I think it’d be safe to say that over the last generation or so, we’ve all learned to cook more simply, quickly, healthily. We grill more. We stir fry. We’ve cut down on the fats and focused on good ingredients simply prepared. With few exceptions, we don’t make the gravy-laden and cream-of-mushroom-soup-based dishes our mothers and grandmothers did.
Somewhere in the translation, though, we lost the ability to make a sauce. By that I don’t mean a heavy, gloppy concoction that gets slathered all over the plate. I mean a spoonful or two of something flavorful and wet to enhance our simply prepared foods.
Let me say it again because doesn’t it sound nice?
A spoonful or two of something flavorful and wet to enhance our simply prepared foods.
Here’s how to make one of the world’s easiest, a pan sauce.
1. Pan-sauté something.
Could be a chicken breast. Could be a rib eye. Could be a fish fillet, a cauliflower steak, or simply a skillet-full of diced vegetables. Whatever it is, cook it so that it gets nicely browned.
2. Set the pan-sautéed food aside to rest, loosely covered.
Notice the pan (upper left photo above). If your food is nicely browned, your pan should be, too. That’s not burned stuff in the bottom there, that’s called fond and it’s culinary gold. (If it’s black, not brown, it is burned and you should forgo the idea of a pan sauce.)
3. Deglaze the pan.
By “deglaze” I mean to return the pan to the heat, add some liquid—it could be water, but why use water when you can use something more flavorful like stock, wine, or juice?—and then use that liquid, the heat of the pan, and a straight edged spoon or spatula to gently scrape up the fond (upper right photo above). How much liquid should you use? Enough to fill the pan by about one-quarter of an inch.
As the fond releases, it’ll give it’s delicious round, brown flavors to the liquid, enhancing your sauce. With just a minute or two of scraping, the bottom of the pan should be fond-free (lower left photo above)—also rendering it easy to clean.
3. Cook the liquid down to concentrate the flavors.
How much to cook it down? Until it’s about one-eighth inch deep in the pan. Remember, we’re not making gobs of gravy. We’re making a tablespoon or two of something flavorful and wet.
4. Finish your sauce with a pat of butter.
Don’t freak out—it’s not a lot of butter. And that small amount does some cool things. Because fat is a flavor carrier, the butter will enhance the flavor of your sauce. It’ll also slightly thicken the sauce and give it a silkier mouthfeel (lower right photo above—some thyme has also been added in the photo).
5. Season to taste and serve.
Add salt and pepper to taste, spoon your sauce over your sautéed food, and serve.
To enhance that basic idea, but only if you’re so inclined:
1. After you do the initial sauté and remove your browned food from the pan, add some aromatics and sauté them. For example, diced or sliced onions, shallots, or garlic. Then proceed with adding your liquid.
2. Add spices and sturdier herbs like rosemary and thyme along with the aromatics. Add more delicate herbs like cilantro and chives right after the butter.
3. Replace the butter with a different creamy ingredient. Try cream, crème fraîche, goat cheese, or blue cheese. (But avoid pre-crumbled cheese because it might not melt like not-pre-crumbled.)
You just made a pan sauce.
Pictured, Sauteed Chicken with Parsnip, Apple, and Sherry Pan Sauce.