How to Make a Simple Pan Sauce at Home
"If you want to elevate your cooking skills to a new level and up your culinary game, learn how to make a simple pan sauce."
With this technique in your bag of tricks, you can turn a simple pan-fried steak into a mouth-watering meal, a plain boneless chicken breast into a delicious feast, or a modest pork chop into a scrumptious banquet.
OK, maybe I'm stretching a bit but check this out.
Pan Sauces History
Many restaurant-quality sauces are based on the classic mother sauces of French cuisine. However, the hold of "Cuisine Classique" began to wane before World War II and fell out of favor in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That's not to say that there is anything wrong with classic French sauces; there isn't. But chefs and diners' palates seemed to tire of rich, roux-thickened sauces.
Chefs also became more interested in focusing on local foods and highlighting their flavors rather than perhaps masking them with a heavy sauce. And thus, the pan sauce was born.
A pan sauce is simply deglazing and reducing the browned bits (fond) left in the pan after cooking.
Since most proteins need to rest for at least a few minutes before being sliced and served, most pan sauces, especially in modest quantities, can be made a la minute or at the last minute while the rest of the meal finishes cooking.
For a lighter sauce, you can substitute beef or chicken stock for demi-glace, but you may have to reduce the sauce a bit longer and enrich it with a tab of butter or cream at the end of the cooking process.
The Pros Use This Technique
Restaurant chefs use this technique all the time. They cook something. Usually, a protein, like meat or fish, is in a sauté pan over pretty high heat until it's done and leaves a bunch of brown caramelized bits of "stuff" in the pan.
You look at this "stuff" in the pan and say, "Now how am I going to clean this 'stuff' off the pan? What a mess! I wish I used a nonstick pan."
Before you reach for your green scrubby pad, keep reading.
Fond - What Is It? - What Is It Good For?
The "stuff" has a name. Well, it has two names. First, most people call it "sucs," which comes from the French word sucre or sugar. This is because bits of caramelized sugars, proteins, and carbohydrates are left in the pan, plus some rendered fats.
In America, we sometimes call this "stuff" fond which is the French word for "base" or "foundation."
Everywhere else, fond is the sauce made after deglazing the sucs with some form of liquid to help loosen it up. So what I call a pan sauce, others would call fond, but I'm going to have to work at it to remember to call it sucs because I've been calling it fond for 20 years.
Whether you call it fond or sucs, you should be thrilled when this stuff is stuck to your saute pan because it is packed with incredible flavors. If you worry about how difficult it will be to clean the pan, forget about it.
A little wine, stock, or even water and a wooden spoon can scrape it right off the bottom of the pan and make an incredible sauce.
This is called deglazing and can be done with wine, brandy, fortified wines, stock, cider, fruit juices, or, most typically, a combination of two.
Be careful if you use wine to remove the pan from the heat, so the alcohol doesn't ignite and blow up in your face. I've spoken with chefs who have seen this happen.
Reduce the Liquids
The next steps are to reduce the liquid in the pan and add several pats of butter to thicken and enhance the sauce's flavor. You would be amazed if you knew how much butter professional chefs use in restaurants to "enhance" flavor.
I sometimes think they make their dishes too rich because I can feel it when I get home, but it's so good when you're eating it. It makes sense, though. Fats give foods a fantastic body and carry a lot of flavors.
Now those are just the basics. To create more complexity to the sauce, you'll want to add some aromatics like garlic or shallots for a subtle but additional layer of flavor.
Then you might want to add additional ingredients such as mushrooms, mustard, chutneys, herbs, and/or spices to give even more complexity and flavor.
This is how many classic sauces with all the fancy French names are made. However, adding different ingredients to stock reductions can create the same sauces at home.
Depending on the level you want to take it to, it can be quick and easy or a little more time-consuming and complex. But no matter what you decide to do, you will end up with a more incredible, flavorful, delicious result than if you didn't make the sauce.
The Right Pan
As mentioned above, you want the caramelized brown "stuff" to stick to the pan. So it wouldn't make any sense to use a pan with a nonstick surface. But, of course, that only defeats the goal of creating that wonderfully flavored fond.
I have also read that you should stay away from cast iron pans because the iron reacts to food high in acid, like red wine, and gives off a metallic taste. Although I love cooking foods in my cast iron skillet, stay away if you plan to make a pan sauce.
Therefore, the best pan for sautéing and making a pan sauce would be a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive sauté pan. I like Caphalon pans, but there are many good ones, including All-Clad and Viking.
Check out How to Choose a Good Saute Pan to learn more about them and what's available on the market.
What About the Size of the Pan?
