Why This Recipe Works
- Cooking the sausage in its own fat keeps the gravy homogeneous and not too greasy.
- Adding onion to the gravy complements the slightly sweet breakfast sausage.
- Using a ratio of 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour to 1 cup of milk ensures a thick and silky gravy that won’t become gloppy as it cools on the plate.
There was a time in my life when a plate of biscuits and gravy was my answer to a raging hangover, although, if I'm honest, it was often my southern friends who were battling through their own headaches to whip it up and I was the lucky recipient. I don’t find myself needing a hangover cure much these days, but I do still crave velvety, luscious sausage gravy spooned over warm biscuits. The challenge was recreating my memory of those pitch-perfect versions in my own kitchen.
Made in a skillet with drippings, sausage gravy is creamy and savory and often served with tender, flaky biscuits for breakfast in the southern United States. According to Washington Post writer Aaron Hutcherson, the dish became popular sometime in the late 1800s in Southern Appalachia. The sauce—also known as sawmill gravy—was “the ideal cheap and calorie-dense fuel for sawmill workers lifting heavy logs all day long, and the perfect tool for making the era’s biscuits more palatable,” which were tougher and firmer than the biscuits of today.
Once a dish reserved for poor, working class communities, sausage gravy and biscuits can now be found within the pages of cookbooks and on restaurant menus across the country. (Though the Southern writer John T. Edge once commented to the New York Times that you’d be unlikely to find recipes for the dish “because the Midwestern and Southern cooks who are most expert at those dishes rely upon muscle memory for guidance not cookbooks.”)
It's All in the Roux
At its most basic, sausage gravy is a white sauce (or béchamel) made with drippings and other fats. Most traditional Southern gravy recipes call for browning the sausage in butter, removing the meat with a slotted spoon, then leaving the fat behind in the pan to create a roux, a mixture of fat and flour used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces. Why use a roux and not just dump plain flour into a liquid as it simmers? As Daniel wrote previously in his guide to roux, not only does cooking the raw flavor out of the starch lead to a better-tasting final dish, but it also coats each individual starch granule in fat, which “helps them disperse more evenly when combined with a liquid, like stock or milk,” reducing the risk of lumps.
There are numerous factors that help determine the flavor and consistency of the final gravy. It starts with the roux—how much starch you’re using, the kind of fat you use, how long you cook the flour in the fat, and how dark you want the roux to get—and continues on to the choice of liquid (milk? broth?) and seasonings.
A traditional sawmill gravy uses milk as the liquid and involves making a white roux, which means we’re not allowing the fat and flour mixture to color at all. This maximizes the flour's liquid-thickening ability, as the longer it's toasted, the less effective of a thickener it becomes. We also need sausage that's fatty enough to render sufficient grease to make the roux's signature paste. Since it can be hard to know how much fat your sausage will yield when shopping at the market, I've added butter as an optional ingredient in this recipe, just in case your sausage is too lean and stingy on the fat.
The fat isn't just essential for the roux, it's also necessary for the taste of the gravy. Many aroma molecules are fat-soluble, meaning much of the sausage’s flavor will render out into the pan with the liquefying fat, perfect for infusing the final gravy with rich, savory notes. That said, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and too much fat in the pan will produce a gravy that's greasy and broken—if your sausage releases ample fat, there's no need to top it up with butter.
The Right Sausage to Use
In the South, there is a much wider selection of sausages made with different herbs and seasonings available at grocery stores. In other parts of the country, though, pork sausage options tend to sway Italian or are labeled “breakfast sausage” without much explanation. I tried several brands of breakfast links—casings removed—including ones packed in-house by grocery store deli departments, as well as the bulk Jimmy Dean brand breakfast sausage.
