Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy - Salty, dry cured country ham with red eye gravy flavored with strong black coffee served with a side of cheese grits.
I'm putting my country roots in full view today. Yes, I'm reaching way back into the past for this post. Back to something that was an ordinary, everyday part of life when I was growing up - Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy.
I would be willing to bet that there's no one who grew up in a rural area of the southeastern U.S. who doesn't know what country ham and red eye gravy are. This was one of the most common breakfasts served in southern households for a very long time.
I suppose the best known country hams are the Smithfield brand. They're definitely good hams. Salty, dry cured hams that take on a deep red color and a chewy texture.
Back before Smithfield became a household word, however, country families cured their own hams. The time for butchering hogs was always the first frost in the fall.
I have very vague childhood memories of the adults doing the fall butchering. The most persistent of those memories is the smell of my grandparents' smokehouse.
The smokehouse was a tiny little building set away from the back of their home. I can just barely remember the meats hanging up in there and a steady, very slow smoke filling the whole place. There was always that pungent, smoky smell that got into your clothes and your hair but which made the meats coming from that smokehouse so delicious!
Country ham was one of my daddy's favorite things. Second only to a good t-bone steak. After he had a major heart attack, however, the t-bones and country ham were on the long list of things that he had to give up.
Even so, mama would always make country ham for him once a year on Christmas morning. I think he looked forward to Christmas breakfast as much as he did any other part of the day!
Why Is It Called That?
Well, like many things, the true origin of the name of this recipe is obscure. You can find lots of stories online, but my favorite is this one. According to legend, Andrew Jackson, who was a general at the time, called his cook in to give him instructions about what to prepare for breakfast. The cook had been drinking liberally the previous evening and his eyes were bright red as a result. The general told the cook to bring him some country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. Some of those nearby heard the order and from then on, ham gravy became “Red Eye Gravy.”
That's not this recipe's only name, however. It's also known as poor-man's gravy, muddy gravy, bottom sop, and bird-eye gravy depending on which part of the south you come from.
Start by Soaking the Ham Overnight
Now, country ham is salty. Actually, that's an understatement. Country ham is super salty.
Some people cook it right out of the package, salt and all, but I like to let it soak overnight in a little milk bath. It takes away a lot of the salt making it a bit more mellow and begins breaking down the chewiness of the ham just a bit, I think.
A note about the ham: there is no red eye gravy without cured country ham. Other kinds of ham just don't have the correct flavor for this recipe. You'll want a very good quality Smithfield or genuine Virginia ham with a good amount of fat around the edges.
When you're ready to cook the next morning, remove the ham from its milk bath and dry it with paper towels. Then heat a skillet over medium heat and add a small amount of oil.
To keep the ham from curling when it cooks, slash the edges of the fat in a few places. Cook the ham according to the brand's package directions or until the surface temperature is about 160 degrees.
I gauge it by appearance. When the fat is just translucent and the ham has a bit of golden color on it, it's done. Basically, when the fat is cooked through, the ham is done. Remove the ham from the pan and keep it warm.
Now, admittedly your pan is probably looking pretty dismal at this point. It's going to have a lot of very dark brown stuff on the bottom, but that's okay! That's going to make your gravy just that much better.
Also, be aware that you'll probably not have much moisture in the pan. Most country hams are too dry to give off much liquid.
Mix together the water, coffee, and cornstarch and add it to the pan. Make sure you have a nice, strong coffee for your gravy. Its flavor is important to the finished product.
Now here's where some of you are going to disagree with me and that's on the use of cornstarch. I know, I know...traditionally red eye gravy does not have any thickening agent added. It's a thin sauce. But I like mine with just a little body so I add a touch of cornstarch. If you want to stay true to the authentic recipe, just leave it out. We'll still be friends :-)
How Do I Serve It?
Serve the red eye gravy over plain or cheese grits, cut a biscuit open and drizzle it on, or spoon it over the country ham. Or do all three. Some fried eggs alongside make a nearly perfect breakfast or dinner on a cold winter night.
If you want a real, old-fashioned country treat, cut open a biscuit and dip the cut sides quickly into the gravy. Put a piece of country ham and a spoonful of Mayhaw jelly inside. Close your eyes, take a bite, and say "Yummmm....."
What Do I Do With the Leftovers?
Leftovers? You have leftovers? Just kidding. The leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to three days and reheated in the microwave or on a low heat on the stove.
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Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy
- 1 pound cured country ham thinly sliced
- ½ cup milk
- 1 tablespoon oil
- ¼ cup strong black coffee
- ¼ cup water
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- Place the sliced country ham and the milk in a bag and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.
- Remove the ham and wipe dry with paper towels.
- Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat.
- Add the ham and cook briefly until the fat is cooked through and the ham has reached a surface temperature of 160 degrees (or follow the package directions for cooking).
- Remove the ham from the skillet and set aside.
- Mix the coffee, water and cornstarch together and pour into the pan.
- Cook while stirring to dislodge any drippings from the bottom of the pan.
- Serve over plain or cheese grits, split biscuits or over the cooked ham.
Nutrition information is calculated by software based on the ingredients in each recipe. It is an estimate only and is provided for informational purposes. You should consult your health care provider or a registered dietitian if precise nutrition calculations are needed for health reasons.