Make Ahead

Southern Tomato Gravy

August 11, 2013
1 Rating
Photo by Rocky Luten
Author Notes

This isn't the kind of "gravy" or "sauce" that you serve with pasta, just a creamy white sauce with chopped tomatoes, cooked up in a cast iron skillet and served over split buttermilk biscuits. It's the kind of comfort food that you put together in late summer, when the homegrown tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill are overripe and plentiful.
I first read about a tomato gravy in the classic cookbook "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. These two top Southern chefs served tomato gravy as a side dish for buttermilk fried chicken and in fact, used the ham-flavored drippings from the chicken to make the gravy. There are times when you want tomato gravy, but not fried chicken, so I made it with butter instead.
This is a warm-your-belly up dish that's just right in summer when your garden (or the local farm stand) is full of red, ripe tomatoes. In winter, use good quality canned tomatoes. And, by all means, pick up a copy of "Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf, 2003) and discover classic Southern recipes for the best of summer produce.

June 2018: For an updated headnote, I reached out to Scott Peacock for his thoughts on tomato gravy, and here was his response:

“I remember the first time I made tomato gravy, it was years and years ago in Atlanta. Miss Lewis and I had become friends but it was before she moved to Atlanta and years before we became housemates.

“I was still cooking at the Georgia Governor's mansion and had only recently devoted myself completely to the cause of Southern cooking. I think Miss Lewis was the one who suggested I try my hand at tomato gravy and I found a reference to it in a 1912 Southeastern cookbook that my mother gave me.”

He goes on, “I do think it is best made with fresh garden tomatoes but I appreciate that it is divine in the dead of winter made with top quality canned.” I agree with this. I usually make tomato gravy in summer, but it’s a wonderful dish on cold days when you have a couple cans of tomatoes in the pantry and a hankering for biscuits.

So, where did tomato gravy originate? Chef Peacock continues:

“When Miss Lewis mentioned tomato gravy to me the first time, she said she thought of it as an Alabama recipe. I'm not sure why and at that time she had not yet even been to Alabama. But she knew I was from there and had heard me talk about Slocomb tomatoes, in Geneva County near Hartford where I grew up. That might have been the reason. Regardless, I will always be grateful to her for that suggestion and of course a great deal more.”

(Slocomb tomatoes are new to me, a Southern specialty like Alabama’s famous Chilton County peaches and Georgia’s Vidalia onions.)

~ Many thanks to Scott Peacock for sharing his memories about tomato gravy.
Lucy Mercer

Test Kitchen Notes

If healthful eating or an aversion to canned sauces has you passing on gravy, this recipe will quickly get you back on the wagon (or in the boat). Although Southern in name, the genius tomato base keeps the flavor rich while staying light. The instructions are simple enough for a weeknight dinner and extra shortcuts (like skipping the peeling and seeding of the tomato, if you don’t mind extra “texture”) help further cut down on effort and time. As for substitutions, one tablespoon of oil versus two of butter provides equally creamy results. And when deciding how to serve, there’s of course buttermilk biscuits. But don’t forget that a plate of polenta, pulled chicken, or a simple fried egg also beg to be smothered. —Sodium Girl

  • Serves 4
Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 cup milk
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter and sauté onion until softened. Add garlic, salt, and pepper and cook for another minute. (I start with about a 1/4 teaspoon of salt and maybe 3 turns of the peppermill.)
  2. Sprinkle the flour over and cook, stirring well for another couple minutes.
  3. Stir in the chopped tomato and cook for five more minutes. Slowly add the milk and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning, adjust. Serve warm with split buttermilk biscuits and a side of bacon.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Michelle Giroux
    Michelle Giroux
  • Lucy Mercer
    Lucy Mercer
  • tricia
    tricia
  • Nick Kenny
    Nick Kenny
I write about gardening and cooking. Garden to Table is my jam. And jam is my jam, too.

    6 Reviews

    Michelle G. August 30, 2020
    How about making in a Crock-Pot? I've not found one.
     
    tricia June 1, 2019
    K, I'm from Louisiana and before that, Texas. I never had a recipe for this, and my Mother didn't introduce me either...I sort of instinctively made Tomato Gravy when my girls were growing up and we all worship the tomato, favorite family food...so I think I just "heard" a reference to tomato gravy and took it upon myself to make this..I, again, instinctively started with a rich brown roux..., throw in onions for the best smell of your life, tomatoes (canned most of the time, yes fresh when possible unseeded and unpeeled) and used water not milk. My daughters still speak of it...
     
    Nick K. September 2, 2018
    We loved this! I would say the serving size is closer to 2 portions, and it seems easy enough to double. We had them over biscuits and scrambled eggs. I skipped peeling the tomatoes, instead coring them and clearing out most of the seeds. Then I chopped them so they were about twice the size of a diced tomato. They cooked down a bit as well. I let things cook a little longer than instructed so the flavors would have plenty of time to develop and the gravy had ample time to thicken. Great! Would make again.
     
    JJGood June 25, 2018
    Could I make this with buttermilk? Would that be too crazy?
     
    Author Comment
    Lucy M. June 25, 2018
    Thanks for your comment! Now that I have buttermilk on hand for the biscuits, I've wondered the same thing. If I tried this, I would substitute a 1/4 cup buttermilk for 1/4 cup whole milk, and see how it works. Let me know if you try this ~
     
    Author Comment
    Lucy M. August 16, 2013
    I just realized that I didn't add salt and pepper to the ingredients list. I start with about a 1/4 teaspoon of salt and maybe 3 turns of the peppermill.