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Gravy Greats for Your Southern Table

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Milk, coffee, soda - drink up, then save a little bit for the gravy pan. When it comes these Southern "sauces," the options are interesting, indeed. Simply put, gravy is amazing, the savory benediction for a host of sacred Southern dishes. What other accompaniment can transform a humble biscuit into a velvety breakfast masterpiece, or a fiercely pounded square of cube steak into the magnus opus of a Sunday supper?

Far from an afterthought or emergency measure to salvage a kitchen failure, good gravy is essential when it comes to great Southern cooking. Whipping up a smooth batch with the right hint of seasonings might seem a bit intimidating, but with a little practice, you'll be wowing your friends and family with your gravy-making prowess. Here are a few insights into three of the most popular Southern gravies.

Red-eye Gravy

Ham drippings and the dregs of a soda bottle or coffee pot - only a Southern cook could take a couple of seemingly unworthy leftovers and find delicious redemption. But first: What's up with the name? Does "red-eye" refer to the small blob of fat that congeals in the center of a bowl of ham drippings? Or perhaps historians got it right by citing it as a commentary by Andrew Jackson on the bloodshot eyes of his hungover cook. Well, you can mull that over while you get the skillet hot and make this gravy, an easy one considering there's no thickening or seasoning required. If you can deglaze a pan - that is, heat up the drippings, add a bit of liquid, then cook it down quickly, scraping the tasty bits of ham and what-not from the bottom - you've got this!

When it comes to the liquid, some cooks prefer the boldness of dark coffee and some prefer the added sweetness of cola. Of course, there are those who like to fancy it up by adding brown sugar and bit of hot spice. The only rule is this: To attain the required saltiness, you must use country ham drippings. That's non-negotiable.

Spoon this thin gravy over biscuits, fried ham slices, grits and eggs.

Sausage Gravy

Milk- or cream-based sausage gravy is the stuff hearty Southern breakfasts are made of. And that's deliberate. Also known as sawmill gravy, this is the stick-to-your-ribs concoction that sustained the lumberjacks working in early 1900s logging camps.

It was also the crowning touch of Hominy Grill's most famous offering, the Charleston Nasty. Formerly known as the Big Nasty, this dish consisted of boneless fried chicken tucked into a giant homemade biscuit and topped with cheese. Then came the "nasty" - a tasty sausage gravy smothering the whole thing. Before the restaurant closed in April 2019, foodies and critics across the country gave creator, Charleston's chef Robert Stehling, a tip of the hat after gorging on this monster meal.

But back to the gravy. Lightly hued and flecked with bits of meat, sausage gravy is a little more complex as it does require thickening. Just remember to sprinkle your flour into hot butter, then whisk well as you add your liquid. Or see the recipe below and try it the Hominy Grill way, by incorporating chicken stock for added body.

Spoon sausage gravy over biscuits, fried chicken, grits or anything that will act as a sturdy sop. In all truthfulness, it doesn't matter. What's beneath all that creamy goodness isn't important as long as it can hold a hefty ladle or two.

Brown Gravy

Meat drippings, juices or broths are at the heart of this dinnertime favorite. Whether you're making gravy for a holiday turkey or to coat a platter of fried pork chops, this is the one you remember from those special dinners at Grandma's house. Tip: To add true Southern flair, combine bacon drippings with your other meat drippings to make up your fat base.

The technique is simple. Over medium-high heat, warm a few tablespoons of drippings, sprinkle in flour, then whisk in a cup of broth or meat juices until smooth. Tip: You'll want to use equal parts drippings and liquid. Also, make sure your broth or juices are nicely warmed before adding to help prevent the flour from forming lumps.

If you're baking meat such as cube steak, salt and pepper each piece, dredge the meat well, then brown in a skillet. Transfer it to a baking dish, including a couple tablespoons of drippings. Then, add a cup or so of water or broth, cover tightly and bake until tender, adding a bit more liquid as necessary. The flour you used for dredging will help make a rich, thick gravy.

For your holiday turkey dinner, double or triple the amounts of ingredients you'd use for a regular supper. And don't skip the most important part: There's lots to be said for that homemade turkey stock as it truly makes the best gravy.

Spoon it over meat, potatoes, rice or even shrimp and grits.

Add a little Southern "Nasty" to your own kitchen creations with this recipe from Hominy Grill.

Sausage Gravy


6 Tbsp. diced yellow onions

4 Tbsp. diced bell peppers

1 Tbsp. butter

4 Tbsp. flour

½ lb. sausage

3 cups hot chicken stock

1 cups heavy cream

Salt, black pepper, Tabasco sauce


Crumble the sausage into the hot butter fat and sauté until it begins to brown. Stir in the onions and peppers and cook tender. Turn down heat and stir the flour into the fat and cook on low for 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly add the hot chicken stock and bring to a simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in heavy cream. Season with the salt, pepper and Tabasco.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.