Pan Sauce Hints and Tips?
November 10, 2006 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Tips for making pan sauces?

Since everyone was so helpful with my stir fry question before, I thought I'd ask for tips for pan sauces. I'm looking for general tips, quick recipes. Particularly which wines you think are best, the best kind of pan to use for searing meat/making sauce (specific brands/models would be nice).. And last, most recipes call for stock, which I'm not going to make. Canned broth isn't a good substitute-- what about the Wolfgang Puck 'stock' that you can buy, is that good enough?
posted by empath to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
As far as the stock goes, you can simply use bullion cubes. Combine the cube with a small amount of boiling water and let it dissolve. I've found it preferable to storing an amount of stock I'll never end up using.

When you go to the store, you'll usually find wines specifically for cooking. I favor marsala and sherry.

Use of pans is a mostly personal choice. I have a few different kinds, but I tend to use an all stainless 10" sauce pan for making sauce. The stainless will conduct heat very quickly, so make sure to stay on top of your cooking to make sure it does not burn. I really like the stainless for making sauce since you have a lot of control over the temperature of the surface (using a cast-iron pan, you won't lose a lot of heat quickly if you drop the burner temp). And I do not use non-stick type teflon pans. So I'd say specifically for searing, you'd want an all-stainless pan.

You need this book. His other books are very good as well.
posted by ninjew at 10:55 AM on November 10, 2006

I like a steel pan, stainless being fine. It leaves behind the best bits of the meat you are cooking. Noting really sticks to Teflon, or to enamel. Aluminum is not a good choice with acids. After cooking the meat add your liquids, scrape the tasty bits off the pan and into the liquid and then reduce. Thicken with starch or butter. If using starch make a paste then add some of the liquid from the pan to thin out the paste until it is essentially liquid and then add to the pan - never any lumps with this method. The classic way is to add the starch to the pan with sufficient oil or butter before adding the liquid and then add in pre-heated liquid, gradually at first - much better consistency but harder to avoid lumps, plus you really need a goodly bit of fat. If you are making a butter sauce, just take a stick of butter and hold one end and melt the other end right in using the stick to stir. Butter sauces are tasty (mostly what you get in restaurants) yet not so healthy.
posted by caddis at 10:55 AM on November 10, 2006

I have to disagree with ninjew, bullion is a foreign flavor and has too much salt. "Cooking wines" are also loaded with salt. Using these ingredients you lose control of the salt.
posted by caddis at 10:59 AM on November 10, 2006

I really like Pacific Foods broths, which come in cartons and are generally organic-ish. We use it exclusively, unless we make our own. You can freeze it in cubes if you don't use the whole carton, and then that makes it easier next time, too -- you just pop out an ice cube. I find the taste to be much less salty and chemical-y than the bouillon cubes with which I have been acquainted.
posted by librarina at 11:03 AM on November 10, 2006

If you want to get really into it, get thyself a copy of Cooking at the Academy: California Culinary Academy.
All of sauce history in there, and a bit more.

However, a simple pan sauce can be easily done. My favorite is the sauce for chicken piccata, where you saute some garlic in the pan directly after removing the chicken that you've dredged in flour and have panfried in some olive oil, add white wine and let the alcohol cook out, then chicken stock, lemon juice, lemon zest, a little bit of sugar and reduce it down. Add capers just before you put the chicken back in to heat through, serve over rice pilaf and enjoy.

As for wine, the most important thing is to let the alcohol cook out, and only cook with something you'd want to drink, because it makes it that much better.

You're right on the stock over broth thing. I cheat and use bouillon cubes, just get the low-sodium kind.
posted by lilithim at 11:03 AM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh gosh, don't use boullion. Read the ingredients-- all yeasts and salt and ick. Pacific broths and stocks are pretty good-- check out the "natural" foods area for stocks that are MSG-free and better for you. You can freeze the extra in a plastic container. Or, you can buy the smaller asceptic packs.

For wine, try buying a 4-pack of small bottles of a sort-of decent wine. Much better quality than the cooking wine and salt-free.

I'm a big fan of the cast-iron pan, but again, YMMV.
posted by miss tea at 11:05 AM on November 10, 2006

There's a stock sold under the name "Kitchen Basics" which is really good. They come in small, cardboard boxes in the canned soup isle. Chicken, beef and vegetable. All good. All around a dollar, and small sized (maybe 10-12oz)

And I too would not suggest bullion.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:15 AM on November 10, 2006

caddis - the wines that ninjew mentions - marsala and sherry - are not the cooking wines loaded with salt to which you're referring.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 11:44 AM on November 10, 2006

I keep dry vermouth on hand to use as 'white wine' in cooking, because it keeps a long time at room temp. Use a little less that the recipe calls for, and and water to compensate. The flavor of vermouth is stronger than that of most white wines.
posted by wryly at 11:45 AM on November 10, 2006

The name of the game here is deglaze. Second the stainless-steel pan (can't get proper frond with nonstick) and no buillon.

