When people hear I’m a chef, 99% of the time, they ask “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” Although I think they expect me to spout out a specific dish, I always tell people sauces are my favorite. Creating a pan sauce is always the same template, but you can make hundreds of different sauces depending on what’s in your pantry. Adding a sauce to a dish amplifies flavors, creates textural diversity, maintains heat temperature, and can help hide mistakes. Sauces are also quite simple when it comes down to it.
Traditionally, there are 5 mother sauces, each having their own derivatives that make a wide variety of sauces that can be difficult and time consuming to make. There’s hollandaise, the bicep workout. There’s demi-glace, the lesson in patience no one asked for. There’s mornay, the science lesson on fat emulsification that tests our attention to detail, and so on. But unless you want to be established as a Classical French Cook, a great pan sauce is all you need.
The best thing about creating a pan sauce is that it’s a template. As someone who lives alone, I hate buying stuff and throwing it away. I buy whole onions, bell peppers, garlic, jalapenos, and whatever other vegetables I want. When I get home, I cut them up, lay them on a sheet pan in the freezer, then once frozen, bag it up. Even if you don’t want to go through the hassle of cutting up veggies and freezing them, the same chicken, onion, and garlic can be used in 7 different pan sauces through-out the week to make 7 different dishes from different cuisines. All it takes is changing your liquids, the stable items you have in your pantry already.
To make a good pan sauce, you just need to cook some sort of hearty vegetable or an animal protein. Chicken breasts are an easy protein for your first attempt. It works with any ingredients. Cook it in a little fat in a pan over medium high heat. If you buy the cheap stuff because you’re broke like me, it can be pretty thick, so cook the outside of the chicken until brown and stick it on some tinfoil in the oven at 350 while you make the sauce. It should be just around 160 degrees internal temp when the sauce is done, the perfect temperature to be safe yet still moist.
Once the protein is removed from the pan, add some aromatic veggies (onion, garlic, etc..) in your sauce. Saute for a minute or two, then add an acid to deglaze your pan (wine, vinegar, lemon juice, etc…). Use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Once it is in the pan, use your spoon, spatula, or tongs to get the good bits off the bottom of the pan. If you’ve burnt the stuff on the pan at any point, scrape and rinse your pan, add new fat, cook your aromatics, and deglaze what the aromatics left behind. Keep cooking the acid in the pan until it is almost gone. Then add the liquid backbone (stock or broth, cream, milk, tomato sauce, more wine–just not water.) Cook this down for a minute as well. This condenses the flavors and keeps your sauce from being too runny.
Finish your sauce with any flavoring or texture modifier. Something like honey or dijon will modify both, making the sauce thicker yet more flavorful. Now take that sauce and plate it with your main component of your dish. You can also return the protein to the pan and coat it in the sauce, a common move for chicken thighs. The protein and sauce can be served with any vegetable and starch of your choosing to make a more filling meal.
I promise, you will not be disappointed. If you struggle with flavor profiles, see below for suggestions. Amounts work well for serving one or two while cooking in a 6-8” pan. Once you get one of these down though, try not measuring and using your own ingredients. If it sucks, just have the dish without sauce. It’s your crash course to becoming a great cook.
|Aromatics||Deglazing Liquid||Back-bone Liquid||Finishing Ingredients|
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion and 4-6 Mushrooms, Sliced or Diced||2 tsp Brandy (Don’t catch yourself on fire please)||¼ cup Cream or Half and Half||½ tsp Dijon|
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion and ½ tsp minced garlic||2 tsp Balsamic Vinegar||⅓ cup Chicken or Veggie Broth or Stock||½ tsp Honey|
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion and ½ tsp minced garlic and 4-6 mushrooms, sliced or diced||2 tsp Red Wine||¼ cup Veggie Broth or Stock||1 Tbsp Cold Butter*|
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion, ½ Diced Plum Tomato||1 tsp Lemon Juice||¼ cup Chicken Broth or Stock||1 Tbsp Cold Butter*|
A Bit of Chopped Chives
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion, 1 tsp minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger||1 tsp Rice Vinegar|
1 tsp Soy Sauce
|¼ cup Mirin||A Bit of Chopped Scallion, either ⅓ tsp sesame oil or ⅓ tsp chili oil or a dash of each, add a touch of white sugar if you want it sweeter|
|2 Tbsp Small Diced Onion, 2 Tbsp Small Diced Poblano, ¼ tsp Minced Jalapeno||2 tsp Lime Juice||¼ C Veggie or Chicken Broth or Stock||None Needed|