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Better Pan Sauce? Ignore the Rules

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2015

We decided to break all the rules in order to develop more fond and, therefore, better pan sauces.

A pan sauce takes advantage of the flavorful browned bits, or fond, left in a pan after searing food. There are rules we follow when making such a sauce, but we decided to see what would happen if we broke all those rules.

EXPERIMENT

We browned four bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts following our usual protocol: patting the chicken dry, heating 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high until smoking, and then searing the chicken, starting skin side down, until both sides were deeply browned. We repeated the test three more times, skipping the step of patting the chicken dry for one, reducing the oil to 1/4 teaspoon for the second, and adding the chicken to the pan when the oil was only shimmering for the third. We also tested a batch for which we made all three of these changes at once.

RESULTS

While each change resulted in a bit more sticking and greater fond development, the batch in which we made all three changes at once delivered the best results. It took this batch 1 to 2 minutes longer on each side to reach the same level of browning as the batch cooked the standard way, but the fond it produced covered about 25 percent more of the skillet’s surface.

EXPLANATION

When bonds form between sulfur-containing amino acids in the food’s protein and the iron atoms in the pan, the food sticks. So the more bonds that form, the more fond that is left in the pan. The bonds will be limited if there’s a significant barrier of oil, and they will break when exposed to high heat. Both of these factors detracted from fond development in our first batch. In contrast, using less oil encourages bonding. It is also encouraged in a cooler pan because it allows the bonds to remain intact longer. Placing wet skin in the pan caused the pan’s temperature to drop because water removes heat from the pan during evaporation. Adding the chicken when the oil is shimmering also means a cooler pan and more sticking. Combining these three factors made the biggest difference.

TAKEAWAY

For a really chicken-y pan sauce, don’t pat skin-on chicken dry, use 1/4 teaspoon oil in a 12-inch skillet, and add the chicken when the oil starts to shimmer. Note: This method is best for skin-on poultry; without a protective layer like the chicken’s skin, steaks, chops, and skinless chicken will develop too much of an overcooked band.

LESS FOND: Lots of oil and high heat limit sticking and, thus, fond development.

MORE FOND: Less oil, wet skin, and lower heat encourage fond development.