Last week, as I drizzled a bit of rich golden brown, glossy, smoothly emulsified and fragrant pan sauce on top of my crisply seared and juicy pan-roasted chicken breast, I thought back to the first time I ever tried to make a pan sauce and the epic failure it produced.
It was a white wine and thyme number. Okay, I thought to myself, so I just cook this chicken, then I add stock and wine to the pan, scrape up the browned bits, cook it down, stir in some butter, and I'm done, right? That's easy! The guests were in the dining room, I was in the kitchen, the chicken was overcooked, I had a wonderful amount of fond—that's the layer of flavorful browned proteins that get stuck to your pan after you sear meat—and I had a can of Star Market's generic-label chicken stock open and ready.
You can probably guess what happened next. I added a splash of Two Buck Chuck and the canned chicken stock, scraping up the browned bits dutifully as I was instructed to before adding a few thyme sprigs and letting the whole thing reduce, waiting patiently for it to start to thicken up and look glossy like I'd been promised it would in the fancy French cookbooks I was reading at the time. The stock reduced, reduced, and reduced some more until it was down to just a couple of tablespoons. Yet those tablespoons were just as thin and watery as the liquid was when I started.
Am I done yet? I thought to myself. I reached for a spoon and took a little sip of what was in the pan before immediately spitting it out and reaching for a glass of water. It was so darn salty! Maybe this is right, I tried to convince myself. Maybe the butter will make everything better. Yeah, that's it. Butter makes things better. I swirled in two pats of butter, trying my best to get them to emulsify into the sauce as I was promised they would. What I ended up with was a half-emulsified, overly salty, greasy sauce with terrible flavor. I dumped it in the trash and served that chicken with a drizzle of olive oil instead.
It wasn't until I got my first gig cooking in restaurants that it really struck me exactly what a pan sauce is supposed to taste like. These sauces were rich and smooth! They were glossy and brightly flavored and stuck to the meat, leaving a streak of white plate that slowly closed as you swiped each bite through it. They had just the right level of salt and an intensely meaty aroma with not a hint of excess greasiness. These sauces were exquisitely simple and extraordinarily tasty.
"What does a restaurant kitchen have that I was missing back in my college days?"
So what was it that made the difference? What does a restaurant kitchen have that I was missing back in my college days? Well there's the obvious: In a restaurant, you're starting with flavor-packed homemade stock whereas at home, most folks are using store-bought stock. Reducing good stock gives you concentrated good flavor while reducing bad stock gives you concentrated bad flavor. But even starting with a decent store-bought stock* (I use either Swanson organic chicken broth or low-sodium Imagine organic), achieving decent flavor is a possibility, but getting that glossy, rich, non-greasy texture is very difficult. Why is that?
*Even for a person like me, whose job it is to cook every day, making my own stock is not a regular occurrence and I rely on Tetra-paks of store-bought low-sodium chicken stock for my day-to-day needs.
It all comes down to two factors: gelatin and heat.
The Science of Emulsions
See, a pan sauce is essentially a butter and water emulsion. Sure, there are trace amounts of other things in there that give it flavor, aroma, and brightness, but that rich, mouth-coating texture? The creamy body it gets? That's from the emulsion.
Forming a butterfat-in-water emulsion is not as easy as just melting butter and water together. As we all know, emulsions are a just-barely-stable mixture of two things that really shouldn't get along under normal circumstances. In this case, water (broth and wine are essentially water), and fat. See, fat molecules really hate water and they'll naturally try to limit their exposure to water as much as possible.
Imagine fat molecules as a big ol' group of wildebeest and water as the largest pride of lions in the world. I'm talking thousands of lions. Put those wildebeest and lions together on the big African veldt, and the first thing that's going to happen is those wildebeest are going to group together, each one scrambling to get into the center of the group and away from the lions. This is exactly what happens when you add fat to water. Fat molecules have a tendency to seek each other out and cling to each other, coalescing into larger and larger droplets until eventually you end up with a single greasy slick of fat floating on top of the water.
Now say we were to take that herd of wildebeest and rather than having them start out as a single herd, we airdrop them one by one into a field of lions. As each wildebeest lands, it gets surrounded by lions, making it very difficult for them to ever find each other and form a herd. Similarly, if we can separate the fat down to essentially individual molecules and surround each one with water, we can form a rather stable mixture that doesn't end up turning into that greasy slick. At least not in the time it takes us to eat it.
A side effect of a stable emulsion is that the whole thing ends up thicker than either constituent on its own, as water molecules have more trouble flowing now that they're hampered by tiny droplets of dispersed fat.
The problem is, even with very, very vigorous whisking, it's difficult to actually get those fat molecules small enough to form a stable emulsion. To get there, you need a bit more help, which takes us to the gelatin.
Restaurant stocks are rich with gelatin that are extracted from the bones they're made with. Gelatin is a protein that forms a very loose, flexible matrix inside an aqueous solution, lightly thickening it. It's this thickening that is really key to stronger emulsions. Going back to our wildebeest, imagine now that we were to flood the entire veldt with water, turning the dry grass into a muddy swamp that prevents both the wildebeest and the lions from moving at full speed. If we can now separate the wildebeest mob into individuals, it'll take much longer for them to regroup into a solid herd.
Thickeners will physically impede fat molecules from coalescing, giving pan sauces long-lasting stability.
The other factor a restaurant kitchen has going for it is the intense heat of a restaurant burner. Intense heat means intensely violent bubbling in the skillet. It's those bubbles that end up doing all of the whisking and churning for you. While at home I might need to vigorously whisk butter into a pan of stock to start a good emulsion, at a restaurant I can drop my butter right into the pan, crank the heat to max, and let it rip until the sauce is formed.
Bringing it Home
So what's a home cook starting with store-bought stock to do? You have a couple of options, and both of them involve adding just a tiny, tiny bit of thickener to help keep your emulsion stable.
The first is my usual go-to technique: just toss your butter cubes in a bit of cornstarch.
Just that tiny amount of cornstarch that clings to the butter's surface is enough to gently thicken your stock as it simmers, giving you a creamy, rich, and glossy sauce at the end.
The second method is one I've been experimenting with recently, and may well become the standard at my house. Since it's gelatin the stock is missing, why not just add some directly? By sprinkling the gelatin over the stock and letting it hydrate while I'm cooking my chicken, it doesn't even add any extra time to a typical recipe!
Chicken Breast and White Wine-Fines Herbes Pan Sauce, Step By Step
With those two solutions under our belt, the rest is straightforward.
Step 1: Sprinkle Gelatin
First things first: I combine my liquid elements (in this case stock and wine) in a glass measuring cup and sprinkle on some gelatin to get it started with the hydration process.
Step 2: Gather Ingredients
Next, I collect my other ingredients.
Pan sauces come in a huge range of flavors (stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!), but the basic elements are always the same:
- Element 1: Sautéed aromatics. Ingredients that hit the pan first and are generally cooked in a bit of fat before adding the remaining ingredients. This often includes alliums like garlic, shallots, and onions, and can also include spices that need blooming or toasting.
- Element 2: Your liquid. Broth or stock are the start of nearly every pan sauce. Oftentimes wine or another alcohol-based liquid will be added as well for complexity and brightness.
- Element 3: Butter. Butter is added after your liquid has reduced and concentrated in flavor. Butter helps round out the sharp edges of the flavor while also thickening the sauce to a creamy consistency (assuming you get a good emulsion, which, using these techniques, you will!)
- Element 4: Finishing flavors. These are the things that go in right at the end. Fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice if the sauce needs acid, and for me, a splash of soy sauce or fish sauce because umami.
And that's about it. In this case, my liquid is chicken broth and white wine, my aromatics are shallots and garlic, and my finishing flavors are fines herbes (a mixture of parsley, tarragon, chervil, and chives), and a splash of soy sauce. The rest is just technique.
Step 3: Season Chicken
This style of pan sauce will work whether you're cooking poultry, red meat, or pork, but today I'm starting with a couple of airline chicken breasts (see the link for a demo on how to cut these from a whole chicken).
Season the chicken breasts generously on both sides with salt and pepper.
Step 4: Sear Chicken
Heat up a drizzle of canola or olive oil in a heavy oven-proof skillet over high heat until smoking hot, then gently lay your chicken into the pan, skin side down. Let it cook without moving it for a good five minutes before you start peeking underneath by gently lifting with a thin metal spatula. If the chicken doesn't release easily, then let it keep cooking. When it's ready to be flipped, it should come up with little to no struggle.
Deep, deep golden brown and ridiculous crisp surface is what we're after here.
Step 5: Flip Chicken
Once you're there, flip the chicken over skin side up.
Step 6: Finish in the Oven
Transfer the entire skillet to a hot oven and let the chicken continue to cook until finished. How do you know it's finished? Because you own one of these nifty digital instant-read thermometers, right?
As soon as that chicken hits around 150°F, you're good to go.
For the record, cooking your chicken all the way to 165°F per USDA instructions is a surefire way to get dry, stringy results. So long as your chicken hits 150°F and rests long enough outside the pan before eating, it is perfectly safe.
Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and set it aside.
Step 7: Add Aromatics
While the chicken rests, it's time to start the pan sauce. First step: Drain off all but a bit of the fat from the chicken, place the pan back on the stovetop, and add your aromatics (shallots and garlic in this case), stirring and shaking them until fragrant, just about 30 seconds. (Be careful not to let them burn—you want your stock close by to add it to the pan and halt cooking as soon as those aromatics are fragrant).
Step 8: Add Stock and Wine, and Scrape!
As soon as your shallots and garlic hit that sweet spot, hit the whole pan with the stock/wine/gelatin mixture you set aside earlier. While it's true that for pot roasts, braises, and other high-volume projects you should reduce your wine before adding other liquids, for a quick and easy pan sauce like this, you end up reducing the liquid so much anyway that a bit of excess alcohol isn't going to hurt anything. Just go ahead and add it all at once.
Scrape up any browned bits with a wooden spoon, incorporating them into the liquid.
Step 9: Reduce
Next, reduce that mixture until it starts to thicken (you can tell by the density and size of the bubbles that form—the bubbles will get larger as the sauce reduces. At a restaurant, this takes a minute or so. At home, it'll probably take closer to six or seven.
Step 10: Add Butter and Soy Sauce
Once you hit the medium-to-large bubble mark (your liquid should be reduced to about 1/3 its original volume), add butter and a splash of soy sauce, stirring the butter in with a wooden spoon or a whisk and shaking the pan vigorously as it melts.
Step 11: Add Finishing Herbs
Add your herbs and stir them in. If your sauce needs a touch of brightness, now would be a good time to add lemon juice (sauces that start with a bright white wine typically don't need the added lemon juice).
When your sauce is ready, it should form clearly visible streaks that slowly close when you drag a spoon through it. If not, keep on reducing!
Once it's hit this consistency, season to taste with salt and pepper. There's a good chance that your sauce might over-reduce while you're slicing your chicken. If it does, just reheat it with another splash of stock or water to thin it to the right consistency.
Step 12: Slice Your Chicken
I like to slice my airline chicken breasts on a sharp bias so that I can fan out the pieces. This is partly for presentation, and also partly so I can pat myself on the back in the kitchen for nailing that perfect firm-yet-juicy texture (really it's the thermometer I should be patting).
See how juicy and crispy it is? It's almost good enough to eat on its own. Almost.
But man, is it better with some of that sauce thrown into the mix. For a simple weeknight meal, it's pretty tough to beat a juicy pan-roasted chicken breast with pan sauce and a nice simple salad (vinaigrettes are a whole other emulsion worth learning about!).
I very strongly believe that anyone who dislikes chicken or just finds it plain boring has simply never had good chicken. Just look at that and tell me you'd rather be eating a steak or a pork chop. I dare you. I double dare you.
Yeah, I thought so.