You know those nights when you get home basically comatose after a long day, open the fridge and just stare into it? You know you need to eat dinner. You know you have some chicken breast that you probably ought to make use of. But your mind just blanks on what do with it?
This is the time when pan sauces can save the day. If you know the basic technique, and keep just a few key ingredients in stock, you can jolt yourself out of your dinner paralysis and get a really great meal on the table in about 20 minutes.
The flavor of your pan sauce is reliant on the pan you cook with. Make sure you have a heavy-bottomed non-reactive skillet on hand. The heavy bottom allows the pan to conduct heat more efficiently, creating a nice crust on the meat. And non-reactive means that it won’t react with acidic foods (like wine) and give off a funky metallic taste. While I love cast-iron, now is not the time to use it. Try stainless or hard-anodized aluminum.
I also don’t recommend using a nonstick pan, unless you’re cooking really delicate fish. Here’s why. For a deeply flavored pan sauce, you need your food to stick to the pan while it cooks. After you’re done sauteing, you’ll scrape up that stuff to develop major flavor in your sauce. It’s called the “fond”. A nonstick pan won’t allow the food to stick and create that fond, so your sauces will never be as richly flavored.
And no worries on clean-up. The beauty of a pan sauce is that it whisks away the stuff that you’d typically need to scrub off.
Beyond the fond, the sauce is comprised of two main elements:
- Liquid – Add a combo of wine, liquor, juice, vinegar, stock, or broth to the pan to loosen the fond, commonly referred to as deglazing the pan. Then cook and let about half the liquid evaporate, referred to as reducing the sauce.
- Fat – A bit of cold butter or cream, added at the very end, gives your sauce a gorgeous shine and rounds out all the flavors. (Food nerds: this is called “mounting the sauce.”)
You can also add some other ingredients to liven it all up:
- Aromatics like minced garlic, shallot, or ginger
- Mushrooms, olives, capers, fruit, nuts and other chunkier ingredients
- Herbs, mustard, hot sauce and other condiments. (Use fresh herbs)
A note on stock: Often stock and broth are interchangeable for casual cooking at home. Stock is made with bones, which gives it more body and flavor than broth. Broth typically has added salt, while stock should not. Regardless, taste the sauce before adding any more salt, as many commercial stocks and broths have quite a bit of salt added already. In a pinch, stock concentrate like Better than Bouillon will work. But a good quality stock will make your pan sauce taste amazing - consider freezing it in 1 cup containers so you always have some available.
A note on wine and liquor: If you're using alcohol, deglaze the pan and let it evaporate almost fully before adding stock. Otherwise the sauce may retain an overtly boozy flavor. Also, I feel obligated to say that you should take care when you add any alcohol – liquids with high alcohol content can catch fire over high heat.
A note on spices: Rather than add spices to a pan sauce, I recommend creating a rub for your protein that you’ll add along with salt and pepper while seasoning. Cooking the spices this way releases their oils right into the meat and gets everything smelling great.
Pan sauce should be intensely flavored. 1 cup/240 mL is more than enough for four people. So, for four servings, depending on what you decide to add, these proportions should work:
- 0.5 cup / 120 mL wine and .75 cup / 180 mL stock
- 1 small shallot or garlic clove, minced
- 1 tsp minced ginger, soy sauce, honey, vinegar, lemon, lime, mustard, or fresh herbs
- 1 Tbs butter or cream
- Season your protein with salt and pepper. Sear it in canola or grapeseed oil (or half oil, half butter) until done. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
- Turn the heat to medium high, and deglaze with your liquid, scraping up the fond from the bottom of the pan. Reduce by about half, or more for a deeper flavor. If you’re using alcohol, add it first and reduce til nearly evaporated, then add the stock and reduce by about half.
- Turn off the heat and taste it. Add some salt and pepper, if necessary.
- Swirl in a pat of cold butter or a touch of cream.
If you’re using some of the other ingredients:
- Garlic, shallot, ginger, mushrooms and any other ingredient that really needs to be cooked through: Before Step 2, heat a bit of oil or butter and saute before deglazing
- Chunky ingredients like olives that don’t need to be cooked: Add during Step 4 after deglazing
- Herbs, lemon/lime juice, vinegar, mustard: Add during Step 4 after deglazing
For a nice presentation, consider pooling some sauce under your protein when you plate it.
Great Pan Sauce Combos
Marsala: Shallots, mushrooms, marsala wine, chicken stock
Piccata: Shallots, white wine, chicken stock, capers, lemon juice, minced parsley
Preserved Lemon: Garlic, white wine, chicken stock, minced preserved lemon, sliced green olives, chopped cilantro or mint
Balsamic: Shallots, balsamic vinegar, chicken stock, honey, minced rosemary or thyme
*If you have time, many of these sauces will turn out even better if lightly dredge the chicken in flour before sautéeing it. Then add the chicken back into the pan sauce after Step 5. The flour will give the sauce some body. If you’re more concerned with cutting calories, skip this step.
Mustard Cream: Shallots, vermouth, chicken stock, whole grain or Dijon mustard, cream
Grape: Shallots, halved grapes, red wine, chicken stock, red wine vinegar, minced tarragon
Cherry Port: Shallots, port, chicken stock, cherries, minced thyme
Mushroom: Shallots, mushrooms, red wine or madeira, beef stock
Soy Ginger: Garlic, ginger, sherry, chicken or beef stock, honey, soy sauce, sesame oil, diced green onions
Veracruz: Garlic, white wine, chicken stock, diced tomatoes, sliced olives, chopped cilantro
Orange Ginger: Ginger, orange juice (use like wine), chicken stock, soy sauce, sesame oil
Play with what's in your pantry and your fridge. Play with your proportions. Regardless, dinner seems much less daunting when you know how to make a solid pan sauce on the fly.