This is a really simple recipe, but it’s also a great way to practice some fundamentals of cooking. If you cook the chicken breast nicely and make a good tasting sauce then this can really impress. However, if you overcook the chicken (making it stringy and dry) and don’t taste your sauce as you go (making it flat and boring) it can be a recipe for disaster.
The secret to creating a great pan sauce is understanding the role of the different ingredients, judging when each stage is complete and being able to taste and adjust. This is all really easy with practice.
The secret to cooking the perfect chicken breast is to invest in an instant-read thermometer. This will allow you to see exactly when the chicken is cooked, without having to overcook it.
With this recipe, I’m not going to recommend any cooking times or strict quantities, it’s about testing and adjusting as you go with this one.
A pan sauce is made with the leftover juices and crusted on bits after you’ve cooked a piece of meat in your pan. In this recipe, we’re using chicken, but it could be any meat (such as a steak or pork chop). The outline of how you make a pan sauce will always be the same, but you can experiment with the ingredients to create different flavours.
Each time you make the sauce, the meat, the wine and the stock are likely to be slightly different. It’s therefore not possible to simply stick to certain quantities, you’ll need to taste and adjust this sauce as you go. However, the basic outline of a pan sauce is as follows:
The fond – this is the fancy french name for the stuff that’s left in your pan after you cook your meat. This is likely to be a mix of fats and burned on “bits” left on the bottom of the pan. Do not clean your pan before making the sauce, this is all free flavour that you are getting from your meat.
Shallots and garlic – the first thing you’ll want to do is to add some finely chopped shallots/onions and garlic to the pan and fry them off. You may need to add a little oil to get this going again if your pan is slightly dry at this point. If you want to experiment at this stage you could try adding ginger for an Asian twist.
Wine – next we add some alcohol. The usual suspects for this step are red and white wine, but you could add any alcohol you like. I often use Sherry as this is one of my favourites to cook with.
Don’t be tempted to use a poor quality wine. The key to this sauce is reducing down the ingredients to concentrate the flavours. If you concentrate a bad wine then it’s only going to get worse! For two people I’d add about a glass of wine and then allow it to reduce slightly.
At this stage it should be easy to scrape the fond from the bottom of the pan and you’ll find that the bits start to absorb into the sauce.
Stock – once the wine is slightly reduced we can add the stock. This is going to bulk out our sauce, but also boost the flavours again. Use a stock that’s appropriate for your meat and try to use a homemade stock if you can.
A homemade stock will be more gelatinous than one you create from a cube, so will give a smoother, thicker sauce. If you’re using a stock cube, it’s not the end of the world, but make sure it’s one you like. As with the wine, if you concentrate a bad stock it’s only going to get worse.
At this point get into the habit of tasting the sauce by dipping in a teaspoon and tasting periodically, this will help you spot any issues and adjust.
The butter – this sauce is made smooth and velvety by emulsifying the stock and wine with butter. Add a small amount of butter and whisk vigourously into the sauce. You should see the sauce will become shinier and more appetising at this stage. For two people, I’d usually only add about 20 grams or so of butter.
Cornflour – if you are using a stock cube, then adding half a teaspoon of cornflour will help the sauce to thicken. Don’t overdo it with the cornflour as you don’t want to over thicken your sauce and make it gloopy. You can always add more, but it’s more difficult to take away. If you’re using homemade stock, you will probably find that the extra gelatin helps the stock thicken naturally and you don’t need to add any cornflour.
The reduction – once all of the above ingredients have been added you can start to reduce your sauce. This will take around 5 minutes on a home cooker, but keep your eye on it.
Your sauce will have reached a nice consistency when you can slowly drag a spoon through it and the sauce parts temporarily showing you the bottom of the pan. If you find your sauce is too thick then you can loosen it with some more stock (whisk this back in to emulsify again) or if it’s too thin you can add a little cornflour.
Herbs – once the sauce is reduced, remove from the heat and add your choice of finely chopped herbs. Parsley is always a safe choice, but you can add any herb you like at this stage. It’s important to add these at the end so that they keep their vibrancy and don’t over cook. Again, just whisk these into the sauce to incorporate.
Salt, pepper and lemon juice – the last step is to add salt and pepper and lemon juice. The aim here is to enhance the flavours. We don’t want to make our sauce salty, or make it taste of lemons. Just a small amount of seasoning and acid will really bring out the flavours though.
I’d recommend tasting your sauce, then adding some salt and tasting again. This will help you understand what the salt does. Then do the same with lemon juice. Keep tweaking until the sauce is tasing just how you like it.
If you stick to these general guidelines, then with a little practice you can whip up one of these sauces pretty quickly with common kitchen ingredients. It’s also good to give yourself something to do while your meat rests – it may stop the temptation of serving your meat too early.
I’ve also found that making this sauce takes around the same time as boiling some vegetables, such as tenderstem broccoli and asparagus. So I can do my veg cooking at the same time.
Supermarkets really push the skinless chicken breast, but I find that they are hugely overpriced and without the skin they are bland. Two chicken breasts at Morrisons will set you back somewhere around £4.00. This is roughly the price of a whole chicken from the same supermarket. It’s therefore prudent to simply buy the whole chicken and remove the breast yourself. This gives you three great advantages for this recipe.
