Julia Child said, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
To paraphrase America’s Queen of French cuisine, allow me to humbly add, “The only time to make a sauce is while you’re letting the steak rest.
Ok, perhaps not the “only time,” but at least the most convenient and efficient time.
Sauces can be as simple as a beaten raw egg yolk and a pinch of salt (a personal favorite) or as complicated as an Oaxaca mole negro requiring more than 20 ingredients and an elderly abuela.
Somewhere in between are pan sauces, aka sauces made directly in the cooking pan in minutes. There are thousands of varieties, but all pan sauces share simple techniques, ones well worth understanding and practicing.
PAN SAUCE BASICS
Start with “fond,” French for the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
Add tasty liquid to “déglacer” (deglaze), French for bubbling and dissolving those brown bits.
Simmer briefly to reduce the tasty liquid after adding “aromatiques” (aromatics), French for delicious herbs, vegetables and even fruits used for flavorings.
Remove from heat and “monter” (mount) the sauce, slightly inappropriate French for adding cold butter to emulsify, thicken and glisten.
MIX AND SWAP
The countless variety of pan sauces comes from all the mixing, swapping and fun to be had with the deglazing liquids, aromatics and butters or other creams.
Deglazing with wine is fine, but so is stock, broth, cider, bourbon, juice, beer or combinations thereof. Bourbon and beef stock makes a rather nice sauce for beef or venison.
Aromatics can be onions, shallots, garlic, carrots, celery, etc. Fresh herbs are best but dried work, too. Spices can be minced or powdered or left whole then removed from the finished sauce. Fruits, both fresh and dried and preserved, make great aromatics for pork.
Butter is the most common fat for finishing a sauce, but don’t be afraid of heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, drained yogurts and even soft cheeses. Just add them to the pan off the heat. If they get too hot, they will curdle and “break” the sauce.
The recipes here show a wide variety of options that all use the same techniques to accompany everything from rare peppered beef to pan-seared pound cake. Use these recipes as learning tools. Focus on the techniques and not so much on the exact amounts. After a few times, you will be able to simply whip up your own in minutes. And while basking in the glory and simplicity of it all, feel free to gloat to your dinner guests that you have made a sauce before they have finished pouring the drinks.
SIMPLE PAN SAUCE
Makes enough for a medium-sized steak.
Heat the “fondy” frying pan over medium-high heat and add ½ cup wine, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 small sprig rosemary and black pepper to taste. Reduce liquid by about half. Remove pan from heat, remove rosemary and whisk in 1 tablespoon cold butter until melted. Add salt to taste.
SEARED BEEF ROAST WITH CUMBERLAND-STYLE CRANBERRY PAN SAUCE
Makes 6-8 servings
Cumberland sauce is classic for beef, lamb and game that stretches back to the Middle Ages. This version uses dried cranberries, but any dried fruit does the job. Port wine is traditional, but a good, strong red works, too.
1. Coat a 2-3 pound beef roast liberally with salt and black pepper.
2. Heat oven to 350 F.
3. Heat thick skillet over medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 small yellow onion, finely sliced. Brown for 1-2 minutes.
4. Pat the beef roast dry with paper towel and sear each side in the skillet until browned. If onions start to burn, reduce heat.
5. Leave onions in skillet and transfer roast to baking sheet and cook in oven until meat reaches internal temperature of 130 F. Rest 10 minutes before slicing thinly.
6. Start sauce while roast is finishing in oven.
7. Deglaze skillet with the onions over medium-high heat using 1 cup port or red wine and 1 cup beef stock.
8. Add 3 tablespoons fruit jam of choice, ½ cup dried cranberries and ½ teaspoon black pepper and continue to simmer until reduced by about half.
9. Remove from heat and whisk in 4 tablespoons cold butter until melted. Add salt to taste and serve over thin slices of beef. Garnish with fresh chives and fresh ground black pepper. Good warm or room temperature.
ROASTED CHICKEN THIGHS WITH CAPER & DIJON PAN SAUCE
Makes 4 servings
This thin-but-rich sauce has a bright finish from the pickled capers and a fresh squeeze of lemon. Chicken thighs are best for this recipe, but other cuts or a whole bird are fine, too. Use the sauce as an accompaniment for fish, turkey, pheasant or even pork.
1. Heat oven to 300 F. Remove, but reserve skin from 4 bone-in chicken thighs. Salt the now-skinless thighs and removed skin.
2. Chop each skin into 4-5 pieces.
3. Heat thick skillet over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil and add salted chicken skin. Fry until browned and crispy. Remove, drain and pat thighs dry with paper towels.
4. Remove half the rendered fat from skillet and fry thighs over medium-high heat. Flip every 30 seconds until browned.
5. Move thighs to a baking sheet and cook in oven until 160 F. internal. Rest 5 minutes before serving.
6. Start sauce while thighs are finishing in oven.
7. Deglaze skillet with 1 cup white wine of choice.
8. Add 1 clove minced garlic, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, ½ teaspoon black pepper, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and 2 tablespoons drained capers. Continue to simmer until reduced by about half.
9. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons cold butter until melted and 1 tablespoon cold sour cream. Taste for salt and spoon over the roasted chicken thighs. Serve with potatoes or rice and simple frozen peas (thawed, but uncooked). Top dish with chicken skin cracklings and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
CRISPY POUND CAKE WITH BOURBON & FIG SAUCE
Makes 4 servings
Though pan sauces are normally savory affairs, that doesn’t mean the same techniques cannot be used for desserts. Feel free to swap the bourbon for whisky, etc. Or add some vanilla or almond extract. Try serving over ice cream. Experiment and enjoy.
1. Make or buy a good pound cake or other plain dense cake. Cut 4 slices 1-inch thick.
2. Heat thick skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon bourbon, 1 tablespoon light brown sugar and 1 tablespoon butter. Heat until bubbling.
3. Add pound cake and “fry” until crispy on just one side. DO NOT FLIP. Remove from skillet.
4. Deglaze the skillet (in this order) with ½ cup heavy whipping cream, 2 tablespoons bourbon, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons white sugar and 2-3 minced dried figs. (Add cream first to keep the bourbon from catching fire.)
5. Simmer over medium-high heat until boiling and slightly reduced.
6. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons cold butter until melted.
7. Spoon over pound cake slices (crispy side up) just before serving. Garnish with lemon, minced fresh mint, a sprinkle of granulated sugar and ½ dried fig per serving.