Pan sauces might just be the single greatest culinary trick ever invented. Not only is it a quick and easy way to make a delicious sauce to accompany steaks, chops, and chicken, it also literally makes the washing up afterwards easier.
How is this possible? The entire premise of the pan sauce is that it utilizes the little roasty bits that stick to the bottom of a pan after you've cooked your meat or poultry, which just happen to be loaded with concentrated flavor.
So much flavor, in fact, that the French have a word for those little roasty bits: fond. And instead of scraping it off and rinsing it down the drain, you're scraping it off and dissolving it into a sauce.
Components of a Pan Sauce
Other than the fond, a basic pan sauce is made up of liquid, usually wine, stock, or broth; aromatics, like minced shallot or onion; whole butter; and seasonings (i.e., Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper). A little bit of chopped fresh parsley stirred in at the very end is also a nice touch and helps add some color to the sauce as well.
As an added benefit, making a pan sauce just happens to take almost exactly the same amount of time it takes your roasted or pan-seared meats to rest after cooking. It's a culinary alignment of the stars that's almost too good to be true.
Note that we're not talking about scorched, blackened bits. If you've burned your meat, a burnt-tasting pan sauce isn't going to make it any more palatable.
But a lovely, golden-to-dark-brown fond at the bottom of the pan is exactly what you want. Here's how to do it.
First, remove your meat from the pan and set it on a cutting board or platter, somewhere warm, covered with foil, to rest. Resting your meat is an important step, so don't gloss over this part.
You'll also want to pour any excess fat out of the pan, but you don't have to be too fastidious about this. Excess means anything beyond a tablespoon or so. You don't want a ton of liquid fat sloshing around, but you do need a little bit to sauté your shallots. If your pan seems dry, add a tablespoon of high-heat oil.
First Step: Sauté Aromatics
With your pan over a medium heat, add your chopped shallots or onions. Shallots are preferable because their flavor is even more concentrated than onions, and because they mince up smaller. Cook for a minute or two or until they soften and start to turn translucent. Don't worry about scraping the pan yet—that comes in the next step.
Second Step: Deglazing
Deglazing is one of those wonderful culinary words that describes a process that is as much fun as it sounds. It's also incredibly simple, in that it involves pouring the liquid into your hot pan.
Wine is a great choice, because it adds wonderful astringency to the sauce that mere stock won't. But if you're using stock or broth, stirring in some Dijon mustard toward the end will also help you achieve that tangy flavor.
Red wine, which is an excellent choice for making a pan sauce to accompany red meat, will of course also impart a richer color to your sauce.
You might use white wine for pork or poultry, but there are no hard and fast rules. Use what you've got or whatever your preference dictates. For a basic recipe, start with half a cup, or more for a full roast.
The big sizzle that results from pouring the liquid into the pan that is the first step in dislodging the cooked-on fond. Use a wooden spoon to loosen the fond. Then simmer for a few minutes, until the liquid has reduced by about half.
Third Step: Finishing Touches
Now remove the sauce from the heat and stir in your mustard and chopped herbs. Whisk in your butter. Three tablespoons is about right if you're starting with half a cup of liquid, but add the butter a tablespoon at a time. It usually works best if your butter is cold, like when you're making a beurre blanc sauce.
Finally, season to taste with salt and pepper and you're all done.
Simply spoon this pan sauce onto the plate along with your meat or poultry. Because it's so concentrated, a little goes a long way.
Remember, you can make a pan sauce in a roasting pan as well as in a skillet. That means you're not limited to making a pan sauce for steaks and chops but indeed you can use this technique to make a pan sauce to accompany roasted meats like prime rib or roasted pork loin, as well as a whole roasted chicken.
Just make sure that your roasting pan is made of a material that's safe for the stovetop (like stainless steel, for example). You can usually place the roasting pan across two burners on your range to reduce the sauce.
If you like a recipe with specific quantities and so on, here's a recipe for a basic pan sauce (along with a few variations).