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!