Good Gravy!  —  13 Classic American Gravies & How to Serve Them

By Paul Thomas Zenki

The USA has a gravy for just about every meal …

I was having a conversation with some Brits recently and they dropped a real bomb on me. Apparently, in the UK there’s only kind of gravy.

As an American and a Southerner, this was just heartbreaking. It’s like finding out there’s a nation where everybody listens to one band or plays the same sport. Now I’m not about to say that’s wrong or anything, I’m respectful of cultural differences and all, but I mean, damn, son!

So look, take it or leave it, I’m not trying to foist my nation’s cuisine onto anybody, but in case anyone out there hails from a gravy-deprived culture and wishes to expand their culinary horizons vis-à-vis meat juice based sauces, I invite you to read on….

What is gravy, anyway?

For our purposes here, a gravy is any sauce made from the juices left over from cooking meat, by adding thickeners and extenders — such as butter, flour, wine, milk, even coffee — and possibly flavorings like herbs, spices, or crumbled bacon or sausage. So-called “vegetarian gravies” are actually gravy substitutes just as “vegetarian hamburger” is a substitute for ground beef.

In the recipes I’m going to share with you, “flour” means all-purpose flour, and “bacon fat” refers to re-solidified fat left over from cooking bacon. If you don’t have bacon fat in your kitchen, you can use lard or a combination of butter and toasted sesame oil which will give you a similar texture and flavor. “Biscuits,” of course, are American-style biscuits, not what Brits call biscuits which we call “cookies.”

So let’s start with the fundamentals and get a bit fancier as we go….

Pan/Brown Gravy

Pan gravy, or brown gravy, is the most basic of gravies and it’s what the above-mentioned Brits called “gravy,” full stop. It can be made from the pan juices of roast beef, pork, or fowl.

How to make it

After removing the roasted meat from the pan, skim off most of the fat, leaving about 2 tablespoons of the drippings behind. Heat the pan to medium and loosen the fond from the bottom of the pan with a spoon or spatula. Then gradually blend in about 3 tablespoons of flour and continue stirring about 2 minutes until it’s all nice and golden brown.

Keep stirring as you gradually add 2.5 cups of warm stock (same type as the meat). Still stirring, bring it to a simmer and stir until the sauce is reduced by about a third and thickens up so that it’s pourable but not watery. Add salt and black pepper to taste. If you don’t like the bits of fond in your gravy, run it through a strainer before serving.

How to serve it

Pan gravy is best when drizzled over the roasted meat and is also wonderful over rice or potatoes.

Southern Cream Gravy

Sometimes you’ll hear the term “white gravy” used to refer to what is essentially a roux with milk or cream added to it, but technically that sauce isn’t actually a gravy. Southern cream gravy — also called pepper gravy, country gravy, Southern white gravy, or just Southern gravy  — is similar, but made with bacon fat, which traditional Southern kitchens will have set aside in a special container.

How to make it

Set aside 3 cups of milk to warm. For a creamier gravy, blend equal parts milk and half-and-half.

Heat 3 tablespoons of bacon fat in a skillet and melt over medium heat. Then slowly stir in the flour until blended. Keep stirring and cook another 2 minutes or so until the mixture starts to bubble. Gradually add the milk and simmer, stirring constantly, until the sauce slightly thickens, about 4 minutes. (If it begins to clump, raise the heat a bit. If it remains watery, add more flour.) Add salt to taste and finish with a generous portion of black pepper.

How to serve it

Pepper gravy is traditionally served ladled over country-fried or chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, biscuits, or cornbread.

Sawmill Gravy

Sawmill gravy is another white gravy made from the pan juices from bulk sausage.

How to make it

Cook one pound of bulk (uncased) pork sausage and set aside. Leave about 3 tablespoons of juice in the pan (add butter or bacon fat if you’re short), slowly stir in 1/4 cup flour and cook over low heat while stirring until well blended. Gradually stir in about 2 cups of milk while scraping up the fond. Raise heat to medium high, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens. Add salt and black pepper to taste, then crumble the sausage into the gravy.

How to serve it

Because it already contains meat, sawmill gravy is usually served ladled over sliced biscuits or in a bowl over cornbread.

Red Eye Gravy

Red eye gravy is probably the simplest gravy you can make. It’s also the most limited, but there’s nothing quite like it when served properly.

How to make it

You start with the pan juice (all of it) from country ham, which is a bone-in salt-cured ham. Stir in some coffee. That’s it, you’re done. There’s no real “recipe” to red eye gravy, so you have to learn your proportions by taste. If you find that it’s always either too salty or too strong for your liking, thin the coffee with water before adding it to the pan.

How to serve it

The most common way to serve red eye gravy is to make a dent in a serving of corn grits with the back of a spoon and fill it with the sauce, hence the name. You can also drizzle it over the ham or eggs, and of course sop up what’s left with a biscuit.

Oh, by the way, if your grits are too runny to make a dent in them, you’re making them wrong. (Please don’t tell me they come from a packet, because that is an abomination — I’m pretty sure that’s in Leviticus.)

