Technique: Pan Sauces

Kitchen Magic

Chicken Piccata
Chicken Piccata. Copyright 2009 Kevin D Weeks

There is nothing so deserving of the term "kitchen magic" as a pan sauce. These sauces can turn a ho-hum meal into something exceptional - making a dish that's bland, dry, and boring flavorful, moist, and exciting. They're dead easy to make and take no more than 7 - 10 minutes to produce.

Pan sauces are typically made from the brown bits (fond) left in a skillet after cooking a steak, fish filet, pork chop or chicken breast.

This fond is a result of what are called the Mailliard reactions. These are a series for chemical changes, like caramelization is, but based on proteins insead of sugars. The fond is packed with refined and concentrated meat flavors - the perfect base for a savory sauce.

Note that you can make a pan sauce even without fond as I do in the recipe for Broiled Trout with Lemon Cream Sauce. But to produce great fond you should avoid using a non-stick skillet because the whole idea of non-stick is avoiding fond. Instead, use a stainless steel or cast iron skillet.

Once the meat is done, you put it aside and add an aromatic or two to the skillet. The most common aromatics are onion, shallots and garlic - although carrots and celery also qualify. Use a more powerful aromatic, garlic for instance, with a more power meat such as pork or beef and something milder like shallots with fish. (Note, because chicken tends to be so bland I often use garlic with it.) Aromatics can also be combined.

The aromatics are cooked over medium heat until translucent - 3 to 5 minutes - then the pan is deglazed. Deglazing means you add your chosen liquid to the pan, scrape up and dissolve the fond. The liquid can be wine, juice, stock, cream or broth. I like red wine and beef stock with beef; dry vermouth or white wine and chicken stock with chicken and pork; and white wine and lemon juice with fish.

I also usually reduce the liquid by about half to intensify flavors.

The next step is adding flavorings such as capers, lemon juice, herbs and spices. Let your meat and liquid choices guide your selection of flavorings. Thyme is great with beef and red wine; sage with pork and vermouth; capers and tarragon are great with fish and chicken.

If you breaded or floured the meat before pan-frying it the sauce will thicken on it's own. You can also make a slurry (1 teaspoon of corn starch or arrowroot mixed with 2 teaspoons of cold water). Flour isn't a good choice for a slurry because of the taste. Other options for thickening are heavy cream or you can pull the pan off the heat and swirl in ice-cold butter.

Here are a few recipes featuring pan sauces:

  • Chicken Picatta: In this classic Italian dish the chicken is lightly floured (the thickener, which is cooked so it doesn't taste raw) and dredged in parmesan cheese, vermouth and lemon juice provide the liquid and capers the flavor.
  • Pork Medallions with Apple Cream Sauce: For this recipe, you brown pork medallions, then some fresh apple, and then add apple brandy and heavy cream and reduce the sauce to thicken it.
  • Rib Eye with Pan Sauce: In this
  • case you pan roast a rib eye steak, them make a sauce using red wine and shallots and thyme. Blue cheese provides another flvor punch and thickens the sauce a bit.

Here's a video on making pan sauces...