The next time you roast, sauté, stir-fry, or pan-fry vegetables or proteins, check the bottom of the pan. Unless it’s non-stick or otherwise coated, you should see browned bits or a heavily polished* crust covering the pan.
Don’t think of this crust as “dishwashing work,” as Martha Holmberg put it in a detailed guide to the technique a few years ago. Think of it as a secret path to flavor.
This brown stuff is just a layer or stuck-on chunks of caramelized carbs, proteins, and fats. You may have heard of these pan drops before. (They have other names in other languages.) Knowing how to turn them into the beginning of a soup or a stew or, as we’re doing here, a gravy—whether it’s a Thanksgiving sauce or today’s 20-minute meal Evening – is a technique every cook must know.
Daniel Holzmanthe co-author, with Matt Rodbardof the new book Food IQ: 100 questions, answers and recipes to improve your cooking skillsand a chef-owner of restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, breaks down the process into a recipe for fried chicken breasts that I think we should repeat for dinner tonight.
To make a stir fry sauce from pan seared food:
— Make sure the food you want to sear is well seasoned and dry. If it comes into the pan wet or damp, it will steam instead of sear.
— Heat your pan very hot, add a little fat and wait for a puff of smoke to appear.
— Carefully place the food in the pan and let it fall off you. When preparing chicken, place skin-side down.
– Then . . . Waiting. Don’t go to another room – this is no time for distractions! – but let your food brown. Resist the urge to move it. Give it at least 2 or 3 minutes.
— Look at the seared side – is it brown? Then it’s time to turn around. (If it sticks when you turn it, give it another minute or two.) If you’re cooking meat, make sure you’ve cooked it through. If necessary, use a thermometer.
— Sauce time: In some cases you’ll take the meat or veg out of the pan, in others you’ll leave it there and while it’s still very hot you add liquid – water, broth, wine, vinegar, bean broth, soy sauce, juice, heavy cream, Brine – and maybe some complementary flavorings like spices, peppercorns or herbs.
— When the liquid hits the hot pan, it creates steam which, combined with the friction of a spoon or spatula, helps you scrape off the browned bits. (If you’re making a soup or stew, keep adding liquid and other ingredients, and use the browned bits as a flavor base.)
— Now let the sauce simmer for a few minutes so that it reduces, thickens and its flavors become more concentrated.
In French cooking, cream or butter is generally added to the reduced sauce, but there are many, many ways to flavor a pan sauce, as you will see below.
One last tip before we start cooking: the pan gets very hot, and if you add liquid to a brittle pan, it will splatter. No fear! “If you don’t regularly set off your fire alarm at home, you’re not really cooking,” advises Holzman, and I agree. (Though you might want to have a splatter screen handy!)
*If your crust is very, very dark brown or black, it won’t make a good sauce – it’s burned! Time to soak and scrub the pan and start over.
Storage Instructions: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.
Don’t you want chicken tonight? >> A few pork chops or portobello mushroom caps would work.
The white wine adds a touch of sweetness and acidity. >> Feel free to substitute any type of apple cider, sherry, marsala or a few tablespoons of white wine or apple cider vinegar and water.
Instead of broth >> try the cooked white bean broth or use more wine. You can also combine water with a splash of soy sauce.
Feel free to add other flavors including garlic, ginger, tomato paste, harissa, whole peppercorns, olives, capers, anchovies, mixed spices or fresh herbs.
2 (5-ounce) chicken thighs or divided breasts, bone-in and skin on, patted dry
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
5 ounces (about 5 cups) baby spinach
Season the chicken generously with salt on both sides. (If you have time, season them up to 1 hour before cooking – or the night before and refrigerate until ready to cook.)
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it just begins to smoke. Pat the chicken dry and carefully place each piece skin-side down in the pan, letting them fall away from you to avoid splattering hot oil toward you.
Cook the chicken until the skin is a deep golden brown, about 5 minutes, then turn and add the thyme to the pan. (If the skin is sticky, the chicken isn’t ready to flip; give it 1 to 2 minutes and it will pull itself away.)
Continue cooking until chicken is firm and barely pink in center, about 4 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer inserted in center reads 140 degrees. Place the chicken on a plate, season with pepper and leave in a warm place while you prepare the sauce.
Add the wine to the pan and use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape off any browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to high and cook the wine until almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Add the broth and cook until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Stir in the butter and let it melt gently in the sauce. The sauce is ready when it has thickened; It should cover the back of a spoon, and when you trace a trail across the back with your fingertip, the trail should hold its shape without dripping. Reduce the heat to medium-low and pour the sauce into a small bowl and keep warm.
In the same pan, wilt the spinach. Season with a pinch of salt and stir until it releases its moisture and becomes silky smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from stove.
Transfer the chicken to individual plates and add a spoonful of spinach to each plate. Pour the sauce over and serve.
Adapted from Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts by Daniel Holzman and Matt Rodbard (Harper Wave, 2022).
Daniela Galarza is a staff writer for the food section at The Washington Post who also writes Eat Voraciously, a newsletter filled with easy dinner recipes, cooking tips and inspiration.