A pan sauce, which is made in minutes with only a handful of ingredients, can look and taste nearly as incredible as a classic, labor-intensive restaurant sauce. Pan sauces are created by using the flavorful brown bits left on the bottom of a pan after searing meat, poultry or fish. Learn how to make a pan sauce, one of the most incredible techniques you can master to step up your cooking game.
Years ago, before I had even stepped foot in culinary school or a restaurant kitchen, I learned one of my absolute favorite cooking techniques. It’s something that’s so easy to master, yet it can elevate recipes to a whole new level without much effort.
That technique, my friends, is called a pan sauce. And I’m so excited to finally have a tutorial with step-by-step photos AND a video to show you how it’s done!
What is a Pan Sauce?
A pan sauce is prepared using the brown bits left in the pan after searing meat, poultry or fish. Those bits, also known as fond, are packed with flavor.
After removing the seared meat from the pan, liquid is added to deglaze the pan (separate the fond). Next, a few more ingredients are added to enhance the flavor (this is where you can get creative), then the sauce is reduced (simmered until thickened) and finally drizzled over the meat before serving.
Pan Sauce Ingredients and Equipment
Meat – Meat, poultry, and fish can all be used (you can even use tofu). My top picks are filet mignon and chicken breasts. These cuts are often shunned for lacking flavor. A good sear and a pan sauce takes them to a whole new level.
Aromatics – Shallots, onions, and garlic can all be used to create a good pan sauce. I always use shallots if I have them.
Deglazing Liquid – I recommend using something acid to deglaze the pan, something like a dry red or white wine, or brandy. If you don’t consume alcohol, you can use something like orange juice or a vinegar like white wine or balsamic.
Stock – You can use any stock, but I highly recommend using a homemade stock if possible. A pan sauce has just a few ingredients, so you want all of them to be the best quality possible.
Also, homemade stocks made from bones contain collagen, which gives pan sauce a viscous, restaurant-quality texture and flavor. If you don’t have homemade stock, I recommend using a no-sodium or low-sodium stock, possibly with a bit of unflavored gelatin (I learned this trick from Kenji over at Serious Eats. The gelatin basically replaces the collagen.)
Flour Dredge (optional for poultry or fish) – A flour dredge is optional, but it adds more flavor and crunch to poultry and fish. In addition to adding a crunchy coating, the flour creates more fond to flavor the pan sauce.
To make a flour dredge, I typically use a mix of approximately 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. This adds just a touch of seasoning without being overpowering. If you follow a gluten-free diet, you can use a gluten-free flour blend.
Fat – You use fat twice: Once for searing the meat, and then at the end to finish the sauce. To sear, you want a neutral-flavored, high smoke point oil (my favorites are clarified butter and grapeseed oil). You can use regular butter or cream during the final step.
Additional Seasonings (optional) – This is where you can get creative if you want, adding ingredients like fresh herbs, spices, and condiments. I’ve compiled a list of suggestions and combinations below the step-by-step photos.
Skillet – Stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or enameled cast iron are the best choices. Do not use a nonstick pan! You won’t get the brown bits, which are the entire point. I typically use a stainless steel skillet like this one. Enameled cast iron (like this pan from Lodge) is my second favorite option.
Firm Spatula or Wooden Spoon – You’ll need something to scrape up the brown bits after deglazing. Don’t use something soft like a silicone spatula. This is my favorite spatula for deglazing.
How to Make a Pan Sauce
For this step-by-step tutorial, I’m using boneless, skinless chicken breasts. This is the best way to prepare chicken breasts if you want to amp up their flavor!
Step 1: Dredge the Chicken
Again, this step is entirely optional. I recommend it with chicken breasts and fish filets, but you definitely don’t need to dredge steak. Steak will get a nice crusty sear on its own.
Step 2: Sear the Chicken
I recommend searing over medium-high heat (high heat is more likely to burn the fond). You only need enough fat to add a light coating to the bottom of the pan, otherwise you’ll end up with a splattered mess. I often still use a splatter guard on top of the pan, just in case.
Watch the pan, moving it off the heat if it looks like it’s getting to smokey. Don’t try to flip the chicken if it’s sticking to the pan. It will detach once it’s properly seared! Cook each side for several minutes, until the chicken is cooked through (165 degrees F on an instant read thermometer).
Once the chicken is golden brown on both sides, transfer to a clean plate or cutting board and tent loosely with foil. This will keep the chicken warm while you prepare the sauce or cook any remaining chicken.
Step 3: Add Aromatics
Lower the heat to medium or medium-low. Add shallots or onions, stirring to coat with the brown bits. As they begin to cook, their natural liquid should help loosen the fond. A pinch of salt (optional) helps this process along.
Cook for a few minutes, again making sure the brown bits aren’t getting black. Cook for a few minutes until the shallots are soft and coated with brown bits, lowering the heat and removing the pan if it looks like the fond is getting too dark, Dark brown is fine, and if you wind up with a few black bits, the sauce will still be fine.
The photo above shows the fond getting about as dark as you want to let it get. A little lighter is even more ideal.