Chili Gravy

Chili gravy is so easy and so good! It’s the perfect go-with for Tex-Mex food, especially enchiladas. Feel free to experiment with the spices, but you absolutely must have powdered chili peppers and cumin to get the right taste.

How to make it

Start with the pan fat from ground beef or chicken, whichever meat is going into your main dish. You’re going to want about 1/3 of a cup. If you don’t have enough, you can add lard, bacon fat, butter, or oil. Stir in 1/3 cup flour and cook while stirring over medium heat about 5 minutes.

Now stir in 1/4 cup chili powder (your choice), 1 tablespoon each of garlic and onion powders, 2 teaspoons each of cumin and smoked paprika, and 1 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. (It’s easier if you combine all these before adding.) Then gradually stir in 2.5 cups of broth, beef or chicken depending on what you started with. Reduce heat and simmer about half an hour until the sauce is slightly thickened.

How to serve it

Traditionally, chili gravy is ladled over enchiladas, but it can also be served over burritos, beans, or rice.

Sour Cream Gravy

There are several different ways to make sour cream gravy, with or without flour, with or without broth, but I’m going to show you the dead easiest way to do it. If you like it, try some others. What these recipes have in common is a tanginess you don’t often get from other gravies, which is a wonderful complement to pan-fried chicken or pork chops.

How to make it

Start with 2 tablespoons of pan juices from chicken or pork over low heat. Stir in 1/3 cup sour cream, then 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce and 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

How to serve it

Sour cream gravy is typically served over pork or chicken, and can also be drizzled over bitter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts or asparagus.

Cider Gravy

Gravy made with apple cider is a perfect accompaniment to roast pork. You can get fancy with it, but the basic recipe is pretty simple.

How to make it

Start with a quarter cup of pan drippings from a pork roast in a saucepan over medium-high heat. (Supplement with butter or bacon fat if you’re short.) Slowly stir in 2 tablespoons of flour until the texture is even.

Now gradually stir in 1.25 cups of stock (pork if you have it, but chicken will do just fine) followed by 1.25 cups of dry apple cider. Add 1 teaspoon each of fresh thyme leaves and chopped fresh sage. Bring to a boil and simmer about 4 minutes. Add salt to taste.

How to serve it

Cider gravy can be drizzled over the sliced roast pork or served in a ramekin for dipping.

Cornmeal Gravy

Cornmeal gravy is simple, but there’s nothing else quite like it. The nutty taste of the cornmeal and the richness of the buttermilk give it a unique flavor that’s hard to match.

How to make it

Start by dry sautéing 1/2 cup cornmeal in a saucepan over medium-high heat until golden brown, being careful not to burn it, about 4 minutes. While continuing to stir, add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, then 1 teaspoon bacon fat. When the fat is melted, stir in 2 cups of an equal-parts mixture of buttermilk and water. Bring to a boil and let cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes.

How to serve it

Cornmeal gravy can be ladled over biscuits or cornbread, country-fried meats, or roasted vegetables.

Tomato/Red Gravy

There are so many ways to make tomato gravy, I could devote an entire article just to variations on this one sauce. Honestly, I feel like any recipe I choose is going to be entirely arbitrary will end up short-changing you because red gravy is even more wide-ranging than sour cream gravy. It can be prepared with either broth or milk (or neither or both!), with or without flour, and you can almost get into fist fights over what kind of tomatoes to use, whether or not to add tomato paste, and which seasonings to put in.

This recipe uses canned tomatoes, and unless you’re going to fool with ripe, home grown tomatoes (which will need to be diced and de-seeded) I cannot stress strongly enough that canned is the way to go. Store-bought “fresh” tomatoes are grown to endure storage and shipping, and they have the consistency and flavor of wax. Canned tomatoes, on the other hand, are softer and more flavorful, so trust me on this one.

Consider this very basic recipe to be merely a starting point for your own exploration, because seriously, except for diced tomatoes and salt I don’t think there’s any single ingredient that you’re going to find consistently going into this sauce. It’s that wide open.

How to make it

Melt two tablespoons of bacon fat in a skillet. Add a coarsely chopped onion and sauté until softened, about five minutes. Stir in 2 (ca. 14 oz.) cans of diced tomatoes with juice and 1 (ca. 14 oz.) can of tomato purée. Bring to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Simmer until reduced by about 1/3, around 30 to 45 minutes.

How to serve it

Tomato gravy is traditionally served over rice, but you’ll find people serving it over biscuits, cornbread, peas or beans, mashed potatoes, fish, even pasta.

Egg Gravy

Back in the day, egg gravy was also called “rich man’s gravy” because if you could afford to put bacon, eggs, and whole milk in your gravy, you were living pretty high on the hog. It’s a wonderfully rich variation on milk gravy that’s great for an occasional treat.