Almost all of the breakfast sausage products included sugar, brown sugar, and/or corn syrup, and while the warm spices and sweetness definitely came through with each meat product, I needed an extra something to improve the overall flavor of the sausage. I took a note from Southern cookbook author Virginia Willis and cooked a finely diced onion with the sausage to add a savory depth to the sauce. This isn't something you'll see in many sausage and gravy recipes, but the onion is a welcome addition, its sweet flavor and silky softness a perfect complement to the breakfast sausage and gravy.
When we cook the sausage, we want to brown it well for roasted depth, courtesy of the Maillard reaction, a series of chemical reactions that occurs when proteins and sugars are transformed by heat, creating new aromas and flavors.
The Ideal Flour to Milk Ratio
How much flour you use per cup of milk will determine the thickness of your sauce. Using too much (or too little) starch can mean the difference between an unpleasantly viscous sauce and one that’s just a touch too runny. For sausage gravy, we’re looking for a silky, pourable consistency that’s still thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Using a tablespoon per cup of milk proved to be just the right amount; any more flour, and the mixture would have been too stiff to enjoy over biscuits, especially as it cools on the plate.
To get to the ideal ratio, I started with 1/3 cup of flour and kept reducing the amount of flour in the recipe until I got to a sweet spot: 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour per 1 cup of milk. This ratio resulted in a comforting, spoon-coating gravy that didn’t congeal once poured over the biscuits. If you get the ratio wrong, there’s no need to worry—the sauce is incredibly forgiving and you can loosen it with a little more liquid or thicken the sauce by allowing it to reduce.
This recipe leans on the the recipes already published to Serious Eats by Kenji and Stella for a variety of excellent biscuit options, any of which could work with this recipe. Kenji’s buttermilk biscuits get a little help from a food processor and some extra folding steps for extra flaky layers, but if you don’t have any buttermilk, consider making Stella’s light, fluffy biscuits with yogurt a try. And if you have 10 hours to spare? Well, Stella also has yeast-raised biscuits that get great flavor and structure from a long, slow rise in the fridge.
The last (and perhaps most important) component to making this dish is the timing. Why settle for eating cold biscuits with hot gravy—or vice versa—when you could have warm biscuits straight from the oven? Start warming your biscuits in a preheated oven set at about 300ºF (150ºC) when you start making the gravy, and they’ll be nice and toasty by the time your gravy is ready.
This recipe makes enough gravy for a full batch of buttermilk biscuits, which can serve four extremely hungry people, or six to eight less-hungry folks.
Biscuits and Gravy
A handful of ingredients and a well-seasoned cast iron skillet are all you need to make this Southern breakfast staple.
- 1 pound (454g) pork breakfast sausage, casings removed
- 2 tablespoons (28g) unsalted butter, as needed
- 1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces; 227g), finely diced
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (24g) all-purpose flour
- 3 cups (710ml) whole milk
- Freshly ground black pepper
- One batch of buttermilk biscuits, split (see notes)
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet set over medium heat, sauté the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until at least 1 1/2 tablespoons fat has rendered, about 6 minutes; if your sausage is lean and yields less than 1 1/2 tablespoons of fat, melt in butter, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until you have about 1 1/2 tablespoons in the skillet. Add the onion, season with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is very soft and golden and the sausage is well browned, about 7 minutes longer.
Stir in the flour until no dry bits remain, about 30 seconds.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of milk until completely absorbed. Gradually pour in remaining milk while stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring the gravy to a simmer and cook, stirring and scraping the sides and bottom of the skillet, until a silky and thick, spoon-coating sauce forms, about 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and a generous amount of black pepper.
Serve warm biscuits with hot gravy spooned over top.
10-inch cast iron skillet
This recipe is also delicious with these yogurt-based light and fluffy biscuits.
To warm up pre-baked biscuits, preheat your oven to 300ºF (150ºC) 30 minutes before you plan to make the sausage gravy. When you start making the gravy, place the biscuits on a rimmed baking sheet. Reheat in the oven while you prepare the gravy.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This is best eaten right away while the biscuits are warm and the gravy is hot off the stovetop. The gravy will thicken as it cools.