Just Add Water: How to Make a Pan Sauce, and How to Fix a Broken One

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Natalie Holt]

A simple piece of seared meat can seem boring, but with a glossy and rich sauce it doesn’t have to be. Luckily, a great pan sauce practically makes itself, and it starts when you’re searing your meat, whether you notice it or not. All the tasty browned bits left behind after searing meat are called fond, and they form the foundation of a pan sauce. Scrape up the fond with some liquid, and you've got your sauce, which can then be enriched with butter or cream. It’s a fast and easy way to step up your meat game.

For an entry-level pan sauce, a splash of any liquid at all can be used to scrape up and dissolve the fond. Take, for example, red eye gravy: after searing country ham, you add a splash of coffee to the pan and voilà, you have a pan sauce. So, technically, all you need is a splash of water to scrape up the fond and pat of butter of butter to give the sauce a little richness. It’s basic, but it’s better than letting good fond go to waste. On a busy weeknight when I can’t be bothered to mince a shallot or defrost some chicken stock, my go-to pan sauce is butter and water. I’m not ashamed. It’s delicious.

When I want to step up my pan sauce game, it doesn't take much more effort but it does require some planning. At the end of the day, the quality of your pan sauce is directly related to the quality of your chicken stock—store-bought stock with added gelatin is good, homemade is better, and triple-fortified stock made from heritage chickens is Michelin-level. Here are the steps to making a pan sauce, and how to fix one if you stumble along the way.

Before I can contemplate sauces, I first need to talk about the meat and, specifically, how to sear it. Because I want to encrust the bottom of the pan with a golden crackly fond, I use a cast iron or heavy gauge stainless steel skillet over high heat to maximize browning. Fond is created through sticking, so save your nonstick cookware for omelettes and eggs.

After my meat has cooked, I set it aside to rest while I direct my attention to the pan. If there is any excess fat, I pour it off; there is no need to wipe the skillet out, a bit of fat left behind is a-okay. This is the time to add any aromatics or spices, such as minced shallot, garlic, cumin, or paprika. I cook them over medium heat until the aromatics just become tender and the spices bloom, scraping up the brown bits with a sturdy wooden spoon along the way. (Vegetable aromatics, like shallot, will release water as they cook, which will help in scraping up some of the fond.)

Next I add a splash of wine, which allows me to scrape up every last bit of fond. Whenever cooking with wine, it’s important to reduce it to what the French call au sec, which means “almost dry.” Taking the time to reduce the wine on its own without additional liquid ensures that the alcohol has fully cooked off, leaving no harsh taste behind. It also concentrates the small amount of sugars in the wine, which gives body to the pan sauce. This additional viscosity will also help to keep the sauce emulsified. You know your wine has cooked down to au sec when a spoon dragged across the pan leaves a streak in the liquid that stays a moment before vanishing. In place of the wine you can also add another alcohol, such as cognac or Grand Marnier, which you'll want to flambé, or ignite (carefully) with a long match or lighter, to burn off the alcohol.

After the wine has reduced I add the chicken stock, either homemade chicken stock or low-sodium store-bought stock with added unflavored gelatin. I then allow the chicken stock to reduce until the pan sauce is looking thick and sticky before adding a few pats of butter. The combination of stirring, swirling the pan, and vigorous bubbling will emulsify the butter into the sauce, breaking it up into tiny droplets that are then distributed throughout the liquid.

A properly emulsified sauce will look creamy, thick, and opaque, and in order for that to happen, it needs to contain enough water. If the pan sauce looks greasy, then it is broken—too much water has evaporated from the sauce and it has over-reduced. Just like in a vinaigrette, where oil is whisked into vinegar, butter is scattered throughout the liquid phase of the sauce. The concentrated proteins and sugars from the chicken stock and wine act like chaperones at a school dance, keeping the fat from coalescing and breaking out of the water phase of the sauce. But without enough water, there isn’t even a party.

Thankfully, a pan sauce can be fixed as easily as it can be broken. All it takes is a splash of water and some vigorous simmering and stirring to redistribute the butter and bring that glossy and thick sauce back from the brink. The only exception to this is if you’ve taken the pan sauce all the way to the edge and burnt the milk solids in the butter. In that case, break out the A-1. We all have that stuff lurking in the back of the fridge for a reason.

With the butter successfully emulsified into the sauce (whether it broke once or twice and you fixed it or not), it’s time for some finishing touches. I finished the pan sauce you see here with Dijon, parsley, and black pepper, but you can use your favorite soft herbs and even a touch of cream. The pan sauce possibilities are endless—chopped capers and olives work great with a white wine pan sauce for chicken thighs, while a rosemary and red wine sauce is perfect for lamb. And even if you’re not going whole hog on your pan sauce and sticking with just water and butter, we’ll all live in a tastier world as long as no fond gets left behind.