Want to quickly elevate your everyday cooking without trying too hard? Make a pan sauce! Suddenly you're not simply serving porks chops — you're serving porks chops drizzled with a rich shallot and herb-infused sauce. It's a fast and fancy dish that sounds like its destined for a dinner party, but you're really just making dinner on a Wednesday night. That's the power of a pan sauce.
Assembling one is incredibly simple. Simply cook up something tasty in a skillet — be it steak, pork, chicken, or even fish — and use the browned bits left behind in the pan as your flavor-packed base. Whisk in a few basic pantry ingredients and voila! Pan sauce. Once you've mastered the technique, it's a skill to keep in your back pocket for weeknights and weekends alike. Let's get learning!
What Is a Pan Sauce?
After you've cooked a nice piece of steak in a skillet, what's left behind might not look like much. There will be some browned bits, rendered fat, and meaty juices. A really good pan sauce is made from all of these incredibly flavorful leftovers. On top of that, a pan sauce is a way of making whatever you just cooked taste even more delicious.
To make one, excess fat is drained from the pan once the steak is removed. Aromatics like shallots and herbs are tossed in and sautéed until soft and fragrant. Then a few glugs of liquid, like wine or broth, are poured in and then the fun begins. Next, grab a whisk or wooden spoon and scrape up all that good stuff. Swirl in a little butter to add richness and there you have it — a rich sauce ready to be drizzled over your main attraction.
When Should You Make a Pan Sauce?
You can really make a pan sauce whenever you've cooked something in a pan that leaves caramelized bits behind. A pan sauce is most traditional with meats like steak, chicken, and pork, but that doesn't mean you can't branch out. It's lovely made from the browned remains after you've seared scallops or made crispy-skinned salmon — and it's even great made from what's left over after pan-searing vegetables.
The Essential Tools
What you need to build a great pan sauce is likely already in your kitchen. The technique is one that celebrates the basics, in terms of what equipment you need and what ingredients to use. It's proof that a few simple things can join forces to create something pretty darn fancy.
A cast iron or stainless steel skillet are your best friends here. A nonstick pan won't build up all those lovely bits like they will. You'll also ideally want two cooking utensils at hand. A wooden spoon or spatula really does wonders in scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan, while a whisk is useful after you've done that and want to whisk in the cold butter vigorously to thicken the sauce. In a pinch — or if you simply don't want to wash an extra utensil — you can use one or the other, although be aware that you'll want to be more gentle with the scraping if you're only using a whisk, as it could scratch the surface of your skillet.
You've already got lots of goodness right there in the skillet waiting for you, it just needs a few add-ins to turn it into a balanced sauce.
- Aromatics: Aromatics enhance the flavor of a pan sauce. A small handful of minced shallots are classic, but minced onion or a couple of smashed garlic cloves are equally as nice. You can stop there or go one step further by tossing in some fresh herbs as well; thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano are all great. Spices wouldn't be out of place either — either a few whole or a pinch of ground. Try cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cayenne pepper, or even smoked paprika.
- Liquid: There of course needs to be some liquid added to the pan to make what you've got sauce-like. Adding just enough to coat the bottom of the pan will help start to lift up the stuck stuff — a step that's called deglazing. While you could technically use water, using a more flavorful liquid will boost your final product. White or red wine is classic, but broth, juice, beer, and even whiskey, if you're feeling a little wild, can be used instead.
- Fat: There's already some fat in the pan from cooking, but in order to achieve a velvety, luscious sauce, it helps to add a little more. Just a tablespoon or so of cold butter, whisked in at the end, instantly thickens up the pan sauce and finishes it off.
- Acid: With all that caramelized goodness in the pan, it's useful to add a little acid to keep your sauce balanced. Deglazing with wine or juice will lend some acidity to the pan, but it's nice to finish it off with a touch more. A bit of Dijon mustard stirred in before adding the butter gives a bit of tang to the sauce (and is another way to help thicken it), as does a splash of vinegar like balsamic, cider, or sherry. Or simply finish with a nice squeeze of lemon or even lime to the pan after you've added the butter and are just about to serve it.
Learn the technique: How to Make a Pan Sauce from Steak Drippings