And you maybe should consider making stock. It's incredibly easy (boil. strain.), and you can make a huge batch and freeze it in one-cup portions for easy use later.
posted by The Michael The at 11:46 AM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

it sounds like you are starting to get into cooking a bit more than you have? I never did much in the kitchen and had parents that didn't cook at all.

I swear by The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Heavy-Duty Revised Edition

They tell you everything from best equipment to best butter to best broth, etc.

For a pan based on their suggestion I bought the Wolfgang puck skillet from Home shopping Network.
And a few GREAT knives that were super cheap.

They always suggest low sodium broth since you reduce them so much.
posted by beccaj at 11:48 AM on November 10, 2006

Le Guide
posted by rxrfrx at 11:58 AM on November 10, 2006

caddis - the wines that ninjew mentions - marsala and sherry - are not the cooking wines loaded with salt to which you're referring.

I assumed ninjew meant something like Holland House Marsala or Sherry as they were described as being "specifically for cooking." Those are loaded with salt. Regular Marsala and Sherry are not specifically for cooking, but do work well in pan sauces.
posted by caddis at 12:12 PM on November 10, 2006

When you go to the store, you'll usually find wines specifically for cooking. I favor marsala and sherry.

Do not ever do this. I wouldn't serve 'cooking' wines to my worst enemy.

The rule of thumb for cooking with alcohol is: if you would not serve it, why on Earth would you cook with it?

Your simplest bet is to use the wine that you will be drinking with dinner.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2006

yet another voice to add to the "no boullion" fray.

Use chicken or veggie broth packed in the aseptic cardboard boxes, or cans. Swanson's is a pretty good brand. I find most of the organic natures goodness brands to be lacking in any kind of real meat or veg flavor.

Do yourself a favor and never never used canned or aseptic beef broth. It's just nasty and metallic and not at all beefy.

You can also get containers of concetrated veal demi glace, which is the good stuff for sauces, but it's a lot more expensive and the quality varies wildly by brand.

you can make a pan sauce in pretty much any container the meat was cooked in, so long as it can go on the stovetop. I usually end up doing most of my cooking in a 10 inch frying pan with an oven safe (read: metal) handle.

I read pan sauce as a quick reduction-based sauce, rather than a traditional gravy, which is I consider a starch-thickened sauce to be. my theory on the the best and easiest pan sauce?

-remove protein from pan to warm plate, cover loosely to rest.

-pour or spoon off most of the grease/fat left in the pan, leaving about a tablespoon to teaspoon. Make sure all the good brown bits (aka fond) are still at the bottom.

-return pan to med heat, and throw in a handful of finely chopped shallots or onion. Stir and saute until translucent.

-take some of whatever wine is in your glass. slosh it into the pan and crank the heat to high and stir stir stir, scraping up all the little brown bits from the bottom of the pan (I use a wooden spatula or spoon).

-when the wine has bubbled down to an almost syrupy like texture and the bubble have started stacking up on top of themselves, slosh in some stock, and again stir stir stir.

-reduce liquid down to at least half, if not a little more than half of the original volume. Look for the bubbles stacking on top of each other. throw in a handful of chopped FRESH herbs--parsely is always good, thyme is good with chicken--and remove pan from heat.

-OFF HEAT, take a knob (like a tablespoon or more) of COLD butter, drop in hot liquid and stir continuously until the knob melts completely. The sauce will have thickened and lightened in color as the butter emulsifies. You can keep adding butter if you want, but don't return the sauce to the heat or it'll break (the butterfat will fall out of emulsion).

-Taste, and season with salt and pepper. Eat.
posted by kumquatmay at 12:35 PM on November 10, 2006 [7 favorites]

I'm not quite sure what you mean by loaded with salt in regards to the cooking wines. By all means, you can use table wines as well. Cooking is all about personal preferences. You can always decrease the other salts in your recipes to compensate as well.

I will agree that bullion isn't a good option, but I use it in a pinch.
posted by ninjew at 12:37 PM on November 10, 2006

Almost any wine sold as 'cooking wine' is full of added salt. Personal preference nothing--it tastes like shit, and no chef in the world will ever recommend using it.

It's like using Tang when the recipe calls for fresh-squeezed orange juice.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2006

As such threads are likely to do, this one has become an opinion collection, so let me throw down with mine.

