No one can say decisively where red-eye gravy's origins truly lie. One tale says that President Andrew Jackson coined the phrase when addressing his hungover chef, while others think the name was inspired by a man's red-rimmed morning eyes, while others attribute it to the red sheen of ham or the finished sauce. In any case, it's a traditionally Southern gravy that some folks swear should be as basic as ham drippings and coffee but which you can personalize to suit your tastes.
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While recipes vary, the first step in making red-eye gravy is always the same: cook some meat. Traditionally, the gravy is made from the drippings of country ham, fried with a tablespoon or two of butter or oil in a cast-iron skillet, though some variations call for reserved drippings from roasting a turkey or frying ribs or roast beef. Whatever meat you use, move it to a clean platter once it's fully cooked, and hold onto the pan full of crispy fried bits and juices.
Plain brewed coffee is a staple of red-eye gravy, though you can substitute a smaller amount of espresso in its place. Your gravy could contain nothing except drippings and coffee, or you can add water to thin and dilute it slightly; adding white or brown sugar can help balance the salty drippings and bitter coffee. If your drippings aren't from salt-cured meat, you may want to add some salt to the gravy, or use salty broth or stock in place of water. You can experiment with flavor by adding onions, mushrooms, red wine, thyme, hot sauce, garlic and cola.
Making the Magic
Start the gravy right after removing the meat from the pan; if you oven-roasted the meat, scrape the drippings into a skillet. Saute mushrooms, onions or garlic in the drippings if you're using these additions. Add coffee, water and any other flavoring you wish. Use a wooden spoon to scrape all the drippings off the bottom of the pan and stir the mixture very gently. Simmer the gravy over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for about 3 to 5 minutes or until the mixture is reduced by about half.
Typically red-eye gravy is cooked down until it's syrupy but not thick like other gravies. If you like your gravy thick, add flour to the drippings before adding liquid. Sprinkle in enough flour so you'll have equal amounts drippings and thickener. If your meat was lean, add some oil or butter to the skillet too, maintaining a 1-to-1 ratio of fat to flour. Stir the mixture and cook it over medium-low heat for about 1 minute before adding liquid.
Playing With Ratios
Ingredient ratios vary wildly from recipe to recipe, and depending on how fatty or lean your meat is, it's hard to predict how much of the drippings you'll have to work with. On your first try, start by combining just drippings and coffee; then take a taste and make adjustments. Start with a ratio of about 4 parts meat to 1 part coffee; that is, if you started by frying 4 ounces of ham, add about 1 ounce of coffee -- or 2 tablespoons -- to the drippings. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until neither the drippings nor coffee taste overpowering; then add in other flavorings a pinch at a time.
Red-eye gravy is traditionally spooned over some of the staples of Southern cooking. Pour it over grits or hot, flaky biscuits as well as over the meat from which you obtained the drippings. Ladle it over fried potatoes and scrambled eggs; the gravy's coffee flavor is a perfect complement to your morning Joe. This gravy is also a complement to Cajun cooking, especially when it includes hot sauce. Try it over red beans and rice.