December 29, 2011

How to Make a Quick Pan Sauce, or Why You Should Drink Wine While Cooking

I like to use as few pans as possible while making dinner. It cuts down on dishes, but also keeps flavors balanced. Sometimes it isn't practical or possible to use just one cooking pan, but more often then not, you can get away with just one. Knowing how to make a good pan sauce will help the one pan meal cause. Plus it is a great excuse to have a glass of wine while cooking.

For those of you who don't know, a pan sauce is made by deglazing a pan that meat was sauteed in. When you saute meat in a pan over high heat (ie searing chicken) I'm sure you have noticed brown or black bits left over at the end, the fond, is the dried and caramelized meat juices that form while cooking. After cooking the meat and pouring off excess fat, you deglaze the pan with a solvent such as stock or better yet, wine!

In order for the meat juices to stick and caramelize properly, you need a pan that will allow food to stick. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this one... don't use a non-stick pan. Non-stick pans are great to cut out fat and grease from meals and they don't require lots of oil or butter to cook with, but for our purpose it is out of the question. I like cast iron, but if I'm planning on using red wine to deglaze, I will use a non-reactive pan like stainless steel or aluminum. The iron will react with the acid in red wine and can make the sauce taste metallic. Regardless of pan used, the technique will be the same.

I use butter or oil to saute meat in when I am going to make a pan sauce depending on what kind of sauce I am making. If I am planning on a cream sauce I use butter but for just a basic sauce I will use oil. It doesn't matter too much if you plan on draining the liquid at the end, but usually for a cream sauce I will keep the sauteing butter in the pan because it holds quite a bit of flavor and I can omit adding extra butter for thickening later. Also, by retaining the sauteing liquid, your sauce will mirror the flavor of the meat thereby enhancing it and by adding additional seasoning to the liquid while it reduces will give the sauce extra dimensions. One last note: I like to saute garlic with the meat if the recipe calls for it or not because it will add to the sauce at the end. You can add garlic to the pan when making the sauce too, but I have found it overwhelms the taste a bit too much. I like.. LOVE garlic, but it doesn't need to be all garlic all the time.

OK, on to the actual steps to make your sauce:

  1. Saute your meat in a non-non-stick pan.
  2. Remove meat and keep warm. I like to put it in the oven at a very low temp with tinfoil over it.
  3. Turn heat to med/high and deglaze the fond with a liquid (stock, wine, etc) and scrape with a wooden spoon until all pieces are dissolved. You will be reducing by about 1/3 so plan your liquids accordingly. I prefer a splash of wine to be added with a little butter to saute whatever my flavor accents will be, and then 1/2-2/3 cup of stock and/or cream to make enough for 2 servings. You kinda just have to play around with ratios.
  4. At this point you can add flavor accents like garlic, shallots, onion, capers, mustard etc. If you decide to add things to saute you will need to add a fat to the mix, like butter.
  5. Reduce over low heat until the desired consistency is reached (cream sauces should be thick and basic sauces should coat a metal spoon - about 1/3rd reduction). While reducing, season with your choice of spices: salt/pepper, Italian, spicy, etc...

I am not putting exact measurements in here for the simple fact that making a pan sauce is more about techniques: sauteing, deglazing, flavoring and reducing. Once you get a grasp on those you will be pan saucing all the time. It took me a bit of time to figure out how much liquid was needed and how long to reduce the sauce and whatnot, but once I got the techniques down I was on a roll. There are just a few other things to remember while making sauces:

  • When you reduce, the time you take will be reflected in the sauce. The longer you reduce, the bolder the flavors will be, and the less you reduce, the more subtle the flavors. You will be able to see how far you have reduced the sauce, keep this in mind when cooking, if you don't like really intense sauces or want the meat to be the star then don't reduce as long.
  • Use ingredients that make sense with your dish: Chianti or red wine with basil and oregano for Italian; ginger with lemon juice, stock and sesame oil (even peanut butter!) for Asian; White wine, shallots and dijon mustard would make a nice French twist and/or be great over fish.
  • If you use wine, be very careful when you pour it in the pan. It is best to actually remove the pan from the heat because wine can ignite and flare up. Cool to see in a restaurant or on TV when it is for flare, not so fun when it singes your hair and scares you half to death in the kitchen.

There are many many many tips I can give or that you could find online, but I just wanted to get the basics out there for people to try. There have been times that my sauce turns out awful and I have to go with plan B - either no sauce or out of a jar, but I remember what went wrong and change it for the next time.

I shall leave you now with a favorite quote of mine:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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