I'll start by disagreeing with ninjew on the stainless steel pan recommendation; stainless steel is a notably poor conductor of heat, and is usually mated with some other metals in exterior cladding, to make it workable at all as cookware. Even then, it's still easy to stick and burn things in stainless steel, to the point that techniques like flash reduction are not only difficult-to-impossible but dangerous, too. I recommend hard anodized aluminum cookware as the most flexible for controlling cooking temperatures through all heat ranges and methods. Pan choices are particularly important if you have high heat gas burners.

I'm also going to disagree with those who suggest buillion cubes are interchangeable with stock. Buillion cubes have the valuable property of being a way of adding salt and concentrated flavor to a dish which is contributing its own water, like a pan full of browned onions, celery and mushrooms. Drowning buillion in water doesn't make stock. Good stock has some fat content and some glutamate/protein that buillion can't have, if the buillion is to keep, and the stock may also have herbal flavorings that would be undesireable in buillion.

America's Test Kitchen did a commercial chicken stock taste comparison back in 2004, and has previously tasted vegetable and beef broth preparation. They concluded that Swanson Organic Chicken Broth was the clear taste winner in chicken stock, but had less kind things to say about beef broth and vegetable broth they tested earlier. Personally, I like the Swanson chicken broth, but it is more than 3 times as expensive as a private label store brand I generally buy, that tastes just a bit "thicker," so for general cooking, I'm happy with the private label brand. If I'm doing something where the broth will itself be front and center in the dish, and don't have time to make fresh stock myself, I'll splurge on the Swanson's.

For the new saucier, it's vital to understand that there are two basic ways of thickening sauces. The first is reduction, in which excess fluid is boiled away, leaving concentrated flavors and liquid in the pan. The classic deglaze-and-reduce burgundy pan sauces that accompany many beef dishes are examples of this technique, as are the original beurre blanc sauces. The second way of thickening is to use a thickening agent to form a collodial suspension, by first coating the particles of the thickening agent completely in fat to the point they absorb most or all the available fat, and then adding water to the mixture slowly, while heating, to allow the fat coated particles to further absorb the liquid being added, and thus form the suspension. The classic white sauces such as hollandaise, and various white and brown gravies are done this way.

Of the two methods, reduction seems to take more practice, for a couple of reasons. First, there is a balance to applying heat in an essentially "unloaded" pan, to drive off liquid as vapor, without overcooking the remaining reduction. Second, there is a point of judgement to a reduction, when it is "done" but not overdone. The common mistakes are trying to reduce something that is far too dilute to make a good reduction in the end, and thus winding up with an overcooked, tasteless brown goo, or to reduce at too high a heat, sometimes trying to "save time" at the end of cooking, which leads to burnt flavors, and thin, watery sauces. Commercial reductions increasingly are done in vacuum kettles, where the intentional removal of partial air pressure in the kettle can allow the reduction to be done at far lower heat, but this is a very difficult process to replicate at home, for equipment reasons. At home, you just have to reduce by carefully controlling your heat, and stirring.

For thickened sauces, the big problem I see with beginning cooks, is that they don't carefully control their ingredient proportions. Generally, they just start with whatever fat is left in the pan, and add flour or starch to thicken "by eye." Immediately, they are often far off base on the amount of liquid they will need to finish with proper consistency, and that throws off their seasoning still further. So, I advise beginners to really get to know what 2 or 3 tablespoons of fat looks like in a skillet, particularly when tipped up, and to use tipping and a spatuala or a spoon to remove fat from the pan, to a consistent level, as the very first and most important step in a thickened sauce or gravy. After that, I suggest using a measured amount of thickener (1 to 2 tablespoons to 3 tablespoons of fat), and being sure to fully mix the thickener into the fat, and brown it (if desired) completely, before adding any liquid. Once the liquid is in the pan, it is tough to reduce a thickened sauce predictably or quickly, so it is better to add liquid very slowly, in several steps, than dilute too much.

Of course, you can combine the above two basic methods, first reducing to concentrate flavors, and then finishing with thickeners and the addition of more liquid, but the point of the reduction is generally lost in such mixtures, unless you have a very fine and light hand with the thickening agent and the additional liquid, in proportion to the reduction component.

On the question of wines to use in reductions, I agree that decent table wines are best for reductions, but remember that you are going to generally be cooking the hell out of the wine, so there is no need to put the best drinking wines in your sauces. Good wines for sauces have a clear body, and a simple, clean palate. Strong tannin and oak flavors concentrate too readily in reductions and should be avoided. Likewise, dry wines are preferred to sweet wines, because dry wines concentrate better, and are more predictable in browning and other higher heat methods. But I'm not against the use of "cooking wines" by people who don't drink wine normally, and still want to make sauces; they have their place for home cooks, if for no other reason than they help teetotalers stay in practice for the day company comes, and sauces are made with decent table wine being shared with others.

