There's a moment when you are sauteing a piece of chicken, a pork chop or even a meaty vegetable like Brussels sprouts or winter squash, that things start to get sticky. You push the food and it doesn't move. Then, suddenly, miraculously, it loosens and you flip it.
What is left on the pan is golden, and don't you dare wash it down the drain. Those browned bits — technically called fond — are the first building blocks of a delicious pan sauce that will elevate your dish from ho-hum to hold on, you made this?
"You have the opportunity to make a sauce any time you saute something even if it's not a protein," says cookbook author Martha Holmberg by phone from Portland, Ore. "There's always that savory, umami stuff in the bottom of the pan."
Umami is a Japanese word that has inched its way into our culinary lexicon in recent years and refers to a savory flavor in food that's different from the familiar sweet, salty, bitter and sour. By itself, umami is not really palatable, but mixed with other ingredients, it becomes an important component of a finished dish. Ah, perfect for a pan sauce, which is an amalgamation of several things.
Holmberg, the former food editor of the Portland Oregonian and a graduate of La Varenne Cooking School in France, outlines the simplicity, and maybe even necessity, of mastering pan sauces in her new cookbook, Modern Sauces (Chronicle Books, $35 retail but $21.95 on Amazon.com). If you learn to make pan sauces, she says, you can put some flavor back into a "stupid boneless, skinless chicken breast."
Modern Sauces, which is worthy of your Christmas list or to buy for someone else, tackles much more than pan sauces, with 150 recipes ranging from butter and cream sauces to vinaigrettes to dessert sauces such as caramel, fruit and chocolate. The sauces are put to good use in recipes such as Fried Eggs with Garlicky Chard and Saffron-Red Pepper Hollandaise and Roasted Pear with Butter-Rum Toffee Sauce.
"I kept hearing people saying things like 'I wish I knew how to make sauces' or 'I am not going to do a sauce, because that's tricky.' There was just this thread in the culture that it was French and maddening and hard," says Holmberg, the author of other cookbooks on crepes and puffy pastry. "For me, it's so much what makes the dish."
The fear of fat is pervasive in our culture, especially when it comes to home cooking. We sometimes cringe at the thought of two tablespoons of butter or ¼ cup of cream being lapped on top of that low-fat protein. Holmberg reminds us, though, that that amount of "enrichment" will be split among four people. And pan sauces are meant to enhance the main event, not cover it like you might see a Hollandaise on eggs Benedict.
Pan sauces are among the simplest to make and the most forgiving with ingredient amounts. It's all about the technique really, the process of deglazing the pan and then building a sauce.
Here's the basic process: Remove what's been sauteed, then add aromatics (chopped shallots, for instance) to the hot pan and dark pieces stuck to it and cook to soften. Stir in something strong (brandy, wine, vinegar) and cook until it evaporates, deglazing the pan. Then introduce a more subtle liquid (broth, apple juice) and simmer until it's reduced by at least half. Add accents (fresh herbs, Dijon mustard or capers) and enrich with a bit of cream or butter. Spoon it on your cooked protein (or veggies) and serve. The entire process of making the sauce shouldn't take more than 10 minutes, usually much less.
"With a pan sauce, you can keep it completely unenriched. It's like a thin jus that way. A splash of cream changes it," Holmberg says. "My all-purpose, makes-everything-taste-delicious ingredients are grated Parmesan and lemon juice. Any aged cheese has a kind of deep and savory underlying flavor."
You don't need much cheese, maybe just a tablespoon or two, to add flavor without turning the mixture into a cheese sauce. Acid, too, is important in cooking, Holmberg says.
"Sometimes home cooks don't think of adding lemon juice unless the recipe calls for it. But it adds a dynamic tension in the food."
Many pan sauce recipes call for intensely flavored shallots, which are usually more expensive than Spanish or sweet onions. Holmberg's reasoning has as much to do with their size and flavor.
"I like shallots because they are small. You don't have to open up a big onion," she says. "And a yellow onion can be on the sweet side, but shallots have a bit more of a bite if they aren't cooked for a long time. But honestly, either is fine."
Learning how to make pan sauces adds another tool to your culinary kit and brings versatility to the dinnertime repertoire. Plus, it's not expensive.
"One good thing about sauces is that you are not risking a lot of ingredients," Holmberg says. "It's not a beef a stroganoff with $22 of beef that at the end of the day stinks."
And here's a another plus: Deglazing that pan helps with cleanup. Those browned bits are all gone.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter at @roadeats.