffeine (or red-eye flights) at all. While there are legends about President Andrew Jackson requesting red-eye gravy the color of his bloodshot eyes after a long night of drinking, these are tall tales that aren’t necessarily rooted in fact. I’ve noticed that the more fantastical stories about red-eye gravy are more common on internet message boards about southern food rather than stories that are actually shared around southern tables themselves. It’s more likely that the name takes its cue from its shimmering reddish hue where it pools around the “eye” or “aitch” bone of thin sliced, bone-in country ham. 

Overhead view of adding coffee
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While the history behind its name is contested, I will always associate red-eye gravy with breakfast food and a sweet return home. I grew up eating red-eye gravy rendered and built from whatever ham was leftover from the annual New Year’s ham in the freezer. This very often included the bone and all the trimmings, but we didn’t necessarily drizzle it over the top of a proper ham slice. While it’s nice to eat red-eye gravy with a generous slice of ham itself, I think it’s even more pleasant drizzled over a biscuit or stirred into cheesy, buttery grits. It’s not a thick, creamy gravy for dunking or covering food (it’s caffeinated, after all!), but rather it’s more like a jus or pan sauce for dipping and drizzling. It’s intense but rich and succulent, with a slight bitterness offset almost immediately by rich, succulent fat. 

I think of red-eye gravy as a testament to being awake, morning or night, whether you’re enjoying it over a full meal before a long day ahead or prolonging the inevitability of sleep. To me, it is a delicacy, the perfect finishing touch for a meal that you make to be eaten over adrenaline-fueled conversation and regalement of travel stories. For me, it is the crown jewel of being home and together again, a freezer somehow still full of ham. It’s dead simple to make, and here are a couple tips to get it right.

Don't Be Tempted to Thicken With a Roux

While many iterations of southern gravies, especially those meant to be lovingly laddled over biscuits, are thick and velvety from the addition of a flour-based roux, red-eye gravy purists do not add a roux, and this recipe is no different. At its simplest, the recipe is a modest reduction of country ham and strong black coffee, but this recipe incorporates light brown sugar, black pepper, and a pat of butter to soften the hit of the bitterness on the palate. The jolt of strong, slightly bitter black coffee means red-eye gravy is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also a friend to sugar and butter, just as any honest southerner would be. These additions ensure that the gravy is hearty and rich enough without a roux.

Cast Aside the Cast Iron and Use Stainless-Steel Instead

My dad uses a cast-iron skillet for just about everything, but even he sets it aside for whipping up red-eye gravy, opting instead for a stainless-steel skillet. This is because acidic foods and liquids, such as the coffee in the red-eye gravy, will pick up flavor and color from the iron in the pan, which would turn the gravy dingy and metallic-tasting. red-eye gravy is already very bitter, and the acidity of the coffee mixed with the natural saltiness of the country ham tends to draw out an unpleasant acrid flavor from even the most well-seasoned cast-iron. 

The recipe below uses a stainless-steel skillet all the way through, but being the cast iron-lover that I am, when I make this at home I prefer to render the fat of the ham in a cast iron skillet separately, for a slow and even render that easily prevents overcooking of the ham, before transferring the drippings to a stainless steel or enamel skillet to build the sauce. Feel free to start with cast iron, like I do, or stick with stainless steel all the way through. Using stainless steel (or an enameled skillet) doesn’t just avoid an off-putting flavor, but the lighter color allows me to see better how the gravy is progressing and emulsifying. Just one hot spoonful of this gravy over a biscuit with a little extra butter and a drizzle of molasses instantly transports me back to my family's kitchen counter, no matter where I am.

In a large baking dish or large bowl, place ham slices and cover with cold water until fully submerged. Soak for 30 minutes. 

Overhead view of ham slices in water
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 Pat ham dry as best as possible with paper towels. Trim fat from ham; reserve fat trimmings and ham slices separately. You should have about ⅓ to ½ cup (about 3 ounces) of trimmed fat.

Overhead view of trimming ham fat
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 In a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet, heat the reserved fat trimmings and 1/2 tablespoon butter over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fat has rendered, 6 to 8 minutes. Reserve 1 tablespoon drippings (rendered fat) in skillet, and transfer any additional drippings to a small bowl; set aside.

Overhead view of fate rendering in pan
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Increase heat to medium, push rendered trimmings to one side, and place 1 slice ham in skillet. Cook, until browned on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining ham slices, adding a teaspoon of the reserved drippings as needed to the skillet in between slices if skillet is dry. Remove and discard crispy trimmings.

red-eye gravy step 4
Serious Eats/Morgan Glaze

Pour any remaining reserved drippings into the skillet and swirl to coat. Pour in coffee and water and bring to a simmer over medium heat, scraping bottom of skillet with a flat wooden spoon to release any browned bits. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has reduced to about ½ cup, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in sugar, pepper, and remaining ½ tablespoon butter until melted and incorporated. Serve immediately with reserved fried country ham slices.

red-eye gravy step 5
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Special Equipment

 12-inch stainless steel skillet

Notes

Bone-in slices tend to come untrimmed and slightly fattier, yielding enough drippings to build the gravy, and the marrow of the bone adds richness and depth to the overall flavor. If you cannot get ham with the bone-in, opt for a piece that has a generous amount of fat for trimming and rendering.

If your coffee is weak, skip the water and use 3/4 cup coffee.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Leftover red-eye gravy can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 7 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Fats will solidify and separate. Reheat over low on the stovetop in a saucepan or skillet, and be sure to whisk well before using.