Step 4: Deglaze the Pan
If you’re using a deglazing liquid with alcohol and have a gas stovetop, I recommend removing the pan before adding the alcohol to be safe. When you add the liquid, it will simmer and steam. Get in there with your spatula and scrape up the fond!
You can use anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup liquid. Simmer the liquid, reducing it down until there’s about 1 tablespoon left. You can also add a bit more liquid if needed. While I’ve included a recipe at the bottom, pan sauces aren’t picky about exact amounts.
Step 5: Add Stock
Next, add stock. Keep scraping up the bottom of the pan if you notice any more brown bits. This is where you can also add additional flavors like garlic and thyme (two of my favorite add-ins).
Step 6: Reduce the Sauce
Simmer until the sauce is reduced to approximately 1/2. It should be thicker, but not super thick. See the above photo on the right. If you over-reduce your sauce (if it tastes too strong), you can add a couple tablespoons of water.
You can add additional flavors here like mustard or a sprinkle of cheese. See my section below on optional add-ins.
Step 7: Finish with Butter or Cream
Add 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter or heavy cream to finish. This ties everything together; don’t skip it. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Pan Sauce Add-Ins
Just a few ideas. You can get as creative as you like with pan sauce add-ins.
- Whole or ground spices
- Fresh herbs
- Fruit juice
- Jam (strawberry, raspberry, etc)
- Balsamic vinegar
- Honey ot maple syrup
- Soft cheeses (feta, goat, etc)
Pan Sauce Ideas
Here are a few pan sauce ideas to get you started. All of them use approximately 4 chicken breasts.
Port Wine with Cranberries
- 1/4 cup shallot (1 medium), finely chopped
- 1 cup port wine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries
- 2 tablespoons raspberry or strawberry jam
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
White Wine Tarragon Sauce
- 1/4 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Chardonnay)
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mustard Cream Sauce
- 1/4 cup shallot (1 medium), finely chopped
- 1/3 cup dry white wine (such as Chardonnay)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
More Cooking Tutorials
If you enjoyed this tutorial, you may also enjoy:
You can also check out my full archive of cooking tutorials here!
Chicken Breasts with Pan Sauce
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (optional for dredging)
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper as needed
- 4 thin-sliced chicken breasts (or 2 butterflied chicken breasts)
- 1 tablespoon clarified butter or other neutral-flavored, high heat oil
- 2-3 tablespoons shallots, sliced or diced (yellow onions may be substituted)
- 1/4 cup red or white wine (brandy or cognac are also good; see notes)
- 1/2 - 3/4 cup chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium
- 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter or heavy cream
- Optional Add-Ins: 1 spring of thyme 1 smashed garlic clove, 1 teaspoon dijon mustard (see notes)
- Optional garnish: 1-2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- For dredged chicken: Stir together the flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon ground black pepper in a shallow dish (such as a pie pan). Using tongs, dip each piece of chicken in the flour mixture on both sides, shaking away any excess flour. Place on a cutting board or large plate.
- For non-dredged chicken: Pat the chicken dry with paper towels, then place on a cutting board or large plate and sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper.
- Cook the chicken: Heat a large skillet (stainless steel, aluminum, or enameled cast iroover medium-high to high heat. Add just enough clarified butter or oil to coat the bottom of the pan, then add the chicken. Don’t touch it after it hits the pan. Let the chicken sear in one place for around 1-3 minutes, until brown and crispy. If you try to flip the chicken and it’s sticking, that’s ok. It means it’s not ready to turn yet. As soon as the side is properly seared, it will detach.
- Flip and sear the chicken on the other side for a couple more minutes until browned on the surface and cooked through (165 degrees F on an instant read thermometer). Transfer the chicken to a clean plate and tent lightly with foil to keep it warm while preparing the sauce.
- Prepare the sauce: Pour off any excess fat (there might not be any here, but you’ll run into this with fattier cuts of meat), but don’t touch the brown bits on the pan. Place the pan back on the heat and turn it down to medium.
- Add the aromatics: Add the shallots, using a firm spatula or wooden spoon to stir them around for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Keep an eye on the brown bits to make sure they’re not getting to dark (you want caramelized, not burned), adjusting the heat or removing the pan from the heat as needed.
- Deglaze the pan: Add the wine to the pan. It will sizzle and steam, but shouldn’t totally evaporate (if it does, add a couple tablespoons of water). Immediately use your spatula to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, incorporating them into the shallots and liquid. Let the liquid simmer and reduce by about half.
- Add the stock: Add the chicken stock and any optional add-ins. Simmer until it’s reduced to about 1/3 of the original amount.
- Finish the sauce: Once the sauce is reduced, add button or cream to finish the sauce (or a 50/50 split). This will add depth, richness, and a glossy shine. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. If the sauce tastes too strong (over-reduced), add 1-2 tablespoons of water to thin it out. If you added a spring of thyme, remove before serving. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Optionally garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Please read my full post for additional recipe notes, tips, and serving suggestions!
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