Southern tomato gravy is just what you need to top off a hot bowl of grits or fresh, steaming biscuits! With a smoky flavor and plenty of bacon, this gravy is a must-have for your next Sunday brunch!
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Growing up in South Carolina my whole life, I feel like I’m pretty well-versed in Southern culture and food. But since my parents are from the Midwest, there are things that occasionally surprise me.
I was familiar with turkey gravy, beef gravy, and other meat gravies (even dairy-based Southern sausage gravy), but when I went to recreate Early Bird Diner’s shrimp and grits and I saw that it used tomato gravy, I wasn’t sure what to expect! Tomato gravy? Isn’t that just… tomato sauce?
What is tomato gravy? And how is it different from tomato sauce?
The term “tomato gravy” threw me off, especially being half Italian. In Italy and among Italian-Americans, a big pot of simmering marinara is sometimes referred to as “Sunday gravy” so you can imagine my uncertainty about the difference between tomato gravy and tomato sauce.
They are similar in that they both
- include tomato
- are poured on top of other things
but honestly the similarity ends there.
Tomato sauce, or marinara, is made primarily of pureed or crushed tomatoes. It can have onions or olive oil or butter added for flavor, and it can be chunky with larger pieces of tomatoes in it. It’s typically seasoned with garlic and Italian herbs, and is used on things like pasta, chicken, eggplant, or veal. If there’s meat in tomato sauce (like in my spaghetti meat sauce), it’s typically ground beef, pork, Italian sausage, or meatballs.
Southern tomato gravy, on the other hand, is based on tomato juice. It’s a thinner, more pourable way to incorporate tomato into the gravy, and has a bit more natural sweetness to it (no added sugar, of course). Many recipes use the juices from freshly chopped tomatoes or an undrained can of tomatoes for a chunkier gravy, while this one uses juice only for a smoother result. It is wonderful with some juicy blistered grape tomatoes added, though, like in this shrimp and grits recipe!
Like most gravies, this one starts with a roux of drippings (bacon) and flour for thickening. While you can use butter if you don’t have bacon grease, I’ve used bacon drippings in this recipe for the unmistakably Southern flavor — plus then you get bacon pieces to sprinkle on top too! Extra flavor is added with chicken broth.
This Southern tomato gravy recipe is simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika to give it a rich, smoky flavor. You can use tomato gravy on rice or grits, with shrimp and grits, or over biscuits. I think it would be great with some blackened salmon or chicken too!
How to make Southern Tomato Gravy
To make Southern tomato gravy, I start by cutting up a bunch of bacon and cooking it in a cast iron pan. I know you’re not supposed to cook acidic things like tomatoes in cast iron, but I like to live dangerously (and it doesn’t simmer long like a tomato sauce so I feel like it’s ok). I guess an enameled cast iron pan would be better if you have it, or your favorite non-reactive sauté pan.
Once the bacon is cooked and all the grease is rendered, remove the bacon pieces and leave the grease. You can then create the roux by adding flour and cooking for a couple minutes until it’s smooth and golden, and leaves an open trail when you scrape the pan with a spoon (see the image below).
After that, whisk in the chicken broth and tomato juice, and season with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. Cook it until it’s thickened and it’s ready to go! You can add the bacon pieces back into the gravy or sprinkle them on top of your rice/grits/biscuits after you add the gravy to keep the bacon crispy.
Pretty simple, and so delicious!
I find it super convenient because I don’t have to have drippings from some big beef roast or a roasted chicken to make this easy gravy recipe. Just have to have some bacon in the fridge or freezer, and some tomato juice and chicken broth in the pantry!
What goes well with Southern tomato gravy?
Serve this over rice, grits, shrimp and grits, or even blackened salmon or chicken!
- 4 slices thick-cut bacon smoked, if possible
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 1/2 cups tomato juice or two 5.5-oz cans
- 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cut bacon into half-inch pieces with kitchen scissors and add to a cold pan. Heat the pan to medium heat and cook bacon, stirring frequently, until bacon is crisp and fat is rendered. Remove bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate and leave the grease in the pan.
- Add flour to the pan with the bacon grease and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for several minutes to create a roux. Scrape up any bits of bacon that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan.
- Whisk in chicken broth and tomato juice, stirring constantly until fully incorporated. Stir in smoked paprika and simmer until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve spooned over grits or biscuits with the bacon sprinkled on top.