When I first started cooking for myself and others, I considered a steak dinner to be the epitome of sophisticated adult-ness, especially when served with an aggressively tannic bottle of red wine. I wasn't bad at making the meal, but one element always eluded me: The freaking pan sauce.
Photos by Claire Lower
The steak wasn't the problem. I could cook a steak. I could also bake a potato. I even made little baby chocolate lava cakes for dessert. The only thing I couldn't master was a damn pan sauce which, in my mind, was made by throwing wine and butter into a scorching hot pan once the meat was resting. Suffice to say, my early-days sauces were somehow acrid and syrupy, and rarely made it onto the actual steak.
The funny thing is, pan sauces are actually quite easy to make. I wasn't even that far off, as wine and fat are a big part of the process, I just needed to make a few tweaks. I have since made those tweaks, and can barely remember those days of terrible pan sauces. (Just kidding, those burnt syrups are seared into my tongue for all eternity.) I will now share this information with you, as I like you very much, and think you deserve all the tasty sauce in this world.
To make a pan sauce, you will need:
- A pan: Do not use non-stick, as pan sauces get their flavour from the little bits that stick to the pan.
- Meat: Steaks, pork chops and chicken parts are all obviously good choices.
- Aromatics: Minced shallot is a must, as is a clove or two of garlic. You can also add mustard seeds, peppercorns, star anise, a clove or even cinnamon, but I would start with shallot and garlic as a base.
- 1/2 cup of some sort of deglazing liquid: I like something with a bit of an ABV. You can use stock, juice, or even this stuff called "water", but they're not going to give you that same, decadent, well-rounded flavour that you get from a sauce that's made with booze. Wine is never a bad choice, but beer, rum, whiskey and sherry all have their very delicious places.
- 1/2-3/4 cup of stock: The more flavorful your stock, the more flavorful your sauce. You can also "cheat" and use my BFF, Better Than Bouillon.
- A healthy splash of dairy: I realise "healthy splash" isn't a standard form of measurement, but I honestly just add it to taste, depending on the meat I'm cooking. Start with a couple of tablespoons and go from there. I use whipping cream because I don't believe the rules apply to me. Thickened cream works too. Use skim milk if you just want to watch the world burn. (If you want to avoid cream, use butter.)
- A thickening agent: This is technically optional, but I think sauces should have some body to them, and the best way to get there is with a little bit of starch. A cornflour slurry (two parts cold water + one part cornflour) works, but I'm a fan of the beurre manie, which is fancy French for "flour butter paste" or "raw roux". To make this little ball of thickening magic, just take equal masses of flour and butter, and mash it all up into a little paste nugget. To thicken a sauce (or soup or anything) break off a little piece and just drop it into some hot liquid. Stir, stir, stir and watch the magic happen.
Lil' ol' butter ball.
That should be everything you need. Here's what you have to do.
Get Everything Ready
I did not end up using that umami paste.
Your sauce is going to come together in a matter of minutes and, if you're trying to make your little ball of butter paste while the wine is reducing, it's probably going to over-reduce, and you're probably going to be sad. I don't want you to be sad so do these things before you even think of heating a pan:
- Mince your shallot and garlic. Set those bad boys aside in a little bowl.
- Measure out your alcohol and your stock. Pour yourself a bit of whatever you're deglazing with because you're doing a capital job of being an adult, ol' chap.
- Grab an empty bowl for pouring off pan grease.
- Decide which thickener you want to use and either mix your slurry or knead your little butter ball.
- Get your cream.
Group everyone together within easy reach so you don't have to search for anything, then start cooking.
Pre-heat your oven to 93C. Put a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil or ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan and get it almost smoking hot. Sear your protein of choice on all sides and cook to your desired done-ness. Move your meat to a plate, and pop it in the oven to keep warm.
And Now, You Make Sauce
Since your meat is in a warm oven, you don't have to worry about it getting cold. A pan sauce doesn't take long, but rushing won't help, and I like having the peace of mind knowing that my steak isn't getting cold. To turn your pan drippings into a velvety, tasty accoutrements for your meat, just do the following:
1. Lower your heat to medium and pour off excess grease into a little bowl. Set it aside. Do not wipe the pan off; you'll want a bit of oil in there for the next step.
2. Add your shallots, garlic and any spices to the pan. Cook until the shallots are soft and the spices are fragrant (about four minutes).
3. In your deglazing liquid and, using a wooden spatula or spoon, scrape up all the little browned bits that are stuck to the pan. Let it reduce by about half. Honestly, I have a hard time visually estimating volume, but we don't need to be exact. When you first add your liquid, the pan will look something like this:
Cook it down until it looks like this:
4. Pour in 1/2 a cup of stock. Let that cook for a couple of minutes, then stir in some cream and that cooking fat you poured off earlier.
5. Let everything cook for a few minutes, until you reach your desired consistency. If you want it really thick and luscious, add in a cornflour slurry or a pinch of your butterball. (If it gets too thick, just add a little more stock.) Give everything one more whisking, transfer to a serving container, and pour all over your sexy meat.
Once you've mastered the technique, you'll start wanting to take chances, and play around with add-ins, alcohols and stocks. I encourage this wholeheartedly and can't wait to talk modifications, but that's another article for another time.