A flawlessly cooked piece of protein is cause for applause, but gilding it with a perfect pan sauce can command a standing ovation.
In the basic-skills cooking classes I’ve taught, many students have said they most appreciated learning to sauté a chicken breast and finish it with a pan sauce.
Pan sauces — created at the last minute with browned bits from just-sautéed meat or fish — provide layers of flavor to what otherwise might be workaday fare. These aptly named sauces come together in minutes and are made in the same pan in which you cooked the meat.
A successful pan sauce relies on your choice of protein, the pan and heat level, which are as important as selecting the sauce ingredients and bringing things together. Once you practice a time or two, making pan sauces will become as easy as 1-2-3.
Choose your protein: Tender cuts such as beef steaks, pork tenderloin and chops, fish fillets and chicken and thinner pounded cuts such as veal, chicken and turkey scaloppine and paillard cook quickly with dry heat. As they cook, these cuts release meat juices and proteins, which brown in the pan, a process called the Maillard reaction. This flavorful layer of browned bits is known as the fond.
Choose your pan: You want the crusty brown bits to form, so avoid nonstick skillets. If you plan to use acidic ingredients like wine, vinegar and citrus, also stay away from aluminum, which reacts with acid. Use a stainless steel-lined skillet or anodized aluminum. Dark cast iron definitely gives a good sear, but you won’t be able to determine the color of the fond.
Also consider the pan’s size. Your skillet should be just big enough to hold the meat in a single layer. Empty space can overheat and uneven heat can burn the fond. However, you also want to avoid too-small skillets. Place pieces with enough distance between them that the moisture easily cooks away and the pieces don’t steam.
Use the right heat level: The thinner the meat, the higher the heat. You want the protein to be nicely browned but cooked through. With heat too low, thinner cuts will be cooked before they brown. A thicker cut needs more moderate heat; otherwise it can burn before it is fully cooked.
Thick-cut pork chops and pork tenderloin can be started over high heat in an ovenproof skillet, then finish cooking in the oven.
Flavorful fond: Pat the exterior of the raw protein dry with paper towels, and season well. Though some chefs cook meat first, then add salt and pepper, I generously season before cooking, which I believe (and many colleagues concur) creates a more flavorful crust on the meat and better fond in the pan. Some recipes call for a light dusting of flour, which improves browning.
Once the skillet and the oil in it are hot enough, add the meat, but resist the urge to fiddle with it and move it around. When the meat is fully seared, it will let you know — a few sharp shakes to the skillet should cause it to release from the pan on its own. Only then should it be turned over. Finish cooking the meat and remove it from the pan.
As the fond forms, it will look moist, then will dry out and darken. Once dry, the bits can burn, so watch carefully. After pouring out any excess fat, just flick or lightly wipe away the blackened areas before you continue.
Onions, shallots or vegetables such as mushrooms can be added for flavor. They also provide moisture, and can be scraped around with a flat-edged wooden spoon to help dissolve the fond.
Deglaze: Typical deglazing — loosening the fond from the pan, then incorporating into the beginnings of a sauce — is accomplished with liquid of some sort, be it wine, spirits, vinegar or broth. The liquid is then boiled to evaporate the alcohol, reduce the volume, concentrate the flavors and, depending on the dish, thicken and improve the body.
Additional ingredients: Give a pan sauce even more flavor with spices, herbs, vegetables and other add-ins such as mustard, capers and olives. I mix and match complementary flavors, sometimes melding the traditional with a little twist, such as malt vinegar added to already fish-friendly brown butter and lemon.
Thicken the sauce, if desired: Tender cuts of meat lack connective tissue and therefore the natural gelatin that gives a rich, palate-coating mouth feel to homemade stocks, which is why pan sauces are naturally thin. Finishing with butter, cream or crème fraiche will help thicken the sauce. Just don’t overcook or allow a dairy-thickened sauce to a boil — the sauce can break and look curdled.
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