Q: What's the trick to making a killer pan sauce?
A: The secret is in the stock.
See, store-bought stock might have good flavor, but it has almost no gelatin—a protein derived from the slow cooking of connective tissues in animal carcasses. Restaurant stock is full of it. As stock reduces in a skillet, the gelatin concentrates, thickening the sauce and letting it emulsify easily with butter, which means that instead of thin and greasy, a pan sauce made with gelatin-rich stock comes out beautifully rich and glossy.
There are two other significant advantages restaurant chefs have over the average home cook. First, their stocks are made with no added sodium, which means that they reduce without becoming overly salty the way purchased stock can. And second, a restaurant burner is likely much more powerful than what most of us are working with at home, which allows a pan sauce to bubble vigorously in the skillet. This bubbling further aids emulsification.
What's the secret to making better pan sauces at home? Simple: Start with either homemade stock or a lower-sodium store-bought stock (if using purchased, I recommend using chicken stock for any purpose, as beef stocks tend to have less meaty flavor), and add your own gelatin. Using 1 to 2 (¼-ounce) packets of unflavored powdered gelatin per cup of stock will provide the extra body a sauce needs.
To try out a simple pan sauce, pan-sear a couple of chicken breasts. When they're done, set them aside and deglaze the pan with 1 cup dry white wine. Once the wine has reduced to just a couple of tablespoons, add 1 cup purchased unsalted chicken stock in which 2 (¼-ounce) packets unflavored powdered gelatin have been dissolved. Reduce the mixture by half, and then stir in 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and a squeeze of lemon; swirl in 2 tablespoons butter, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Kenji López-Alt is the chief creative officer of Serious Eats (seriouseats.com), where he writes The Food Lab, unraveling the science of home cooking.
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