Have you ever been to a restaurant and looked longingly at the beautiful, silky, creamy sauce that has been dripped over a nice piece of meat, poultry, or fish - and wished you could do that at home? You know what? Although it looks like something only a "saucier" (or sauté chef) could churn out, the truth is that making a pan sauce is really not that hard. You can (and should) master this technique. Here's how.
Nix the Nonstick
Nonstick pans are great for so many things...just not this. Have you ever seared a piece of meat in a skillet and seen those little brown bits that get left behind? Have you thought to yourself “I just made my cleanup job more difficult.”? Well, know what? The base of a great pan sauce is in those brown bits (known as “fond”). Think of these guys as concentrated flavor bombs. Nonstick pans don’t let the fond form. They do their job and keep this "sticking" from happening. Normally a good thing. For searing meat and creating fond, not so much.
So, for a great pan sauce, the best place to begin is in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan. Stainless will give your meat a nice sear - and in doing so leave behind the brown bits that will form the base of your pan sauce.
The Maillard Reaction Kicks It Off
Thank you science! Fond is formed when meat proteins are exposed to heat, turning food that was once tender and pink into something crusty and brown. This process is called the Maillard reaction. A bunch of chemicals come out of the meat’s proteins and create the awesome browning and flavor we are used to seeing, smelling, and tasting. And it's pretty easy to create.
Begin by putting a few (1-2) tablespoons of vegetable oil in your plan and heat it over medium-high heat. The oil will begin to shimmer. Then carefully add the meat and cook it until it is browned on all sides and cooked through. Then remove it and let it rest. (This is actually something people forget way too much. Meat needs to rest after cooking.) As you turn the meat, you'll start to notice the bits that stick to the pan. When the meat is taken out of the pan, the brown bits of fond will be left behind. This fond will help build flavor in your pan sauce.
And while we often think of meats like beef and pork when it comes to searing, fish and poultry (esp. when you leave the skin on) can be used also.
Deglaze and Sauce it Up
So, now you’re staring down at a pan with a bunch of stuck-on brown bits. Seems bad, huh? Not. Just pour off any fat from the pan - but SAVE THE FOND. (It will usually stick to the pan anyway.) A little fat will be left behind. That’s okay. It actually helps flavor the sauce as well.
Turn the heat down to medium and add what they call "aromatics" (think minced onions, shallots, garlic, etc.) and add a few sturdier spices and herbs (maybe some peppercorns, thyme, rosemary). Cook until the veggies soften and the spices become fragrant (known as “bloom”). This will take 3-4 minutes. Just don’t burn ‘em.
Now you add some liquid of your choice. You don’t need much; just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Depending on the pan this is often about 1/2 cup or so. Often we use white or red wine, but other liquids like juice or broth can be used too. Let the liquid start to simmer. Once the liquid is simmering (which only takes a minute) start scraping the fond from the bottom of the pan so it mixes with the liquid (and ultimately dissolves into it). In case you care, this is called "deglazing". (So, much terminology today!) A wooden spoon is a perfect utensil to use for deglazing. It is strong enough to get these bits up from the bottom but it won’t scratch your pan like metal spatulas can. Silicone spatulas (as long as they are firm enough) can work also.
After a minute or two, add some broth (chicken, vegetable, or beef) or even some water, scrape the bottom again (just to get those last bits of fond that may be trying to hang on) and let it simmer and cook down until the sauce thickens. A good rule-of-thumb is to let the sauce reduce by 1/2 to 2/3. At this point your pan sauce is basically done.
Make it Sublime
What's one last step you can take that will take your sauce up a notch or two? The answer, you won't be surprised to hear is...butter. Try swirling in a few teaspoons of cold butter (a little at a time) into the sauce. It will add a richness, a smoothness, and a creaminess that will make your pan sauce almost restaurant-quality. Heck. Almost? It will be restaurant-quality. Season it will some salt and pepper and you’re done! You’ll have a super-delicious pan sauce that you’ll be proud of (and your local restaurant would be jealous of)!
So, if there's a meat dish in your future, I hope you will give a pan sauce a try. It's not hard to do and yet it adds so much to your dish. Your family and/or guests will love it - and might even marvel at what a great home chef you have become! Great...let 'em!
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