Pan Sauce 101: The Key to Non-Boring Chicken

Serves 4

In the left corner, you!  In the right corner, a package of those ubiquitous damn chicken breasts.  It’s enough to make you want to drop to the ground and concede defeat – you just can’t face another boring chicken dinner.

But wait, what is that up your sleeve?  A pan sauce?  You’re brilliant, you’re inspired, you’re going to make the magic happen.

This is really a blueprint recipe for a key, adaptable pan sauce.  Once you internalize the general technique, you’ve grabbed onto one of those indispensable “what else can I try?” dinnertime areas of expertise.  This is definitely a 30-minute or less cooking process, and during that half hour you should also be able to get a salad made and some rice or pasta cooked up to take advantage of all the luscious sauce you are making.

Here are the key steps.  They look more complicated then they are.  In short, you are searing a piece of protein, then adding some seasonings and some liquid and creating a sauce right in the pan.  That’s it.  The rest is just details:

1) In a large skillet, in a bit of oil or butter, sear the boneless, skinless chicken breasts until they are browned on the outside and just barely cooked through,  about 5 minutes on each side (or sear bone in-breasts, or thighs, or steak, or tofu, or piece of fish, or scallops, or whatever protein you are featuring that evening).  If you plan to finish the cooking in the sauce itself, you can take the food out of the pan before it is fully cooked through.  If you want a more elegant presentation, or if your chicken breasts are more than 3/4 inch thick, you may want to place the chicken breasts between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound them with a rolling pin or a wine bottle until they are flattened and of uniform thickness.  These will cook faster as well.

Plain chicken breasts, awaiting their pan sauce.

Plain chicken breasts, awaiting their pan sauce.

2) Remove the chicken to a plate – DO NOT WASH OUT THE PAN!

3) Sauté some onions, garlic, shallots, or other aromatics (usually some member of the onion family) until tender.  Add some herbs or seasonings if desired.

4) Deglaze the pan with some wine or broth, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom.  Deglazing basically means adding liquid to a pan and scraping the bottom to loosen any flavorful bits of other ingredients that have caramelized (aka browned) on the bottom of the pan, which lend their flavor to the sauce.

5) Add more liquid, often broth, to create a sauce.  Season with salt and pepper.

6) Simmer to blend the flavors, and concentrate the sauce, adding other seasonings if desired (see tip) and maybe a little bit of fat or dairy for richness (such as butter, cream, olive oil, or sour cream).  Either pour the sauce over the chicken, or return the chicken to the sauce to heat through.  And that, that is a pan sauce.



Chicken Breasts with Basic Herb-Wine Pan Sauce

  • 4 (8 ounce) boneless chicken breasts
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoons finely minced garlic or 1 large finely minced shallot or 1/2 cup finely minced onion
  • 1 teaspoons crumbled dried tarragon, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, or rosemary
  • 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the chicken breasts and sauté until done, about 5 minutes on each side.  Don’t flip the chicken until the bottom is nicely browned, and then just flip it once.The chicken should be just a tiny bit pink inside, as it will continue to cook once it comes off the heat.  Remove the chicken breasts to a plate and set aside.  Do not wipe out the skillet!

2. Add the garlic, shallot or onion to the pan, along with whatever herb you are using,  to the skillet and sauté over medium heat for 2 to 4 minutes until everything starts to color and become tender.  Raise the heat to medium high, then add the white wine and stir to scrape up all the little flavorful bits that may be stuck to the bottom of the skillet.  Simmer for about 4 minutes until the wine is reduced by half.  Add the broth, and return to a simmer, stirring occasionally for another 4 minutes until the mixture reduces slightly.  Stir in the butter until it is melted, and season with additional salt and pepper.

3. Pour the sauce over the chicken breasts.

Chicken Breast with Piccata and Wilted Arugula Pan Sauce / Katie Workman /

What's a fork-in-the-road dish?

This is. If you have a picky eater, this is also a perfect Fork-in-the-Road recipe, just leave one of the sauteed breasts plain, and slice it up - it's still a lot better than reaching for the frozen chicken nuggets.
Ideas for Add-Ins

Hot peppers, citrus juice, citrus zest, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, capers, Dijon mustard, chopped tomatoes, soy sauce, fresh herbs, minced anchovies, hoisin sauce, whatever you have, whatever you like.

What the Kids Can Do:

Measure the chicken broth, garlic, and any other ingredients, and help choose the herbs. Letting them create their own combination of herbs gives a kid nice pride of ownership, and helps them become familiar with the different herbs in the spice drawer.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “Pan Sauce 101: The Key to Non-Boring Chicken”

  1. LORI says:


    1. Katie Workman says:

      I would shred the chicken and mix it into some plain grains or cooked rice. Diffuse the strong flavor if the chicken with some bland starch. Hope that helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *