One of the easiest and quickest ways to cook thinner, smaller pieces of meats is to pan-fry or pan-grill them. However, served up as soon as they’re cooked, without any embellishment, the results can be boring. Chicken, no matter how good it is, or steak, is just that. Pan sauces open a whole world of new flavors which enhance plain meats, and they’re easy to make.
There are other kinds of pan sauces, but today I’m writing about those built on the flavorful bits, left in the pan after you’ve cooked a meat, which are too good to waste. The first term to know is “deglaze,” which means to add liquid to the cooking residues in a pan (after pouring off any fat) and bring it to a boil while scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon. This dissolves those flavorful bits for the base of a delicious sauce.
What kind of liquid? Water’s the most basic and always available. If you have it, a homemade stock or good quality purchased stock or wine are excellent, or juice of some kind is good. Think about what would complement your protein. Chicken is good with water, chicken stock, or white wine; pork is good with any of those or apple juice; red meats are good with water, beef stock, red wine, or perhaps dry sherry, port, or other fortified wine. Beer? Why not?
An aromatic added while deglazing the pan adds an additional layer of flavor – think shallots, onions, or garlic. They’ll need to be minced or sliced thin, as these sauces cook quickly.
Once the deglazing is accomplished, reduce the liquid to concentrate the flavors. “Reduce” means to simmer to concentrate the liquid in the pan. In this case, you reduce until the liquid is beginning to thicken and get sticky, because any juices which accumulate under the meat as it’s being kept warm will be added to the sauce, and they’ll thin it out again.
Thickeners and enrichments are next. It may be a good-sized pat of butter swirled in just before serving, or a splash of heavy cream, a tiny amount of slurry or beurre manié. Taste the sauce for last-minute adjustments. It may need a bit of salt, or a bit of acid to brighten it and balance the salt. What kind of acid? A squeeze of lemon juice or a few drops of a vinegar like balsamic or sherry sounds good.
Some other additions? I’m a fan of Dijon mustard with either heavy or sour cream on any kind of meat. Herbs like parsley or tarragon are good. A creamy cheese like a soft goat cheese or Roquefort might be just what the sauce needs. Some tomato purée or essence might be good (avoid tomato paste; it’s too intense.) A dollop of duxelles (a thick paste of minced mushrooms cooked in butter with shallots and dry sherry or Marsala) would be heaven for those who like mushrooms; the ultimate would be made with a mushroom like morels. Black truffles? Now I’m dreaming.
This may sound vague without specific directions. So here’s a simple recipe from one of my cooking classes which can serve as a template for your experimentations. The sky’s the limit — enjoy trying out different tastes, and let me know what you come up with.
Pan-Broiled Steak with Red Wine Sauce
1 to 1 ½ pounds sirloin steak, no more than 1″ thick
Oil or fat of your choice for the pan
1 medium shallot, minced
½ cup sturdy red wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel
¼ cup water or stock
4 TB cold unsalted butter
Salt & pepper
Lemon juice (optional)
Film the surface of the pan lightly with olive oil, clarified butter, or lard. Heat the frying pan until the fat is on the verge of smoking, or beginning to ripple on the surface. Put the steaks in the pan.
Without moving the meat, sear the first side until well browned. Turn the steaks, and salt the seared side. Beads of collagen and blood will begin to appear when the steaks are rare. Feel the steak with your finger; the more resistance, the better done the steak. When it is done to your taste, remove from the pan, salt the second side, and put on a platter in a low oven to keep warm.
Pour out any excess fat left in the skillet. Put the shallots in the pan along with wine. Stir up all the browned particles; this process is called deglazing. Reduce over high heat until there is about 2 TB liquid left in the pan. Add the water or stock, lower the heat a little, and reduce to about ¼ cup.
Pour any juices that have collected under the meat into the pan. If they thin the sauce too much, allow it to simmer a bit longer to restore the proper consistency. Now either continue on high heat, or turn down the heat to very low. If the former, work quickly or the sauce will reduce too fast.
Whisk in the cold butter, one tablespoon at a time, making sure each one is incorporated into the sauce before adding the next. Check for seasoning, and adjust if needed with the salt, pepper, and lemon juice.