Whenever you are sautéing anything, you want to ensure you give the meat, chicken, or fish enough room in the pan to allow it to sear and prevent steaming. The rule of thumb is to leave at least ¼ to ½ inch between pieces.
On the other hand, you don't want a pan that's too big or the ingredients tend to burn.
I have a 10-inch, 3-quart Caphalon sauté pan that works great for my family's cooking.
Nor do the powdered products you find all over your supermarket shelves that are nothing more than powdered cornstarch and salt. And please don't even think about using a bouillon cube.
Check out my article called Making Incredible Sauces At Home, where I list some ways to obtain good quality stock and stock reductions. Also, check out my stock reductions, where I list the best source for quality reductions, including demi glace, lobster stock, lamb stock, etc.
An essential technique for making quick and delicious pan sauces is sautéing. In my opinion, it all starts there.
Please check my How to Sauté page to explore how to sauté correctly. Once you learn how to sauté, you will be able to cook meat, fish, and chicken to perfection and make delicious pan sauces to go with them.
Depending on how much time you have on your hands or how involved you want to get, you can make a quick, simple pan sauce or a classic pan sauce with all the additional layers of flavor.
How Much Liquid?
Most of the time, I start with half a cup of wine and half a cup of stock and reduce them by half. That's a general rule of thumb because I'm looking for a particular desired thickness when the sauce is done.
A better gauge to tell when the sauce is thick enough is when it coats a metal spoon. Yes, I love cooking with wooden spoons, but you want to use a metal spoon.
The reduction ratio will differ depending on the other ingredients you add to the sauce, including butter, mushrooms, cream, etc. As always, it just takes a little practice in cooking, and you will get comfortable with your amounts.
It also pays to remember that if you are cooking for your family, you need to cook to their taste. Since nobody knows your family's taste better than you, you control how much you reduce your sauce. The more you reduce a sauce, the more intense it will be. You are in the driver's seat.
Classic Pan Sauces Vs. Quick Pan Sauces
The difference is simple. A simple pan sauce gets its flavor from deglazing the pan with your liquid(s) once the meat has been removed, reducing the liquids by a least half, and adding butter to thicken and add flavor.
A classic pan sauce will follow the same steps but add more complexity by adding other ingredients throughout the process.
I prefer taking the longer route because adding some shallots or garlic doesn't take that much time, maybe another 3 - 4 minutes.
To add some mushrooms while the sauce is reducing isn't going to increase the total cooking time that much, either. But, of course, if you need to speed up the process, you can always decrease the amount of deglazing liquid, which will also decrease the sauce's richness.
Then there are the nights when I don't have the time or energy to go the extra distance, so I take some shortcuts and make a quick pan sauce. It still tastes great and is better than no sauce at all.
For two example recipes for the same sauce, one classic and the other quick, check out Red Wine Pan Sauce.
Making a Simple Pan Sauce, Step by Step
1. Sauté your protein of choice until done. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
2. Turn the heat to medium-high, and deglaze with a flavorful liquid like wine or fruit juice, scraping the pan with a spoon to dissolve all the fond. Reduce until there is a couple of tablespoons left.
3. Add stock or demi-glace to the pan and reduce over medium to medium-high heat.
4. When the reduction is a bit syrupy, remove it from the heat.
5. Taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.
6. Swirl in a pat of butter or a splash of cream to finish the sauce, round out the flavors, and give it some added body.
7. Since pan sauces can be intensely flavored, you only need one or two tablespoons per serving. So, to make a pan sauce for a family of four, you will only need about ½ cup of sauce.
In Step 2, add a little fat and sauté some minced shallot or garlic until softened and just starting to brown before deglazing.
In Step 2, add minced, sliced, or diced mushrooms along with the shallot or garlic.
In Step 2, stir in some mustard, chutney, or another flavor accent
In Step 4, stir in some fresh minced herbs.
Of course, the trick is to use complementary flavors. For example, to make an Italian-inspired pan sauce, you might use a mixture of stock and Chianti, perhaps stir in some tomato paste along with some garlic, flavor it with basil and/or oregano, and finish the sauce with some olive oil.
For a French twist, consider adding minced shallot, stirring in some Dijon mustard, using stock and white wine for the deglazing liquid, and flavoring with some tarragon, lavender, or Herbes de Provence.
You can make a great sauce with Asian flavors by sautéing some fresh ginger and stirring some peanut butter in Step 2, flavoring with some five spice powder, and deglazing with lemony chicken stock. Finally, finish the sauce with some toasted sesame oil.
Remember, a quick pan sauce uses a series of techniques—sauteing, deglazing, reducing, and enriching—and not so much about following a strict recipe.