A pan sauce is a sauce which is made with the concentrated flavors left at the bottom of a pan after cooking meats, vegetables, or fish. Such sauces are the cornerstone of many cuisines, because they are intensely flavorful and they can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways. In addition to being tasty, these sauces are also convenient, because they efficiently remove crusted material from pans, making them easier to clean.
When you cook foods in a pan, as they cook, they tend to caramelize, especially when cooked at high heat. The result is a dense, dark crust at the bottom of the pan. Cooks who are not familiar with pan sauces may make the mistake of discarding this crust, after struggling to clean it off, but in fact the bulk of the flavor of a dish is often concentrated in the material left behind, which is known as “fond.” The sauces utilize the fond to create a sauce for the food which was just cooked in the pan.
There are a number of ways to make a pan sauce, and some get quite complex. The most basic version is simply made by deglazing the pan with a liquid such as wine, water, stock, or fruit juice. When a pan is deglazed, the liquid is poured into the pan while it is kept moderately warm, and the liquid loosens the caramelized fond, dissolving it and creating a flavorful sauce which can be concentrated by reducing, cooking the sauce until it thickens.
It it also possible to add things to a pan sauce, such as butter or oil, concentrated stocks, dried vegetables which will have a concentrated flavor, and pan drippings and other skimmings from the food as it cooks. Some cooks also add things like herbs, cream, and spices to their pan sauce to create a specific desired flavor.
Because a pan sauce contains the concentrated essence of a food, many cooks like to keep it simple, allowing the natural flavor to shine through, rather than obscuring it with a lengthy ingredient list. Pan sauce can be made from saute pans, and it can also be made from roasting pans; pan sauces are great with things like roast chicken and turkey, concentrating the flavor of the dish and helping to keep the meat moist.