Pan Searing and Pan Sauces

Making a pan sauce is a classic French technique that applies equally well to quick weeknight meals as it does to formal dinners. It’s one of my favorite ways to take advantage of the natural flavor in the beautiful pork chops I just bought, or to add a piquant sauce to seared red snapper.

Pan sauces are a great secret for quick, easy meals and a common flavor booster used by many a chef. Once you know how to sear a piece of meat in a pan, and then make a basic sauce from the drippings, you can apply the skill to almost any kind of protein, from steaks to tofu. You can also incorporate seasonal vegetables and fruits.

Searing caramelizes the natural sugars in protein, which creates a flavorful crust. Little bits of crust and the protein left behind in the pan, known as fond, are the rich flavors that are the building blocks for a pan sauce.

Pan searing

To pan-sear any kind of protein and ensure a good crust on the outside, start by drying off the food. Drain tofu in a colander, or press it under a weighted cutting board if you prefer a firm texture. Bring thick pork chops, chicken breasts or steaks to room temperature for 20 minutes.

Season the food well on both sides with salt and pepper. For meat, heat a frying pan until very hot over medium-high heat. This first step is crucial; it prevents sticking and keeps the oil from smoking (use a nonstick pan for fish or tofu, but don’t heat it as long). Now, add enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom and swirl it around; it should kind of dance in the pan. In goes the meat, tofu or fish, but not too much. There should be at least 1 inch between the pieces; otherwise they will steam, not brown. Let the food cook until a dark brown sear forms, usually 1 to 3 minutes. Flip over, then sear on the other side.

While most fish fillets and tofu can be cooked completely in the pan, it’s best to remove chicken and meat to a baking sheet and finish them in a 400 degree oven for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness and cut of meat. When done, place meat on a cutting board and let rest, tented with foil, for 5 to 10 minutes.

Creating the pan sauce

Pour all but about 1 tablespoon of the oil you used to cook the protein out of the pan, then add the basic components of your sauce, usually finely chopped onion, followed by minced garlic. Saute these for a while, then you can add other chopped vegetables, like tomatoes or bell peppers, or fruits, like fresh pitted cherries, plums or figs (fruit goes best with pork). When these have cooked, add some wine and simmer until the sauce has evaporated by about three-quarters (the process of dissolving the flavorful remains of your seared protein into the liquid is referred to as deglazing). Now, add some broth, and cook that until reduced by about half. If you're in a hurry, use wine, stock or a combination and reduce the sauce just once; it won't be as rich, but your food will be ready sooner.

At this point you can thicken the sauce with butter or corn starch. To use butter, remove the pan from the heat and add chunks of cold butter a little at a time until they incorporate into the sauce. To use corn starch, stir together 1 teaspoon corn starch and 1 tablespoon cold water; stir into the sauce a little at a time and simmer briefly to your desired thickness.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper, and serve it over the piece of meat, or tofu, that you have lovingly browned in the pan. If you ever want to take it a step further, experiment by adding combinations of fresh herbs, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice or capers for more amazing sauces. Your dinner will taste so good you might feel like a French chef; Julia Child would be proud.