Pan sauces and gravies are the classic way of finishing off a meat dish. They use the drippings, or fond, remaining in the bottom of a pan after cooking meat to use every bit of flavor. These drippings are removed from the bottom of the pan by adding liquid and stirring, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon or wire whisk, to dissolve the bits. Then the sauce is boiled to reduce and intensify the flavor, and finally, butter, cream, or olive oil are added to make the sauce creamy and smooth.
The fond is so flavorful because it is a combination of new compounds made during the heating of meat fibers. There are both protein and sugar molecules in meat. When these molecules are heated, they break down and combine to form new compounds that are very flavorful, in a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction. That's why it's so important to use every last bit of the drippings in a pan sauce or gravy.
For liquids, you can use chicken stock, beef broth, wine, water, or fruit juice with a bit of lemon juice. When you add the liquid, scrape the bottom of the pan with a heavy spoon to make sure all of the drippings are released. The sauce must cook over high heat to reduce quickly so the meat (which is waiting on the side, covered with foil, or in a low oven) doesn't dry out or get cold. I like adding a tablespoon of butter to finish the sauce, but you can also use heavy cream or olive oil.
Follow these steps every time you want to make a pan sauce or gravy.
- 2 tablespoons drippings
- 1-1/2 cup stock (or wine, or water)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon flour (or cornstarch)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt (or more if needed)
- 2 tablespoons butter (or cream, or olive oil)
- After you have browned the meat and removed it from the pan, there will be bits of meat and browned fat stuck to the bottom of the pan. You may want to skim off some of the liquid fat before you start making the pan sauce. Make sure you have about 2 tablespoons of drippings in the pan.
- Add 1-1/2 cups stock, wine, or water to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, scraping with a spoon or wire whisk to loosen the drippings from the pan.
- In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup water with the flour and mix until smooth.
- Stir flour mixture into the pan and bring to a boil. Boil for about 5 minutes to reduce the sauce and so the sauce thickens.
- Add salt to taste. Keep tasting the sauce; when you have added enough salt, the flavor will suddenly blossom.
- Remove pan from heat and whisk in butter, cream, or olive oil until smooth. Serve immediately.