Finally, the hand that salts sauces should be a light one, and a late one. Salt is easily added at the table, by those who wish to do so, but a reduction salted early, is usually a salty, bitter mess, and gravy salted a little too much, may never thicken smoothly.
posted by paulsc at 12:45 PM on November 10, 2006 [9 favorites]

I know you don't want to make stock, but...
My pan sauces improved measurably when I decided to learn how to make a demiglace.

Buy bones, alot.
Roast in oven until dark brown.
Pile in stock pot, fill pot with ice cubes
Turn on heat
Melt ice, keep at simmer for a long freaking time.
Cook down the liquid until it looks and feels thick. Out of a 2 gallon stock pot I might get a pint or two. It takes almost a whole day, but very little attention.
Pour while very hot into very clean glass jar(s).
Cool on counter.
Put into fridge.
It will congeal. A tablespoon into a sauce adds texture and flavor (and a certain unctuousness without adding butter).
Deglaze a pan with this and some sweet wine makes for a very nice gravy. A tablespoon into a marinara adds some depth of flavor without having to make a bolognese sauce or cook in some meat.
This keeps for months.

I learned this from an Italian cook, he didn't use aromatics, though some do. He also kept beef, lamb and chicken in the fridge. I found that I can make do with only chicken and beef (once did venison, which was great, sometimes.). He also didn't like recipes, so you might actually find a better one than mine out there.
posted by Seamus at 12:46 PM on November 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

Try deglazing the pan that you just used for pork chops with unpastuerized Apple Cider instead of wine or stock.
posted by plinth at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2006

To the excellent advice above, I just want to add that Better Than Bouillion is a great product that produces a much more flavorful "stock" than canned broth. Plus, it allows you to control the concentration of meat flavor.
posted by chickletworks at 1:35 PM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Some great answers in this thread. I would again recommend the use of Vermouth and Sherry instead of wine. The flavor is wonderful and they keep at room temperature.
posted by geryon at 2:01 PM on November 10, 2006

Seconding Better than Bouillion. I do make my own stock, but I still use this in everything. EVERYTHING.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:06 PM on November 10, 2006

Not much to add, but I do think a link to this guy's page is in order. It is the ultimate guide/matrix to French pan sauces, "sauces au moment." Check out the page. It is great, in terms of content & design. Once you get past all the funny new words, you'll find a lot to try out.

Finding stuff like this on the web makes me happy.
posted by Brian James at 5:25 PM on November 10, 2006

What the heck, I'll add my two cents: I'll second (third? twelfth?) the recommendation of Swanson's chicken broth. However, I have also never found good beef broth. I would only use it of any type in a dire 'kitchen emergency.'

FWIW, I am a big fan of cast iron in the kitchen, but I understand it's not for everybody. I use cast iron, but I also have a fair amount of Pyrex glass dishes and some aluminum. I like things that don't have any plastic, so they can go in the oven or the broiler. I detest Teflon; if I'm going to get pans that can't be dishwashed, it might as well be cast iron.

I have recently tried doing some sauces that involve deglazing the pan (after doing beef or pork, mostly) with vermouth -- it adds an interesting flavor that I've enjoyed, although I wouldn't want it every day.

In general I'd just suggest getting a good cookbook or cookbook set that you find readable and which matches your style/preferences, and work through that in whatever time you have. I don't think that sauces are really something that you can cut corners on.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:34 PM on November 10, 2006

I make my own stock too. But I take it a step further, and add onions, celery, carrots, bay leaf, pepper corns and whatever else I happen to have. Then I reduce down and down.

From this stock, I make a kind of sauce espagnole with a roux, some tomatos, the stock, and some mushrooms for that umami flavor. Also, a small pouch of herbs. When I'm done, even though it takes all day, I have a bottle of concentrated instant 'sauce' that I can add to any sauce for added depth of flavor and texture.
posted by geekhorde at 1:08 AM on November 11, 2006

There are viable boullions out there. Most of them are extremely MSG-heavy but there are some boullion products that are MSG-free, all-vegetable, low-sodium, etc etc, generally useful (and CHEAP) in sauces such as these. Just keep an eye on the ingredients.

When looking for stock on short notice, it's sometimes shockingly easy. Need stock for a pasta sauce... maybe you have some Clamato in the fridge? Maybe you've already got a beer in your hand? Sweet and dry vermouth both, as mentioned above, are extremely good in some appropriate sauces. Guinness makes a killer secret ingredient...
posted by mek at 1:15 PM on November 18, 2006

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