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 cooking 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. The hold of "Cuisine Classique," however, began to wane before World War II and really fell out of favor in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
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 very rich, roux-thickened sauces.
Chefs also became more interested in focusing on local foods and in highlighting their flavors rather than perhaps masking them with a heavy sauce. And thus, the pan sauce was born.
At its simplest, a pan sauce is a simple deglazing and reduction of 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 when made 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 hit of butter or cream at the end of the cooking process.
The Pros Use This Technique
Restaurants chefs use this technique all the time. They cook something, usually a protein like meat or fish, 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 to yourself, "Now how am I going to clean this 'stuff' off the pan? What a mess! I wish I used a non stick 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 actually it has two names. Most people call it "sucs" which comes from the French word sucre or sugar. This is because what's left in the pan are tiny bits of caramelized sugars, proteins and carbohydrates plus some rendered fats.
In America we sometime 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 is 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 are worrying about how difficult it is going to be to clean the pan, forget about it.
A little wine, stock or even water and a wooden spoon and you 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.
Just 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 flavor of the sauce. If you ever knew how much butter professional chefs use in restaurants to "enhance" flavor, you would be amazed.
I sometimes think they make their dishes too rich because I can feel it when I get home, but then again, it's so good when you're eating it. It makes sense, though. Fats not only give foods wonderful body, they also carry a lot of flavor.
Now those are just the basics. To create some 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 some additional ingredients such as mushrooms, mustard, chutneys, herbs and/or spices to give even more complexity and flavor.
This is how many of the classic sauces with all the fancy French names are made. By adding different ingredients to stock reductions, you 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 which way you decide to go, you will end up with a more incredible, flavorful, delicious result than if you didn't make the sauce at all.
The Right Pan
As I 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 non stick surface. That only defeats the goal of creating that wonderful 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 are planning to make a pan sauce.
The best pan for sautéing and making a pan sauce therefore would be a heavy bottomed, non reactive sauté pan. I happen to like Caphalon pans but there are so many good ones out there these days 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 make sure you give the meat, chicken, or fish enough room in the pan to allow it to sear and to prevent steaming. Rule of thumb is 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 have a tendency to burn.
I have a 10 inch, 3 quart Caphalon sauté pan that works great for my family cooking.
Nor do the powdered products that you find all over your supermarket shelves that are nothing more that powdered corn starch 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 stock reductions including demi glace, lobster stock, lamb stock, etc.
A really important 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 properly. Once you learn how to sauté, you will not only be able to cook meat, fish, and chicken to perfection, but also 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 a half a cup of wine and half a cup of stock and reduce them both by half. That's just a general rule of thumb because what I'm really looking for is a certain 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 in this case you want to use a metal spoon.
Depending on the other ingredients you add to the sauce including butter, mushrooms, cream, etc., the reduction ratio will differ. As always in cooking, it just takes a little practice 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 are in control of 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 will add more complexity by adding other ingredients throughout the process.
I prefer taking the longer route because the added step to add 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. If you really need to speed up the process, you can always decrease the amount of deglazing liquid but this will also decrease the richness of the sauce.
Then there are the nights when I just 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 couple of tablespoon 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 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 really 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 other flavor accent
In Step 4, stir in some fresh minced herbs.
Of course the trick is to use complementary flavors. 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 even make a great sauce with Asian flavors by sautéing some fresh ginger and stirring in some peanut butter in Step 2, flavoring with some five spice powder and deglazing with a lemony chicken stock. Finish the sauce with some toasted sesame oil.
Remember, a quick pan sauce is about using a series of techniques—sauteing, deglazing, reducing and enriching—and not so much about following a strict recipe.