Red-eye gravy is a typical Southern comfort food that goes by several names including cedar gravy, bottom soup, bird-eye gravy, red ham gravy, or poor man’s gravy. It is usually made with drippings of ham and black coffee. It’s named red-eye gravy because during preparation, the mixture can sometimes look like a red eye. While traditionally, black coffee is one of the main ingredients used in the preparation of red eye gravy, it’s still possible to make it without using coffee, although it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s going to taste different, and you won’t get an energy boost from it since it won’t contain caffeine. Adding coffee provides the gravy with a unique, bitter flavor profile. However, if you don’t want coffee in your gravy for any reason, making it without can still pack a punch. In fact, preparing red-eye gravy that is coffee-free can be quite similar to making the classic recipe, with just some common kitchen ingredients needed.
Preparing Red Eye Gravy Minus the Coffee
If you want to make red eye gravy without adding coffee, then you will need the following:
- Sliced country ham
- Two tablespoons unsalted butter
- Chicory coffee substitute
- Optional bouillon cube
There are two different methods that you can use to make red-eye gravy without adding coffee. Either method works just as well, so choose whichever one you prefer or find easiest. You can enjoy the sauce with grits, ham, biscuits, or anything else that you like.
Brew the chicory coffee substitute: Instead of making a cup of coffee like with traditional red eye gravy, substitute this with a chicory coffee alternative. Chicory is often available in small granules or powder similar to instant coffee. Prepare it in the same way that you would make an instant coffee. Alternatively, you might have a chicory coffee alternative that you will need to prepare by putting it through filter paper. If that’s the case, brew it like you would a regular cup of coffee. The product packaging will usually have specific preparation instructions.
- Prepare the ham: Heat a skillet on your stove. Once it is hot enough, add the sliced country ham and cook it in its fat. Once it is ready, it should be a light golden-brown color. This should take around five minutes. After cooking, keep the skillet on the heat and set the ham aside.
- Melt the butter: Put some butter in the pan and melt it on top of the ham grease that’s left over from cooking the ham. Then add some flour and sugar and allow it to dissolve.
- Add the chicory: Add the hot water and chicory coffee substitute to the melted butter. If you like, this stage is also a good time to add herbs and spices or a bouillon cube to taste, but this is optional. Heat this mixture for around three minutes until the sauce begins to thicken. Use a spatula to stir the sauce and loosen up any particles at the bottom.
- Serve: Once you have finished heating the sauce, take the pan off the heat and pour it over the ham. Red-eye gravy is also great served with grits or biscuits.
- Get some soda: Instead of using coffee or a chicory coffee substitute, you can use soda to make red-eye gravy. The best type of soda to use is Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or a similar drink. Since these drinks contain caffeine, they are a good idea if you want to get an energy boost from your gravy without adding coffee to the recipe.
- Cook the ham: Put the skillet on the heat. Once it’s hot enough, add the ham. Cook it in the fat. Once the ham is a golden-brown colour, remove it from the skillet and keep the pan on the heat for the remaining ingredients. Leave the ham fat in the pan.
- Melt the butter: Add your butter to the skillet and melt it over the ham fat.
- Add soda and water: Pour your soda along with hot water over the melted butter and ham fat on the skillet. Heat the ingredients together for around three minutes or until the sauce begins to thicken. As the mixture cooks, stir it regularly. Be careful with how long you cook it for since too long can cause the sugar in the soda to caramelize.
- Serve: Once the sauce is cooked, pour it over your ham, grits or biscuits and your meal is ready to eat.
History of Red Eye Gravy
What is a red eye drink coffee? Red eye gravy is a recipe that was born from the early American instinct to use every last scrap of food and drink available to avoid waste. It was first created in the early 1800s, back when coffee was quite a rare and precious commodity in the South. Coffee grinds were often reused by families every day for a week back then and making red eye gravy was just another way to make sure that every last drop of the coffee was used up. These days, getting hold of great coffee has thankfully become much easier, but many people still love the salty, rich, and smoky taste of red-eye gravy paired with ham, biscuits, fried eggs, and grits. The name comes from the fact that when cooking, the thin sauce will often separate, which creates a ‘red eye’ of fat around the darker pool of coffee in the skillet.
Red-eye gravy is still a popular recipe today not only because it tastes great, but also because it’s very easy to make. All you need is black coffee and the drippings from frying country ham. You can also use soda or a chicory coffee substitute if you’d rather drink your coffee than use it in cooking. Chefs are also finding newer ways to tone down the bitterness of the traditional gravy, with plenty of modern recipes to consider trying too.
How to Make Classic Red Eye Gravy
While you can make red eye gravy without the traditional coffee ingredient using either of the two methods above, it’s also good to know how to make it the classic way. Red eye gravy has long been a classic part of any traditional Southern meal of fried ham and biscuits, and the best part is you do not need that many ingredients to make it. To make classic red-eye gravy, you will need:
- 6oz country ham
- 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Half a cup of strong black coffee
- Half a cup of water
- Optional half a teaspoon of sugar
1. Prepare the Country Ham
Cut your country ham into slices that are around a quarter of an inch thick. If using large, center-cut ham pieces, cut them in half to make two medium-sized pieces, then use a small knife to cut slices around a quarter of an inch thick in the fat around the edges of the meat to prevent it from curling as you fry it. If you prefer less salt, you can place the slices in a large bowl, fill it with water, and allow the ham to soak for around half an hour to one hour. Drain the water before frying. Finally, heat a large skillet on the stove and add a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Melt the butter then add the ham and fry for two to three minutes on each side.
2. Making the Gravy
Keep your skillet on the stove and remove the ham, without removing the drippings and grease from the meat. Then, pour around half a cup of strong black coffee of your choice into the pan, and use a wooden spoon to stir the drippings and coffee together. Then, add half a cup of water to the mixture and stir it well. If you don’t like your red eye gravy to be too bitter, add half a teaspoon of sugar to the mixture. Allow the gravy to cook for around three to four minutes or until it thickens and becomes more of a syrupy consistency. If you want to thicken it more, you can add another tablespoon of unsalted butter and whisk for another minute.
Red eye gravy can be served over lots of things, but it is a popular choice with ham, fried eggs, biscuits, or steak. Put your fried country ham on a plate with anything else you’re adding to the meal and set out a gravy boat or small ramekin filled with your red eye gravy, so you can easily portion out the amount of gravy that you would like for your meal.
If you want to make red eye gravy using this recipe but without the coffee, simply substitute the half a cup of black coffee for half a cup of Coca-Cola or Pepsi or a chicory coffee substitute. Alternatively, if the caffeine content is the main concern for you, you can use a decaffeinated black coffee instead.
Red eye gravy is a Southern staple, and it’s easy to make with or without coffee.