- You can keep the skin, which means you’ll be able to get this nice and crispy and protect the chicken when cooking. Don’t be tempted to make this recipe without the skin, it’s just not the same.
- You can use the whole chicken supreme (or airline) rather than just the breast. This means retaining the chicken wing bone in the breast, which will help with even cooking.
- You can use the rest of the chicken to make a fantastic stock which you can use in your next pan sauce.
Chicken Supreme / Airline Chicken
To create a chicken supreme is really straightforward.
- Pull out the wing of the chicken until it is fully extended.
- Where the wing meets the chicken, run your knife around the wing bone to completely separate the flesh on the wing from the flesh on the rest of the chicken.
- Grab the wing at the joint and pull away from the chicken. You should find that this removes the wing completely, leaving the first wing bone sticking out of the chicken.
- Repeat for the other side.
- Remove the breast by running your knife along the backbone of the chicken and continue to cut away keeping as much of the meat as possible. You’ll find a natural join with the leg to cut along and when you get to the wing bone, simply cut around the bone to keep it in tact.
- Trim off any excess to make the supreme look more presentable. You may find that you have excess skin, particularly around the end with the wing. This won’t cook as nicely as the rest of the chick and looks a little messy, so can be removed.
- Repeat for the other side.
You might need to practice this a couple of times to get the hang of it, but if you’ve jointed a chicken before this should all be pretty easy. If you don’t fancy trying at home, you can ask a good butcher to do this for you. I’ve never seen these available at the supermarket though.
Cooking the Chicken
It’s very easy to overcook chicken and it will become dry and stringy. Every chicken is a different size and ovens/pans behave differently so relying on a specific time is not going to work. This is a common mistake in a lot of recipes.
Instead, I like to use an instant read thermometer to gauge the internal temperature of the chicken. When the coldest part reaches 65 degrees Celcius, the chicken is done. Any more will risk overcooking, any less and you’ll risk serving it raw. It’s also important to rest the chicken after cooking to allow the internal temperatures to even out, so that you further reduce the chance of cold/hot spots. The perfect time to rest the chicken is while you make your pan sauce!
Using a thermometer can itself be tricky, but here’s a technique that I like to use. I aim to push the thermometer all the way through the chicken so that it comes out of the other side, but I am to do this so that it will pass through the thickest part of the meat.
- Push the thermometer in slowly and you’ll see the temperature initially rise until the probe is all of the way in.
- Then as you push it through the meat (going slowly) you’ll see the temperature start to drop again.
- Once the temperature reaches its lowest point and starts to rise you know you’ve hit the middle of the meat.
- You’ll continue to see the temperature rise as you push further and come out of the other side of the meat.
- It’s when the thermometer reaches the lowest point (stage 3) that you need to see 65 degrees or higher.
- 2 skin-on chicken breasts or chicken supremes
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 large shallot
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 glass white wine
- Chicken stock
- 20 grams butter
- 10 grams cornflour (only required if not using homemade stock)
- 1 lemon
- Salt and Pepper
- Firstly, you’ll need to get all of your ingredients ready as some of these steps happen quite quickly. So be sure to have your shallots, garlic and herbs chopped. You’ll also want to measure out your wine and chicken stock. Also be sure to season both sides of your chicken with salt and pepper before starting.
- Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celcius.
- Add 1tbsp of oil to a frying pan and get up to temperature. You’ll see the oil change once the pan gets hot enough. It should start to shimmer and will seem to move around the pan differently (as if it were thinner).
- Add your chicken skin side down to the pan. You should hear it sizzle. You want to leave the chicken without moving it until the skin becomes brown and crispy. This will take up to 5 minutes, but you’ll want to check the colour of the skin periodically until it reaches the desired colour (a nice dark brown as in the picture).
- Once the skin has reached the correct colour, flip the chicken over so that it is skin side up and put the whole pan into the oven.
- From here you’ll want to check the chicken every 5 minutes until it is cooked to 65 degrees Celcius in the thickest part of the breast (use the technique above). Once the chicken reaches this temperature set aside to rest.
- If you are cooking differently sized breasts, don’t be scared to take one out before the other if it cooks more quickly, it will remain warm while it rests.
- While the chicken is resting you can make your pan sauce and cook any vegetables (I’ve not included sides in this recipe, but I like to use asparagus and tenderstem broccoli).
- Start by adding the chopped shallots and chopped garlic to the pan and frying until they take on some colour.
- Add the wine and cook for a minute or two until reduced slightly.
- Next, add the chicken stock and cook until bubbling.
- Add the butter and cornflour (if using) and whisk into the sauce. You’re trying to get the butter to emulsify in the liquid so keep whisking. The sauce will start to thicken up and take on a nice sheen at this stage.
- Once the sauce has thickened (if you drag a spoon through the sauce it will take a moment to come back together) taste and adjust. First, check for salt and then for lemon juice. If your sauce it too thick then whisk in more stock, if it is too thin then whisk in more cornflour.
- Plate your chicken spoon over the pan sauce. I like to cut my chicken at an angle for that fancy restaurant look!