Pan Sauce: Turn Dirty Pans Into Delicious Dishes

Pan Sauce
There is another weapon in the home cooks’ arsenal – the pan sauce
One of the biggest differences between eating a meal at home and having one at a restaurant is the sauce. This is hardly a revelation as restaurants take their sauces very seriously. Many even have a special chef known as a saucier, who’s main job is to prepare the various sauces required for service. This is a very important position and the responsibility of the saucier is usually given to one of the most senior and experienced chefs in a kitchen. Such sauces take a huge amount of skill and experience to get right and can often only really be made correctly in the quantities required for a restaurant and may take several days to prepare – so are realistically beyond the realm of your average home cook. But, rather than resign ourselves to only eating good sauces at restaurants, there is another weapon in the home cooks’ arsenal – the pan sauce. Not only is it simple, but get the hang of it and your guests may even think they are dining at a restaurant.

What is a Pan Sauce?

A pan sauce is nothing more than a sauce made in the same pan you have just cooked something in – usually a piece of meat of fish. After removing the food to rest, the pan is carefully deglazed to extract every last remnant of flavour and then enriched with other ingredients to get the correct taste and texture. A gravy, made after roasting meat, is really just a pan sauce, but the same thing works even better with a frying pan.

Making a Pan Sauce

The Basics

The process for making a pan sauce is the same, but you have a lot of flexibility as to the end result by the ingredients you choose to add. The simplest and quickest method goes like this:

  1. Cook your meat in a pan. Remove it to rest.
  2. Turn the heat to medium high and deglaze with flavourful liquid (e.g. wine, fruit juice, stock) while scraping the pan to incorporate any browned bits.
  3. Reduce the the liquid until it thickens. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Remove from the heat, then add some butter and shake the pan to emulsify.

Enhancing the basic method

Once you have the basic method down, you can try out some variations and start to be a little creative with your sauce. Here are some tips:

  • Before deglazing the pan, add finely chopped shallots and/or garlic to the pan and sauté them for a minute or so before deglazing.
  • Add any whole spices, such as cumin or mustard seeds that need to be toasted before deglazing.
  • Use a combination of wine and stock to give both richness and acidity. If doing so, deglaze the pan with the wine first, then add the stock once only a few tablespoons remain. You usually want to use at least as much stock as wine, if you need more liquid add more stock.
  • If adding hard herbs such as rosemary or thyme, keep them whole so they are easy to remove and add them after deglazing, but before you reduce the stock in order to give them enough time to flavour the sauce.
  • For more sweetness, add some brown sugar, honey or jam toward the end of the reduction in step 3.
  • Good vinegar or lemon juice can be added at the same time as seasoning if you need to sharpen the flavour up a bit (keep in mind you will be adding butter, which will also make it richer).
  • Adding chopped herbs, mustard or capers just before seasoning is a great way to freshen the sauce and add more flavour.
  • Omit or reduce the amount of butter for a thinner, jus like sauce.
  • Adding cream instead of butter will give a creamy, rather than velvety sauce which can also be reheated easier with less risk of splitting.
  • For a smooth sauce, strain it before serving.

Things to keep in mind

  • The sauce should be quite intense and powerful, so you don’t need a lot. A tablespoon or so should do for each guest, so you can reduce it quite a long way.
  • If you have cooked your meat in a lot of oil, or it has rendered a lot of fat, you will probably want to tip most of it off before you deglaze the pan. If you are adding any ingredients that need to be cooked, such as shallots or garlic, leave a little bit behind to help this process.
  • Season at the end. When reducing liquids, the salt flavour becomes intensified as time goes on and there is no way to remove it. Once you are happy with the consistency of the sauce, then taste and season it.
  • Choose complementary flavours that go with what you are cooking. Tarragon and white wine go well with fish. Red wine and currant jam go well with game. But, at the same time – there really are no rules.
  • You can add a lot of butter if you want a very buttery sauce, but be sure to keep the heat low and add it bit by bit to allow it to emulsify properly.
  • Try not to boil the sauce after adding the butter. Doing so can split the sauce.

Now you know what to do, have a go yourself or try one of the following recipes:

Salmon With Caper And Tarragon Pan Sauce

Salmon with Caper and Tarragon Pan Sauce

Salmon is a rich fish, but the lemon and wine in this pan sauce add enough acidity to match it. An easy dish to make and using only a single pan. The sauce is a good one to have in your repertoire and is equally at home with chicken, pork or any seafood.

About the author

Ben Macdonald

When Ben isn’t devouring food, he is thinking what to cook next. After spending his adult life eating his way around the world he ended up channelling his culinary creativity as a finalist in Masterchef Australia – famously impressing Heston Blumenthal with a campfire from steak and potatoes - before being eliminated the very next episode.
Following some time in several top restaurants he is now focussed on sharing his love of home cooking and making each meal better than the last.

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