by Jillian Fraioli
Making a quick pan reduction sauce is one way I elevate a weeknight meal. However, I hear from people all the time that they think making sauce is “hard.”
Once upon a time, I would have agreed. The “Mother Sauces” were one of the first things I had to perfect in a professional kitchen. These include béchamel, hollandaise, espagnole, veluté, and tomat. The idea behind this learning process is that once you can make these, you can pretty much make anything.
While the art of the sauce has inspired many a chef’s episode on TV, and there are dozens of books out there you can study, I try to dial it down. We can “kick it up a notch” while not keeping our family waiting three hours for dinner. Besides, who has time for that?
Let’s start our sauce journey with a few basic items and some technique. This a guide, rather than a full recipe. Get adventurous, play around, and see what works for you!
Basic Sauce Pantry Items
- Stock: Better Than Boullion chicken, beef, and vegetable stock boxes. I’m that person who freezes stock in ice cube trays whenever I make some. That way, I can pop two or three in a sauce or soup for a boost on a whim.
- Soy sauce & fish sauce: These add umami!
- Vinegars: White wine, red wine, sherry, balsamic, rice, and cider are all in my pantry. They all have different flavors, but when you need that shock of acid, nothing cuts through like a good vinegar blast.
- Citrus: Fresh or from 100% citrus concentrate bottles.
- Tapioca Flour: A nice thickener.
- Tubes of tomato paste: These keep practically forever in the fridge.
- Parmesan or Pecorino Romano: Aged cheeses also have the umami saltiness going on, and added at the end of a dish, they can lend brightness and a complexity that might be lacking.
- Unsalted butter: Thank goodness we don’t beat up on butter anymore, because butter is truly magical. Adding a few tablespoons of cold butter to a sauce at the end of the cooking adds an emulsifying (thickening) effect and makes your sauce shine.
- Aromatics: Onions (shallots, leeks), garlic, ginger — these will add depth and complexity to your dishes.
- Staple spices: Depending on how far you want to go, you can get really fancy. But I try to always have some basics: thyme, marjoram, oregano, cumin, coriander, paprika, black- white- and pink- pepper, a few chilis, cinnamon, fennel. I love spice blends, like herbs de Provence and a good Italian blend.
Master Some Techniques
- Toast your spices: While you can get fancy with dry-roasting or making a paste, I just make sure to add my spices to whatever is in the pan (like onions and garlic)
- Use stock whenever possible: This will immediately add complexity and boost the flavor of your dish.
- Deglaze your pan: To intensify your flavor, scrape those brown bits, or “fond,” from the bottom of you pan — it’s where the magic lives!
- Always introduce acid: Remember those vinegars!
- Know how to thicken something: This could mean anything from using my favorite, tapioca flour, to using pureed vegetables, like cauliflower or parsnips.
- Finish with COLD butter: Another way to thicken and make a sauce stand out.
- Always taste and season: Don’t be scared of salt and pepper. If you’re in a house that cannot have salt, look for seasoning blends that tout being good at salt replacement (like Penzy’s spices Mural of Flavor, Sunny Paris, Sunny Spain).
- Pair your sauces with the right thing: Dark meats like darker sauces, poultry pairs with practically anything, fish likes to be paired with bright, simple, light sauces with plenty of acid.
“You Can’t Go Wrong” Reduction Sauce
*this is my go-to, and I use it for a myriad of dishes: chicken piccata, baked or poached chicken breasts, pork chops, pork loin, rib-eye and beef roasts (using red wine and beef stock), cheater “stroganoff” over pasta, and quinoa bakes. Leftovers get used for soup.
Ingredients (Basic Measurements):
- 2 tbsp cooking oil (like olive)
- 1/2 cup aromatics & 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 1/4-1/2 cup deglazing liquid
- 2 cups bulk liquid
- Up to 1 tbsp spices and finishing herbs
- 2 tbsp butter, heavy cream, or 1:1 tapioca flour and water for finishing
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Prep your mis en place. This means prepare all your ingredients before you begin. There’s nothing like cooking without things prepped — you’ll inevitably burn something or forget something. Measure your liquids, chop your aromatics and veggies, and have it all ready to go before you begin.
- Heat your pan! Never start with a cold pan. Once heated, add 2 tbsp of olive oil. When the olive oil is hot, it will shimmer and make “waves.”
- Add the diced onion (shallots, leeks) to the heated oil and cook for 3-5 minutes until the onion turns translucent. If you want a deeper flavor, turn the pan down a little, and take them golden brown.
- Add a few pinches of salt. Just do it. Trust.
- If you’re adding in other vegetables, add them here; mushrooms, cabbage, celery, and peppers all like to cook longer, and will meld better when added earlier in the process.
- Turn your heat to med-low and add your garlic and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes until you can smell the aroma.
- Add your spices (and/or your tomato paste). Let these “toast” for another 2 minutes. If you’re not using spices, then add a generous amount of pepper. I usually add another pinch of salt here as well. It wants to combine with the liquid in the next step, and by doing so, it will penetrate the sauce. This means you can use less salt overall, instead of getting to the end and realizing you need way more salt to brighten the dish.
- Deglaze your pan with your wine, beer, or sherry (approximately 1/2 cup — but I don’t measure, I just splash it in). If you’re in a booze-free home, use a combination of vinegar and citrus instead; you can play around here, but I like a 3:1 vinegar to juice ratio. I also read somewhere you could deglaze with kombucha — and it works! And be sure you’ve gotten those brown bits, you scrape them up during this deglazing process.
- Add your bulk liquid. Stock if you have it, or water if you don’t. Water will not ruin your sauce, but it will be thinner and have less flavor, so if you’re using water, I usually reduce by half instead of 1/3 (see step 11).
- Add umami. When I add my bulk liquid, I also add a few splashes of soy sauce or coconut aminos, and a few dashes of fish sauce.
- Reduce. Once you have everything in the pan, reduce it by a third so all the flavors get happy.
- Thicken. Here is where you can use a few techniques. Since I’m usually going for quick, I whisk in 2 tbsp of cold butter. Take the pan off the heat or have it on low, so the butter does not separate from the heat. If you want more of a gravy-like sauce, or something more akin to a thicker pasta sauce, use tapioca flour. Whisk 1 tbsp of tapioca, and add to the sauce with 1 tbsp of COLD water. Simmer this for 3-5 minutes, so it cooks out the “flour” taste. Your sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and stick. (If you want to really party, you can also use heavy cream here, just be sure your pan is on very low heat.)
- Taste and season and add your acid. Taste for salt and pepper. Here is where I’ll add a 1/3-1/2 lemon’s worth of juice, capers if I’m using them (think: chicken piccata), or a vinegar. Start with a few dashes, and build on it as you taste the sauce. Stir between each addition and let it sit for a half a minute or so before tasting and adding more.
- If I’m adding delicate ingredients, like spinach, arugula, basil, green onion, parsley, or the like, add them here so they don’t turn dark green or cook too far.
- Finish with Parmesan or Pecorino if you wish, and you’re off to the races!
Jillian moonlights in her own kitchen as Executive Chef. She comes from a long line of at-home chefs, making Sunday sauce and homemade pasta as soon as she was knee-high with Grandma Fraioli. Jillian used to work at such illustrious restaurants such as Emeril’s Fish House in Las Vegas (where she was a Pastry Chef), and both in the front and back of the house of Serafina and Tango in Seattle. She ended her career in restaurants many lives ago, and now supports women-owned businesses. You can follow along with her cats and knitting (and sometimes food), if that’s your jam, on Instagram @yarnologie