How to make it

Chop up three strips of bacon and shake well in a brown paper lunch sack with 1/2 cup flour until well coated. Set aside the remaining flour, and fry the bacon in 1 tablespoon of oil until crisp, about 5 minutes or so, then place onto a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Gradually add three beaten eggs to the oil and bacon fat mixture while gently stirring, and continue stirring for two or three minutes while curds form. Then stir in the flour.

Slowly whisk in 1/3 cup of chicken broth and cook while whisking, about 5 minutes until the sauce thickens. Then gradually whisk in 3 cups whole milk and cook about 3 minutes. Stir in the bacon and add salt and pepper to taste. (If the gravy over-thickens, thin with a little warm milk.)

How to serve it

This rich gravy is excellent over biscuits, cornbread, wild rice, or country ham, and can be topped with hard cooked or fried eggs for an all-in-one meal.

Onion Gravy

Onion gravy is made with, of course, onions and a combination of pan drippings and butter. It is sinfully delicious!

How to make it

Start with about 2 tablespoons of fat, plus fond, left over from roasting meat or pan-cooking pork chops, then melt another 2 tablespoons of butter into the pan. (Use more butter or bacon fat if you don’t have that much pan fat.) Add two halved and thinly sliced onions and 2 teaspoons of sugar to the pan and cook for about half an hour until the onions caramelize, scraping up the fond as you stir the onions.

Add 1/2 cup dry red wine and deglaze the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.

Now add a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon dried sage, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, stir in, and follow with 2 cups of beef broth. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Then whisk in 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar followed by 1 tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in a tablespoon of cold water. Continue to whisk for one to two minutes until thickened. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of cold butter until completely blended. Taste and add more salt if needed.

How to serve it

Ladle generously over meat and potatoes.

Shrimp Gravy

Like sawmill gravy, shrimp gravy has the meat already added to it, so it’s almost a meal by itself. Unlike sawmill gravy, there are infinite variations to be found in the regions where it’s typically served. Here’s a fairly easy recipe using the “holy trinity” of onion, bell pepper, and celery along with a “low country boil” spice mix which you can buy ready-made or prepare yourself at home.

How to make it

Dice about 10 slices of bacon and cook over medium-high heat until just starting to crisp. Add 1 cup each of chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery, and sauté until softened, about five to ten minutes.

Slowly stir in 2 tablespoons of flour. Then stir in 1 tablespoon low country boil seasoning, 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, and 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. Then add 2 pounds of peeled fresh shrimp. Cook while stirring about 3 minutes.

Stir in 1.25 cups beef broth and cook about another 4 minutes until the sauce is slightly thickened and the shrimp are nice and pink.

How to serve it

Shrimp gravy is traditionally served over corn grits or rice.

Giblet Gravy

Giblet gravy is made with pan drippings from a roast turkey or chicken combined with a roux and the cooked organ meats from the bird. It’s not a quick-and-easy recipe, so it’s often reserved for special occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners.

How to make it

Remove the giblets from the bird and defrost if necessary. Refrigerate the liver and place the remaining meats in a saucepan with 4 cups of cold water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 90 minutes. Add the liver and simmer for another half hour. Then strain and set the liquid aside if needed (see next step). Let the giblets cool, debone the neck meat, finely chop everything, and set aside.

Now make the roux. Melt 1/4 cup of butter in a saucepan and slowly stir in 1/4 cup of flour. Cook while stirring for about 4 minutes until the roux just begins to turn golden.

Slowly stir in enough turkey or chicken stock to make about 2 cups. (If you don’t have stock, use the giblet broth, or a mixture of the broth and defatted pan drippings from the roast bird.) Now stir in 1/2 cup milk or half-and-half and keep stirring until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add salt and black pepper to taste, then stir in the chopped giblets and a finely chopped hard-boiled egg.

How to serve it

Drizzle giblet gravy over the sliced roasted bird. Also goes well with rice or mashed potatoes.

A note on technique

If you’re new to gravies, it’s a good idea to watch someone else before you try it yourself. There’s a lot of “feel” to making a proper gravy — ensuring the dry ingredients aren’t overcooked, the sauce doesn’t get lumpy, the final consistency isn’t too thick or thin, the timing is right so it’s served hot, etc.

Patience is the secret ingredient for most gravies. There’s a lot of stirring involved, which can get tiring and often requires you to be at the stove without distractions for several minutes at a stretch. Flour, broth, and other ingredients often have to be added gradually to prevent lumping. If you get in a hurry, you can end up with an unpalatable mess.

The good news is, once you do have a feel for the technique, you’ll be able to make all sorts of different sauces using the same principles. It gets really interesting when you’re able to start experimenting with your own herbs and spices and other variations to come up with unique flavor profiles.

The right gravy can turn a good meal into a great one by adding richness and complementary flavors to the plate. I hope you’ll have fun with these and do more searching on your own.


Not a member of Medium? Read every story from Paul Thomas Zenki (and thousands of other writers on Medium) by subscribing today. Your membership directly supports Paul Thomas Zenki and other writers you read. Click here to join.

Photo by Amanda Dilnot

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.