Pan sauces, unlike the emulsified branch of the sauce family, have a forgiving nature. If the sauce is too thin, it can either be reduced further or thickened with a starch. Or maybe the sauce...

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Pan sauces, unlike the emulsified branch of the sauce family, have a forgiving nature. If the sauce is too thin, it can either be reduced further or thickened with a starch. Or maybe the sauce has been reduced so much, it needs loosening up. Just correct the consistency with a tablespoon or two of water or other liquid.

The foundation of pan sauces are the crusty juices that form on the bottom of the pan when food is browned, sautéed or roasted. Here’s how to construct an elegant sauce, step by step.

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1) Sauté: Meats should first be patted with paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Choose a heavy-bottomed sauté or frying pan. In “Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making,” author James Peterson advises paying attention to the size of the pan: “When meats are sautéed,” he writes, “they should fit neatly into the sauté pan with no extra room. If the pan is too large, so that part of its surface is exposed during sautéing, the meat juices, which are essential to pan-deglazed sauces, will burn. An overcrowded pan, on the other hand, will prevent the meat from browning evenly and may even cause it to release its juices too quickly, so that it simmers in its own juices, rather than browns.”

Heat the pan over medium to medium-high heat. (Some burners are hotter than others, so adjust the heat accordingly.) Add the oil or other fat called for in the recipe. When hot, add food and cook without moving until a crust is formed, which should release easily from the pan. Then turn and finish cooking. The food should be a rich brown, but should not blacken.


2) Degrease: After sautéing and removing meat from pan, pour off the fat. (If aromatics are going to be added, a thin glaze of fat can be left on the bottom of the pan.)

3) Deglaze: After degreasing pan, put it back on the heat. Now add aromatics such as minced garlic and shallot, or a mirepoix — a tiny dice of carrot, celery and onion. Sauté about 30 seconds. Pour liquid into the pan; it should come to a boil quickly. Use a spatula to loosen the browned juices, which become the bridge between the meat and sauce, adding lots of flavor and rich color.

Deglazing liquids can be wine, broth or stock, or even water, which can be used in combination or alone. For instance, add a small amount of wine to deglaze the pan, then add stock or another liquid.

Use a good stock or broth, preferably homemade. But even canned broth can be made richer and more flavorful by simmering for 30 to 45 minutes with aromatics such as onion, garlic, carrot and celery.


4) Reduce: The deglazing liquid is cooked down by at least half, which concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce. As the liquid cooks down, it will become saltier, so season the sauce after it has reduced.

Get a jump on the process by preparing reductions in advance — a time-saver for quick-to-fix dishes. Reduce stock or wine by half, or cream by about a third, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

5) Bind or thicken: Pan sauces are thickened most often by reduction. But when a lot of liquid is added, as for the gravy made from the drippings of turkey, one of the following binders may help:

Beurre manié: With a fork, blend until smooth 1 tablespoon each of softened, unsalted butter and flour for each cup liquid. Add slowly to the simmering sauce, whisking until smooth, and simmer about 5 minutes.

Slurries, made with a starch and cold water, are sauce savers that have differing qualities and cooking times.


Flour paste: Whisk together about 3 times the amount of cold water to flour until smooth. Then pour a little at a time into the sauce, whisking constantly. Add just enough to thicken the liquid. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes.

• Cornstarch: Transparent sauces, much like those used in Chinese cooking, are the result when cornstarch is used. For every cup of sauce, dissolve about 1 to 2 teaspoons in twice the amount of cold water. Add to the hot, simmering liquid in pan, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Cook about 2 minutes.

• Arrowroot: Dissolve 1 to 2 teaspoons in twice the amount of cold water to thicken a cup of liquid. Arrowroot does not need to be cooked to remove its raw flavor and will begin to thicken immediately. Simmer about 1 minute.

You may be taking a chance with arrowroot, or any starch, that’s been pushed to the back of your cupboard for several years, as its thickening ability will weaken with age. It’s a good idea to date the packaging when purchased so you’ll have a fresh batch on hand when needed.

Sauces can be strained after reducing and thickening for smooth, elegant preparations. But many benefit from the texture given by aromatics, vegetables and herbs. In fact, vegetable or even fruit purées can also be used to thicken sauces. These purees “also contribute flavor, whereas plain starch does not,” writes Peterson. “Some purees, such as those made with tomato or green vegetables, contain so little starch that they thicken a sauce simply by adding a large bulk of fine solid particles to a liquid medium,” he continues. When left to sit, the sauces may separate, but can be pulled back together by whisking.


6) Finishes: Some wonderful demi-glaces, which are stocks that have been reduced to a concentrated gel-like paste, are available in many supermarkets. A teaspoon added to the finished sauce can add color, flavor and richness. The juices that have gathered around the cooked meat can also be put into the sauce and simmered briefly to thicken.

For a glossy sheen and velvety finish, about 1 tablespoon cold, unsalted butter can be swirled into 1 cup sauce. On medium-low heat, whisk in small pieces at a time, swirling the pan in a circular motion. When melted, add another bit of butter. Remove pan from heat before the last piece of butter has melted completely.

Sources: “Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making,” by James Peterson; “A Fresh Look at Saucing Foods” by Deirdre Davis; “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.