If you’ve ever finished pan-searing chicken breast or basting a New York strip steak with butter only to realize something is missing, you might be in need of a pan sauce. Pan sauces are an easy way to add a little elegance to your dish in under 5 minutes.
After searing a piece of meat or sautéing vegetables, there will be caramelized particles of food and fat left behind in the pan. This is known as the “fond” in French cooking and will form the base of your pan sauce. Rather than send the fond the way of the sink, let them stick around, and make a pan sauce. Not only are these sauces delicious, but they can also help make your pots and pans easier to clean when the time comes.
Whether you’re looking to show everyone your cooking prowess or just want to take a weeknight meal to the next level, here’s what you need to know about crafting the perfect pan sauce.
What Is a Pan Sauce?
A pan sauce is a sauce that’s made in the same skillet you’ve cooked your main dish in (whether it’s a meat like steak or chicken or vegetables), which takes its flavor base from the “fond”—the leftover drippings in the skillet. Pan sauces are unique in that they’re made in the same pan you’re using to cook your dish, unlike a classic French sauce like Béarnaise or an herb-based sauce like chimichurri.
For the simplest pan sauce, all you need to do is add some liquid to the still-hot pan and scrape the fond over medium heat while stirring. The process of using a liquid to loosen the fond is known as deglazing. Not only does it pull up those delicious drippings and turn them into a sauce, it makes the pan easier to clean. Thicken it with a pat of butter or a splash of cream and you’ve got something delicious to pour over your food.
One often overlooked key to making a great pan sauce is to make sure that you get a fond at all. Use enough oil to get a good crust on whatever you are cooking and don't crowd the pan.
Here’s how to make a pan sauce:
- Transfer your cooked meat (or other food) to a plate and tent with foil to keep warm.
- Return the pan to medium heat (anything higher than this will cause the fond to burn). Add any aromatics or spices to enhance the flavor (plus some oil, if the pan is quite dry). Minced shallots or garlic are popular pan sauce aromatics, but mix it up to fit with the dish. You can also just skip straight to adding the liquid for a more basic pan sauce.
- Add a splash of wine. Let it reduce by at least half, which allows the alcohol to cook off and the sugars in the wine to concentrate. Scrape the bottom of the pan while it reduces to loosen the fond.
- Add chicken stock or water and cook until reduced by about half. The sauce should be thick and glossy. Stir in a pat or two of butter or a glug of cream.
- Adjust the seasoning of the pan sauce to taste. Fold in freshly chopped herbs or any larger ingredients like chopped capers or cornichons. If you add lemon juice and the sauce breaks, just stir some more butter or cream back in.
- Plate your food and use a spoon to drizzle the sauce overtop.
Here are some flavor combinations worth trying for your pan sauce:
- Serve seared bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts with a mustard, tarragon, and caper pan sauce.
- Top sliced steak with a shallot, thyme, and red wine sauce.
- Spoon a mushroom and cream pan sauce over pork chops.
Getting just the right sear on a filet is impressive, but the “wow” factor of spooning a sauce to complete a dish is hard to beat. If you’re cooking for a group, we recommend waiting to do this until everyone is looking. You made it, after all. You deserve to show off a little. It’s no secret that we eat with our eyes first, and this interactive display gets everyone in the mood for food.