Sizzling up a steak or other piece of protein marks the beginnings of a hearty meal, whether it's a quick dinner or entree for guests. But with just a few extra steps and a handful of ingredients, that cut of meat or fish can be elevated into something extra scrumptious.
Let's talk pan sauces, or as we like to say, "fun with fond." Fond is the crispy, caramelized bits left in a pan after a piece of protein has been cooked at high heat. That fond, the result of browning from the Maillard reaction, is also packed with flavor. By deglazing the pan with liquid to release that fond, and then combining with other ingredients, you're on the way to whipping up some perfect pan sauces in just a few minutes while your meat's resting.
To get a pan sauce primer, we headed to downtown's Bistro Michel and met with executive chef Scott McNamara. Given the restaurant's French flair, McNamara's a master of such "mother sauces" as béchamel and velouté. McNamara also has a background in chemistry and thinks of fond in scientific terms.
"The fond's the result of all the proteins coagulating and converting," said McNamara. "The cells themselves contain water, and after you evaporate that water you're left with only proteins and an intense flavor."
With a thick rib-eye steak and some fresh scallops from Sunh Fish, McNamara fired up Bistro Michel's range and demonstrated his techniques for creating easy pan sauces. Here's a step-by-step guide:
1. Start with the proper pan
A nonstick Teflon pan defeats the whole purpose of creating fond. Instead, opt for a stainless-steel or other nonreactive pan. While cast-iron skillets are great for searing meat, they're not ideal for creating pan sauces.
"You can get that iron flavor, especially when you're adding vinegar," said McNamara.
Also, make sure your pan is heavy and lies flat on the burner. A pan that's been warped will have trouble creating an even sear on your protein.
2. Get that pan hot, hot, hot
When it comes to searing, the pan has to be as hot as possible. The idea is to create a pleasing crust around the meat with the inside warming slightly, rather than cooking through. McNamara says to get that pan "ripping hot" before adding oil.
"I prefer to use grapeseed oil," said McNamara. "It has the highest smoke point. It's expensive, but just a small bottle will last you a long time."
3. Sear your protein, but be careful
Nothing will create a bad and bitter pan sauce like burned fond. You'll want to hear that firm sizzling sound when your protein hits the pan, but check after a couple of minutes to check the progress on a uniform crust forming. Scallops sear especially quickly, and likely don't need more than 90 seconds per side.
If you're cooking a steak, after searing for a minute or so per side, finish in the oven at 425-450 degrees. For medium-rare, cook 4 minutes per every inch of thickness.
4. Deglaze the pan while your meat rests
After removing your proteins from the pan, remove excess oil with a towel, leaving just the fond stuck to the pan. Have a metal spatula or wooden spoon on standby.
Over medium heat, add a deglazing liquid wine, vinegar, stock or some combination of these and scrape the fond with a spatula or wooden spoon. The amount of liquid you'll use depends on the amount of fond developed in the pan. If cooking for four, start with 1/4 cup of cooking liquid.
"There should be enough liquid so it can cover the pan," said McNamara. "These sauces are made on the fly, so you have to judge if you want a tangy sauce, a creamy sauce and go from there. But the less liquid you use, the beefier your flavor will be. You also don't want to go too far if using wine or vinegar. It will be really tangy and require a lot of butter to mellow it out."
5. Bouillon is a big no-no as a deglazing liquid
Sure, those bouillon cubes are handy for creating broth in a pinch. But unless you want a super-salty pan sauce, keep those bouillon cubes in the pantry.
"A pan sauce is already a reduced, concentrated sauce," said McNamara. "Adding more concentration and salt will make it unpalatable. Even a reduced-sodium bouillon cube is still salty. If you use it, by the end it'll taste like soy sauce."
6. If using wine to deglaze, use one you'd drink yourself
McNamara recommends staying away from "cooking wines," which are generally loaded with salt. Cooking with a wine that you'll be drinking with dinner always works, but there's no need to go overboard. McNamara remembers one customer with a bottle of Opus One (about $200 for a recent vintage at retail) who wanted that used for cooking, but that seemed more like conspicuous consumption than a culinary endeavor. Basically, use a wine that you'd simply be happy to sip while cooking.
7. Swirl all butter in the pan
After deglazing the pan, butter will add body and flavor to your pan sauce but keep some considerations in mind. First, start with about 1 tablespoon of cold, unsalted butter. Melt the butter at an even rate, and keep it moving in the pan by swirling to promote emulsification.
8. Reduce your sauce until it can coat the back of a spoon
The French call this consistency nappe. If you can run your finger through that sauce on the back of the spoon to create a stripe, you're in business. Getting that correct consistency can be tricky at first, but with a little practice and a watchful eye on your cooking, it'll come out great soon enough.
9. Wait until the end to season the sauce
After you've created your fond, deglazed the pan and added butter, give the sauce a taste and season to your liking. Spoon your pan sauce over your meat and enjoy.
10. A little experimentation can go a long way
To develop deeper flavors, add minced herbs such as thyme along with the butter. A combination of port and cherry juice as a deglazing liquid can also make for an especially rich pan sauce. The important part is to taste and use your senses as you go along, dialing in the perfect mix of flavor and consistency.
"Keep wafting your hand over the pan," said McNamara. "And don't be afraid of adding herbs. It's all about getting those layers of flavors."