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Pan Sauces 101

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2003

Just seared some steaks or cutlets? Don't wash that skillet! Here's how to use it to make a rich, savory pan sauce.

The Sauce

A pan sauce—made with just a handful of ingredients and in a matter of minutes—can look and taste nearly as rich as a classic, labor-intensive French sauce. The base of a pan sauce is the fond, or browned bits, clinging to the bottom of the skillet after sautéing or searing meat, poultry, or fish. Once the food is removed from the skillet, aromatics such as minced shallots can be sautéed; then, in a process called deglazing, liquid—usually wine, homemade stock (or canned broth), or broth—is added and the fond is scraped up. The liquid is simmered and reduced to concentrate flavors, thickened and, in a final (sometimes optional) step, the reduction is enriched and slightly thickened by whisking in butter.

If the recipe calls for canned broth (for the sake of convenience, Cook's recipes almost always do), it's best to use a low-sodium variety because reduction can result in overwhelming saltiness. (In a tasting published in the March/April 2000 issue of Cook's, tasters preferred Swanson's Natural Goodness chicken broth.) Also avoid the "cooking wines" sold in grocery stores. They contain considerable amounts of salt and are generally unappealing in flavor.

The Pan

If you intend to make a pan sauce, opt for a traditional skillet. A nonstick skillet will not develop fond to the same degree as a traditional skillet will, and, because fond supplies a pan sauce with richness and depth of flavor, a nonstick skillet will make a less flavorful pan sauce. Also important is the size of the skillet. It should comfortably hold the food being cooked. If it is overcrowded, the food will steam and will fail to create much fond.

If traditional (unenameled) cast-iron is your cookware of choice, make sure the pan is well-seasoned and free of rust. When tested in our kitchen, a sauce made in a well-seasoned cast-iron pan tasted fine. Poorly maintained cast iron, however, will yield a metallic-tasting sauce.

The Setup

Because pan sauces cook quickly, before you begin to cook it is essential to complete your mise en place—that is, have all necessary ingredients and utensils collected and ready before you begin cooking your meat, poultry, or fish. Here are the things we recommend having ready to use:

1. Just-seared meat

After searing the meat, poultry, or fish, transfer it to a plate and tent it loosely with foil to keep it warm while you are making the sauce. A loose seal is recommended because it will help to keep any crust that has formed from turning soggy.

2. Liquids

Leave liquid ingredients (such as wine, broth, juices) in a measuring cup. Once emptied the measuring cup should be kept close at hand; the reduced liquid can be poured back into the cup toward the end of simmering to gauge if it has been adequately reduced.

3. Salt and Pepper

Tasting for and correcting seasoning is the last step before serving. Keep salt in a ramekin so that it is easy to pinch or measure out in small amounts.

4. Small Bowl

Have ready a small empty bowl or container to catch excess fat that must be poured off before you begin the sauce.

5. Whisk

For maximum efficiency and easy maneuverability, use a medium-size whisk with flexible wires that can get into the rounded corners of the skillet.

6. Aromatics

Aromatics include garlic and onion, but in many pan sauces shallots are preferred. If "minced" is specified, make sure they are minced finely and evenly; this will cause them to release maximum flavor, and their texture will be less obtrusive in the finished sauce.

7. Herbs and Flavorings

Herbs are sometimes used in sprig form, to be removed from the sauce before serving. Delicate herbs such as parsley and tarragon are usually chopped and added to the sauce at the end so that they do not discolor. Other flavorings, such as mustard, lemon juice, capers, and chopped olives are often added at the end for maximum flavor impact.

8. Wooden Utensil

A wooden utensil works best to scrape up the fond while deglazing, because it is rigid. A wooden spatula is ideal because its flat edge can scrape up more fond than the rounded edge of a spoon.

9. Butter

So that it will melt quickly, cut the butter into tablespoon-size chunks. Cold butter is easier to incorporate into a sauce than softened butter and it makes for a sturdier emulsion that is more resistant to separation.

The mise en place for creating pan sauces.