Red-eye gravy (aka poor man's gravy, bird-eye gravy, or red ham gravy) is a Southern staple, the homey hallmark of any Southern kitchen. The simple pan sauce is made from fried country ham drippings and strong black coffee, a thrifty creation that almost magically transforms what many cooks might consider scraps into a flavorful gravy greater than the sum of its parts. On its own, this two-parter is strong, salty, and savory, but some cooks in the south make their gravies even redder with the addition of red pepper flakes. Others add ketchup, mustard, chicory, or a little cola into the mix. Nashville, Tennessee's iconic Loveless Cafe makes its red-eye gravy with three ingredients: country ham, black coffee, and brown sugar. Indeed, brown sugar might be just the third ingredient this timeless two-parter needs.
Brown sugar mellows out the salty flavor profile, reducing bitterness and acidity. Light or dark brown sugar both work for this tip, with dark brown sugar imparting a richer, deeper flavor and light brown sugar adding a subtler sweet touch. Traditional red-eye gravy is made by rendering country ham fat trimmings over low heat, then deglazing the pan with the strongly brewed black coffee to absorb all the flavorful drippings. To incorporate the brown sugar, add it to the pan at the same time as the coffee, starting with a generous pinch and adding more to taste, if desired. The goal here is to achieve balance, not sweetness.
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Since, unlike many of its thicker contemporaries, red-eye gravy doesn't contain any starch, this thinner au-jus-like sauce could especially benefit from a little flattering, round sweetness. All the body in red-eye gravy comes from the fat trimmings from country ham. If you've never worked with it before, country ham is sold raw and totes an exterior ring of fat. Unlike "city ham" (which is wet-cured in saltwater), country ham is dry-cured in salt and aged, creating an intense, slightly funky, subtly nutty flavor that's dimensional enough to keep such a minimal sauce as red-eye gravy tasting complex and interesting. If you're working with a leaner cut of ham, add a tablespoon or two of butter or lard to the pan to produce enough fat to create the gravy, and the brown sugar will provide a crave-able caramelization to finish.
There are plenty of other uses for your well-balanced red-eye gravy beyond as a condiment for country ham. You could stir it into mashed potatoes or New Orleans-style red beans and rice. It'd make a delicious addition to baked mac and cheese or green bean casserole. For a hearty breakfast, you could drizzle it over cornbread, buttermilk biscuits, or a bowl of creamy grits.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.