Make Flavor with a Pan Sauce

I remember the first time I learned what fond was. I was in a kitchenware store in New Orleans and Chef Paul Prudhomme stopped by to give an impromptu cooking class. He sautéed some chicken with a spice mix and then picked up the pan and pointed to all the gunk glued to the bottom. “That’s the good stuff,” he chuckled. “That’s where the flavor comes from.” From that day on I stopped fretting when my sautés stuck. But it wasn’t until later, when I was taking a course at the Culinary Institute of America, that I learned the technical name for that gunk was fond, and that it was the essential ingredient for making a quick pan sauce.

make-flavor-with-pan-sauce Just add a splash of liquid—like wine or vinegar, or even broth—scrape up the fond from the pan (called deglazing) and you’ve got the makings of a tasty sauce. Take it off the heat, swirl in a knob of butter or a tablespoon of cream and some minced herbs and you’ve just turned a simple supper into something special.

Here are seven simple steps to making a pan sauce:

1 – Heat your (not nonstick) pan over medium-high heat. Heating the pan before adding fat or food allows the cells of the metal to expand, creating a nearly non-porous surface.

2 – Add your fat and let it get nice and hot. The heated fat—be it oil, butter or duck fat (ahhhh)—creates another barrier; having it hot ensures good browning when the food hits it.

3 – Add the main attraction to the pan … and then leave it be until it’s ready to be turned (be sure to leave enough room in between pieces to allow air to circulate or else the food will steam rather than sear). Be it meat or chicken or fish or tofu, if you move the food around too much, it won’t develop a crust. When it’s cooked through and nice and brown on the outside, remove it to a plate and keep it warm in a 200 degree oven.

4 – Sauté additional ingredients and aromatics. Nudge these around often, letting them get good and caramelized.

5 – Pour in liquid and deglaze. Wine, vinegar and broth are all great deglazing liquids. Use a stiff-edged spatula to scrape up the bits at the bottom of the pan. Here’s a quick video on how that works:

6 – Take pan off the heat and swirl in a bit of richness. Just a tablespoon or two of butter or cream can enrich a sauce dramatically. Be sure the pan is off the heat, though, or they’ll separate and become oily (that’s what it means when a sauce “breaks”).

7 – Adjust for acid and salt. Give the sauce a taste and adjust the seasoning: a squeeze of lemon for brightness, a drizzle of vinegar for punch, a dash of salt, a grind of pepper; add what makes you go “mmmm.”

To get you started, here are three different ideas for three completely different pan-sauces:

  • Sauté minced ginger and garlic before deglazing the pan with a dry white wine like vermouth and swirl in a bit of vegetable or chicken broth, a tablespoon or two of cream, and a pinch each of minced fresh thyme and lemon zest.
  • Sauté minced shallots before deglazing the pan with dry white wine, then swirl in a bit of vegetable or chicken broth and two tablespoons butter with a generous pinch of tarragon.
  • Sauté minced pancetta and onion before deglazing the pan with dry red wine. Add a touch of red wine vinegar, two tablespoons butter and several turns of freshly ground black pepper.

Or keep it simple and make the recipe below. In any case, set your sights on making some flavor this week!

Demystifying Umami

Name the five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and . . . having trouble? The fifth you’re looking for is umami. My mother, who is Japanese, translated the word for me as “good taste.” But umami also connotes a deeper meaning in both Japan and here in the West; savory, delicious, the “something” you can’t put your finger on that just makes a dish.

umami-post How Does Umami Taste?

It’s a sensation as much as it is a flavor. When something feels full in your mouth, like it coats your tongue with “mmmm, that’s umami.” It’s what gives wine mouthfeel and deglazed sauces their richness. It’s why a tomato sauce with mushrooms has so much depth and why a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano does wonders to just about anything. These are foods and cooking techniques that unleash the power of umami.

What is Umami?

Our tongue is covered with receptors that are designed to perceive certain flavors. The most specialized receptors are those that identify the amino acid called glutamate (the amino acid most plentiful in protein), which creates the basic umami inherent in some foods. Other foods, when combined with ingredients that already have basic umami, activate nucleotides to send messages to the brain amplifying the umami effect in what’s called “synergizing umami.” Certain chemical reactions, too, can exponentially increase the umami sensation by breaking down the proteins of a food into its amino acid building blocks.

How Do I Create Umami?

This can be as simple as choosing foods already rich in basic umami, like ripe tomatoes and late-summer corn. But learning how to use “synergizing umami” techniques and ingredients will help you enhance the umami of almost any dish.

  • Use cooking techniques—Searing, roasting, stewing and braising are all techniques that develop umami; those little browned bits at the bottom of the pan that make the sauce so flavorful are denatured proteins—including glutamate—that our bodies can instantly use, cranking up a food’s umami index. Aging, curing and fermenting are other techniques that break down proteins into “free” amino acids and develops the umami in foods. Think aged cheese and steaks, cured meats, and fermented foods like kimchi and sourdough bread (wine and beer too).
  • Add ingredients—You can also amp up the umami and balance flavors in a dish by adding a dash of a synergizing umami ingredient. Mushrooms are renowned for their ability to enhance umami, which is why even a little bit of minced porcini added to a sauce can make such a grand impact. Darker fin fishes, like anchovies, also add umami; try adding a minced anchovy to a dressing and see how the flavor changes. Small amounts of cured meats can amplify the flavor of foods without making a meal meat-centric. Think of a lentil or pea soup with a bit of ham or bacon; much richer with than without. And if you’ve ever heard of someone’s grandmother adding a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind to a soup, now you know why—it’s for the umami it imparts. A splash of soy sauce, ketchup, fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce are also ways to heighten umami.

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.