Pan sauces are quick, thank goodness, because you don’t want your main ingredient to cool off while you’re fussing. The choreography is actually quite beautiful: Saute, then whip up the sauce while the star rests (which makes it juicier).
The process has two parts: 1) capturing flavor deposited in the pan by the ingredient you just cooked, and 2) enhancing that flavor.
The capture part happens by “deglazing,” which means dissolving the cooked-on meat juices using liquid, from tap water to champagne. Those juices are vital because they’ve undergone chemical transformations during cooking (Maillard reactions) that make them super savory. You’ve heard the term “bottom of the pan flavor,” right? The enhancement comes through adding more liquid, plus accents, and reducing that liquid until it has concentrated in flavor and texture.
So here we go. The steps are simple, but the pace is brisk, so please read all the way through and gather your ingredients before you turn on your burner:
Pick the right pan. Yours should have a wide, heavy base that will cook evenly and promote quick evaporation. Please don’t use nonstick; we want the juices to stick! Stainless will let you see the color of your liquids better, also.
Choose what you’ll put in it. Pretty much anything that gives off juices can produce a pan sauce. Meat and poultry, of course, but fish, vegetables, mushrooms and even fruit are good candidates. (You can also make a pan sauce without any pan drippings, but you won’t get the same complex flavors.)
Start by cooking it right. You not only want to cook your ingredient (let’s call it a “chop” from now on) to the right doneness, you want to encourage a lot of juices to brown on the pan’s surface. Start by blotting moisture with a paper towel right before seasoning. If the chop is too dewy, that moisture will cause steaming when it hits the hot pan. We don’t want steam; we want dry heat to sear and brown the meat.
Coat the pan with a tiny bit of oil, get it very hot, put the chops in the pan and then RESIST THE URGE to tinker. You might have a cool pair of tongs, but don’t use them just yet. Let the chops sit undisturbed for about a minute to develop a browned surface. This prevents them from sticking to the pan, and it encourages the sought-after cooked-on juices, which in a French kitchen is called the “fond” — meaning “base” — and is pronounced as in “I’m very fond of runny cheese.”
When cooked, transfer your chops to a plate (pulling the skillet off the heat so you don’t burn the fond), tent them loosely with foil and let them rest while you make the sauce.
Protect the browned bits and add to them. Pour off any rendered fat, but take care to preserve that fond. If you wish, add finely chopped shallot or onion, garlic, fresh chile, bell pepper, something to add fragrance and flavor — an “aromatic.” Saute just until softened but not browned, again taking care to not burn the fond. (I’m going to make T-shirts that say “Don’t Burn the Fond.”)
Deglaze, twice. This is the dramatic part. I first deglaze with a “strong” liquid to provide a nervy backbone to the flavor, such as wine, vinegar or a spirit such as brandy. Then I add a second liquid — the “body” liquid — which mellows the intensity of the first liquid and gives you a greater volume of sauce. Good body liquids are chicken or vegetable broth, apple cider and — for a luxury effect — cream.
To deglaze, adjust the heat so your pan is hot but you’re not going to burn the … you know. Then pour in your strong liquid (see below for amounts). It should sizzle energetically, but it shouldn’t evaporate immediately; if that happens, add a spoonful or two of water to reconstitute. Stir and scrape the pan so that the juices are fully dissolved.
Reduce. This simply means to boil a liquid so the water evaporates and the flavor compounds remain, thereby concentrating flavor and texture. Reduce your strong liquid to the point that it loses any harshness (always important when deglazing with wine), but not so much that you have no volume of liquid left; you want about a tablespoon.
Now add your body liquid and reduce to about a third of the original volume (if your chop has given off some juices as it rests, pour them into the pan, making sure you bring them to a boil as well). Taste to find the perfect point, but generally more reduction is better than less, even if you end up with only a few spoonfuls of sauce.
Add your extras. Now is the time to add Dijon mustard, capers, lemon zest, fresh herbs or, heck, cacao nibs if you want. Just be sure the flavoring ingredients don’t need further cooking, because you’re almost finished. The sauce will have enough body at that point to leave a clear path when you draw your spatula through it.
Enrich. The final step, which is optional but I recommend it, is to add a touch of cold butter, cream, creme fraiche, maybe even finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, which will round out any sharp edges, unlock a few more flavors and produce a luscious texture.
Taste and adjust. You’re not quite done. As with anything you cook, do one final flavor check to dial it in: Taste, and a touch more salt, a grind of pepper, maybe a squeeze of lemon juice or more butter (always the right answer).
The brilliance of a pan sauce is its ability to adapt and improvise, so as you grow more comfortable with the process, you’ll devise your own flavor combinations. To get you started, here are three of my favorites, with approximate amounts.
Quantities are for 2 servings, or about 12 ounces of boneless meat or poultry, such as pork tenderloin, pork chops, chicken thighs or breasts, filet mignon or other beef steak, or lamb rib chops:
Orange-Chile Pan Sauce: 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chile, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, ¼ cup sherry vinegar or other slightly sweet vinegar, ¾ cup fresh orange juice, 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro or basil, 1 to 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, salt and pepper.
Mustard-Cream Pan Sauce: 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot, ¼ cup brandy, cognac or dry white wine, ¾ cup low-sodium or homemade chicken broth, 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard, ½ teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary, ¼ cup heavy cream or creme fraiche, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt and lots of black pepper
Lemon-Caper Pan Sauce: 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot, ¼ cup dry white wine, ¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, 2 tablespoons drained capers, 1 to 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter.
Holmberg is the author of “Modern Sauces” (Chronicle, 2012) and co-author with Joshua McFadden of “Six Seasons: A New Way to Cook Vegetables” (Artisan, 2017).
More from Voraciously: