How to Make a Pan Sauce

Turn your dirty pan into a top-notch sauce.

How many times have you opted to use a non-stick skillet to cook meat simply because you didn't feel like cleaning the brown, stuck-on gunk from the pan afterward? What if I told you there was an easy, scrub-free way to clean the skillet and create a super scrumptious, flavor-infused sauce in the process? The secret is a simple pan sauce, and once you master this technique, you'll be using it to transform all of your meat (chicken, beef, pork or even fish) into works of culinary art. Here is my favorite recipe for a foolproof rosemary and lemon pan sauce for chicken to get you acquainted with the technique.

To see a video of pan sauce being made, click here.

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1 Sear Your Meat

A pan sauce always begins with seared meat. Searing meat in a little oil or butter caramelizes the meat and creates a delicious layer of flavor that sticks to the bottom of the pan. The sight of this stuck-on brown layer causes dread in novice cooks, but nothing makes a seasoned chef happier. I've cooked two chicken breasts in a skillet with a little oil for this recipe, but the same effect can be achieved with any meat, cooked in any oil or fat. 


2 Choosing Your Pan

Those little brown bits of flavor are called the "fond" and are the key to a really amazing pan sauce. The sauté pan you choose will affect the formation of the fond, so it's important to choose the right tool. Non-stick skillets are specifically designed to not let food caramelize or stick to their surface, and, while cast iron skillets create great fond, they can react with acidic ingredients in the sauce and ruin the flavor. The best pan for the job is a non-reactive, stainless steel skillet with a heavy bottom for even heating.

3 Add Aromatics

A simple pan sauce can be made with just the meat drippings, fond, a liquid of your choice and butter, but you can take it to the next level by adding some aromatics and fresh herbs. Aromatics—like garlic, onions and shallots—provide a great base flavor for the sauce, and fresh herbs add a wonderfully fresh and vibrant finish. Pan sauces are extremely flexible by nature, but for this two-serving pan sauce I'm using one shallot, one tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary, and one teaspoon of lemon zest.

4 Add Butter or Oil

To begin the sauce, add the diced shallot to the pan full of fond. Sauté the shallot in the pan's remaining oil or grease over medium-low heat until it is soft and translucent (about three minutes). If the skillet is dry after removing the meat, add one tablespoon of butter or oil along with the shallot. The moisture from the shallot will begin to "deglaze" the pan, loosening and dissolving the fond from its surface (no scrubbing needed!).


5 Add Liquid

Once the shallots are soft, add 1/2 cup of dry white wine (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or Sauvignon Blanc are all good choices). Take care when pouring the wine to avoid accidentally igniting the alcohol. Use a wooden spoon to stir the sauce and scrape the bottom of the pan until all of the fond has been dissolved into the sauce. Simmer the sauce over medium heat until it is reduced by half (five to seven minutes). Wine isn't the only option for liquid when it comes to making a pan sauce; cider, stock, broth or even fruit juice all work great. For this particular sauce, a high quality, low-sodium chicken stock is a great alternative to the white wine.

6 Add More Butter or Cream

After reducing the wine we're left with a concentrated, highly flavored, and slightly acidic sauce. Sweet, creamy, unsalted butter is the perfect ingredient to add body to the sauce and mellow the concentrated flavors. Melt three or more tablespoons of butter into the sauce (depending on the desired richness). For an extra-creamy pan sauce, you can even add a splash of heavy cream or half-and-half.

7 Add Herbs

Now that the sauce is nearly complete, it's ready for the fresh herbs. Adding herbs at the end of the sauce-making process keeps their flavors bright and fresh. Dijon mustard or fruit preserves are also great for stirring into a pan sauce and adding extra flavor.


8 Season with Salt

Taste the sauce and add salt as needed (1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon), and that's it! The pan sauce is complete, your skillet is free of debris and your meal has been brought up to a chef-level of awesomeness.

9 Drizzle Sauce and Enjoy

The sauce can be drizzled over your meat (rice or vegetables, too), but I like to return the meat to the skillet, cover it with sauce, and allow them to warm together for just a few minutes more. Take this simple formula:
Fond + Aromatics + Liquid + Butter + Herbs = Pan Sauce
and get creative with your own combinations. Pan sauces can be sweet, savory or even creamy, but they'll never be bland or boring.

Want more tips and tricks for making killer pan sauces? Check out this video.

About Budget Bytes

Beth from Budget Bytes is a food lover and a number cruncher who dishes up  healthy recipes on her blog that won't put a huge dent in your wallet. She is the author of the cookbook, Budget Bytes: Over 100 Easy Delicious Recipes to Slash Your Grocery Bill in Half, and she also works as a microbiologist in a hospital laboratory. Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.