Though astoundingly easy to prepare, a simple pan sauce can massively upgrade just about any meal. Here’s how to prepare one for whatever protein you’re cooking tonight.

By David McCann
Updated September 24, 2020

A pan sauce. How could something that both sounds ridiculously simple and IS, in fact, ridiculously simple transform any meal from “good for a Tuesday” to “perfect for company?”

A pan sauce is, in its simplest form, nothing more than using a liquid (water, stock, wine etc.) to loosen the brown bits from a pan in which a protein (chicken, meat, fish, etc.) has been cooked. But this description belies the true power and variety of the pan sauce.

Credit: Photo: Jamie Vespa MS, RD

The first step to making one is heating a good solid skillet or saute pan, then add the oil, butter, or combination of the two. And finally, once heated, add your protein. As it cooks, you will see browning on the bottom of the pan...not burning (hopefully), but deep, rich browning. The French refer to this as the fond. The fond is super concentrated and caramelized flavor of both the fat and the protein. After the protein is cooked (or browned sufficiently to finish the cooking in the oven) remove it from your pan, turn up the heat, pour in some wine or vermouth, and scrape up all of that brown goodness at the bottom of the pan as the wine reduces to almost nothing.

At this point, the endless variety of the pan sauce becomes apparent. Here’s where the addition of wonderful flavor enhancers starts. And all of them can be varied, doubled, cut in half, added in different combinations etc. Most pan sauces start with a member of the allium family—minced onions, shallots, and/or garlic (these really get the party going). Then, possibly some drained and rinsed capers. Let those sizzle in the sauce for a few moments, being careful not to burn, Then, in goes some stock or water. When that is sufficiently reduced to a consistency that works for you, it’s now time for fresh herbs, or citrus zest, any flavor that you feel would work well with your protein. And I’m completely serious when I say any flavor that you want. I often add duxelles, or a splash of an interesting vinegar… anything that strikes my fancy at the moment is welcome.

Credit: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Claire Spollen

Generally, at this point, a pan sauce is finished with a bit of butter or cream for a velvety rich taste and texture. But your pan sauce can be equally delicious in a different way if you leave out the dairy. It will then have a lighter and brighter taste. By the way, this impressive finishing touch has taken maybe all of 5 minutes. Another benefit is that making a sauce like this forces you to let your protein rest… something we should always do, and often don’t.

I cannot overemphasize this next point enough. Before dousing your chicken, pork, beef, or fish with the completed pan sauce, TASTE IT. You may need a pinch of salt, or pepper. Maybe you reduced it too much and need a little more stock. Perhaps the herbs have lost a little punch and the sauce would benefit from a refreshing herb shower. But you can’t know any of these things until you taste and decide for yourself.

Finally place your beautifully cooked (and rested!) protein on a warmed plate, with whatever sides you’ve made, and spoon some of this magical elixir over it. Voila. Dinner is now extra special. And it only took you a few minutes!