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.
The basic formula
According to Martha Holmberg, author of Modern Sauces (Chronicle Books, 2012), making a pan sauce is "all about improvising and responding to what you have in your saute pan." For that reason, she doesn't give exact recipes but rather a guideline for building a sauce.
Here are the approximate amounts of ingredients to make a sauce for four chops, chicken breasts or steaks:
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot, onion, mushroom or other mild aromatic and/or 1 teaspoon chopped garlic, fresh chile, peeled fresh ginger or other strong aromatic.
(Sauteed until soft after meat has been removed from skillet.)
¼ cup wine, spirits, vinegar or other strong liquid.
(Stir and simmer to release brown bits from bottom of pan. Cook until evaporated.)
¾ cup broth, fruit juice, hard cider or other mild liquid.
(Simmer until reduced by about two-thirds.)
Fresh herb sprigs and/or 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon accent ingredients such as Dijon mustard, soy sauce, green peppercorns, capers or chopped fresh herbs.
(Stirred in and cooked for about 1 minute to heat through.)
These are optional and include 1 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream or creme fraiche and/or 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter.
(Sauce is ready as soon as enrichments are incorporated. Do not boil.)
Here are three combinations of ingredients, using the technique described above, that pair well with chicken:
Minced garlic; Madeira wine; turkey or chicken broth; sliced fresh basil and heavy cream.
Chopped fresh chile and minced garlic; balsamic vinegar; fresh orange juice and unsalted butter.
Chopped shallot and jalapeno plus minced garlic; dry white wine (such as sauvignon blanc or chardonnay); chicken broth; peeled, seeded and finely diced tomato; finely granted lime zest and chopped fresh cilantro, and unsalted butter.
From Modern Sauces
by Martha Holmberg
Sauteed Chicken Breasts
With Creamy Chive Sauce
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 pound), trimmed of fat
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon
all-purpose flour, divided
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, finely chopped
½ cup dry white wine
1 (14-ounce) can reduced-sodium chicken broth
⅓ cup reduced-fat sour cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ cup chopped chives, (about 1 bunch)
Place chicken between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet or heavy skillet until flattened to an even thickness, about ½ inch. Season both sides of the chicken with ½ teaspoon salt. Place ¼ cup flour in a shallow glass baking dish and dredge the chicken in it. Discard the excess flour.
Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate, cover and keep warm.
Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring constantly and scraping up any browned bits until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour; stir to coat. Add wine, broth and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt; bring to a boil, stirring often.
Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until heated through and no longer pink in the center, about 6 minutes. Stir in sour cream and mustard until smooth; turn the chicken to coat with the sauce. Stir in chives and serve immediately.
Source: Eating Well magazine
Pork Chops With
Cranberry-Thyme Pan Sauce
1 tablespoon butter
2 (5- to 6-ounce) boneless pork chops
⅓ cup dry white wine
⅓ cup cranberry sauce
3 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Melt butter in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle pork with salt and pepper. Saute pork until brown and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer pork to plate. Add wine to same skillet. Bring to simmer, scraping up browned bits in bottom of pan. Stir in remaining ingredients. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until slightly reduced, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Return pork and any juices to skillet. Cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Transfer pork to plates. Spoon sauce over and serve.
Source: Bon Appétit
Brussels Sprouts Ragout With Lemon Pan Sauce
A ragout is like a veggie stew, only more elegant and less "saucy." This version gains great flavor from sauteing each veggie separately until tender and brown.
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (1 tablespoon cut into small pieces and kept cold)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pounds Brussels sprouts, quartered
2 ½ cups (2 large) thickly sliced leeks, all of the white and some of the green
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups (4 ounces) baby spinach leaves
⅓ cup chopped toasted pecans, optional
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives, tarragon, or parsley, optional
Combine lemon juice, maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, and lemon zest in measuring cup. Measure ¼ cup water in separate measuring cup for deglazing.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoon oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add Brussels sprouts, cover, and cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until some are browned. Remove from heat and transfer to bowl. Add 2 tablespoons water to pot and scrape up brown bits from bottom of pot. Add deglazed juices to lemon juice mixture, set aside.
Return pot to medium-low heat and heat 1 tablespoon butter and remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add leeks, cover, and cook 7 to 10 minutes, or until leeks are soft and some are browned, stirring frequently. Uncover, add garlic, and saute 30 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons water, and scrape up brown bits from bottom of pot. Add spinach, cook 1 minute. Add Brussels sprouts, lemon juice mixture and cold butter; stir just until butter has melted. Garnish with pecans and herbs, if using.
Source: Vegetarian Times